Reprinted from Green Man Review. Interview was done in February 2006.
Ai! laurië lantar lassi súrinen!
Yéni únótimë ve rámar aldaron,
yéni ve lintë yuldar vánier
mi oromardi lisse-miruvóreva
Andúnë pella Vardo tellumar
nu luini yassen tintilar i eleni
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
The above passage is sung by Galadriel, in her elvish tongue, as the Fellowship sails away from the wood of Lothlorien. To most American and English readers, the passage will not convey much meaning. However, if you happen to be familiar with the sound of the Finnish language — from speaking it, obviously, or perhaps simply from knowing and liking some Finnish songs — the lyrical stucture of Galadriel’s song leaps out at you. Not only did Tolkien admire the sound of Finnish so much that he modeled the language of the elves after it, but he also borrowed a few elements of the Lord of the Rings story from the Finnish national epic poem, The Kalevala. That epic’s central figure, Väinämöinen, could bend nature to his will with his singing voice just as Tolkien would make Tom Bombadil do. The conclusion of the Kalevala, where Väinämöinen sails away from Finland, very clearly influenced how Tolkien chose to end his own epic.
The Kalevala is at its heart a sequence of songs rooted in the musical traditions of Karelia, a region which straddles the border between modern-day Finland and Russia. In 1983, in the Finnish village of Rääkkylä, these same traditions spawned Värttinä, a musical ensemble that has become the best known band performing Finnish folk music, and one of the most highly regarded bands involved in World music in general. Not coincidentally, when the producers for the new theatrical production of Lord of the Rings decided they wanted World music for the score, Finland was one of the first places they looked, and Värttinä was what they found. Värttinä have spent most of the past two-and-a-half years creating music for Lord of the Rings, taking advantage of a few short breaks to write and record their newest CD, Miero.
Janne Lappalainen, who plays wind instruments and the bouzouki, has been a part of Värttinä since the very beginning. He is currently in Toronto overseeing the final revisions to the Lord of the Rings stage production, which will premiere in Toronto later this month. He graciously took the time discuss both Lord of the Rings and Miero with me over the phone.
SG: How did Värttinä get involved with the Lord of the Rings stage adaptation? Why did the producers want you in particular?
JL: Well it was a good two-and-a-half years ago when this whole thing happened. There was the musical supervisor Chris Nightingale, and the producer John Havu. They were going over different World music groups, and trying to find music for Lord of the Rings. So they divided the whole world into two areas, and one started looking from one side and the other from the other side. They had a big task ahead of them. By chance, John Havu found our album Ilmatar and listened to that, and felt that there was something special. He especially liked track number 6, “Äijö,” and then he played it to Chris Nightingale, the director Matthew Warchus, and our producer Kevin Wallace. Everybody thought there’s something really special in the music, because it sounded kind of scary, but not in an obvious way; they couldn’t tell why it was a little bit scary and mysterious. So they thought that would be really good for the dark moments of Lord of the Rings. Maybe that was the main reason, and then when they got through listening to all our stuff they noticed there’s also really happy music, so there was a wide spectrum of emotional area covered with our music, which they felt would be very good for the show.
SG: How popular are Tolkien’s books and the Lord of the Rings movies in Finland? Were the band members big fans of Lord of the Rings before beginning work on the stage adaptation?
JL: The book is very famous and popular in Finland. Almost everybody in the group had already read the book before we started working on this, and of course we read it again when we started working. It’s a really big deal in Finland, because our national epic was a big influence on Tolkien as well. It was inspiring him.
SG: What was the writing process like for the production?
JL: First of all we just wrote melodies, a big bunch of melodies, and then we had our first meeting with Chris Nightingale. We built up a studio in Helsinki in a nice house. First we went through all the demos people had done. Then we picked songs from the big pile and started working on them, and thinking where they could be in the script. After a little while we got more definite on what the music should be in different places. When you found one good melody for a place, it kind of tells what kind of music the other places should have.
SG: Did you and A. R. Rahman write any songs together, or was it all separate?
JL: There are some collaborative songs, but some of the writing process was really different than what you usually think of with a collaboration. We are nine members in Värttinä, he’s one person. He needs lots of computers and uses samples and that kind of stuff, while we always play it live in a room, so our working methods are really different. Chris Nightingale was the link between us and A. R., so he brought some sound files from him, and he would listen to it played our way and send it back to A. R. That’s how things progressed.
SG: What scenes were you asked to compose music for?
JL: Many places, but the biggest songs were for a scene at the Prancing Pony, where the hobbits sing a song, and when the Fellowship is formed there’s a big musical number. When Frodo and Sam are in Mordor feeling really tired, they entertain themselves and get their spirits up singing a really nice song, an old traditional hobbit song. Then when the Fellowship reaches Lothlorien, there’s a really amazing piece of scenery, and we wrote music for that too. There’s lots of bits and pieces, but I think those are the biggest moments. Of course Helm’s Deep has a lot of our stuff used as well.
SG: Did you write the lyrics, or did somebody else? Are they taken from Tolkien’s work at all?
JL: It was Sean McKenna and Matthew Warchus. They wrote the script, and also the lyrics for all the songs.
SG: Is the whole band in Toronto right now, or just you?
JL: Just me.
SG: What are you doing in Toronto at this point?
JL: Going though the preview stage at the moment. I’m seeing shows, and making notes about things that are going well and things that are not going well, and what we should do to fix those things. The form of the whole show is still changing, the script is changing still, and the scenes are changing.
SG: Can you give an example of what’s been recently changed?
JL: For example, there’s a scene where the Fellowship gets attacked by orcs, when Frodo has put on the Ring and decided to go by himself, and then Boromir, Merry and Pippin get ambushed. There used to be a thing where we were dropping arrows above them, and they were running and trying to escape that. But now we are getting rid of that idea, and there will be a more traditional fight instead of having these arrows.
SG: Is any sort of musical thing changing?
JL: We have been trying to cut the length of the show, because the first preview lasted more than five hours, and we can’t have a show that long. We are trying to refine the story so that it would be really clear for everybody but not too long, and that’s hard work because it’s three books and thousands of pages of story to be told.
SG: Is Värttinä looking for similar projects to work on in the future?
JL: We are open to everything that comes in front of us. Certainly this has been an eye-opener. We can do stuff like this as well, given the opportunity. It’s been really interesting. I wouldn’t say no.
SG: How hard was it to find time to write and record a new Värttinä album while working on Lord of the Rings?
JL: Last spring was pretty hectic. It was hard for us, because we were writing songs for Lord of the Rings and also songs for our album. But then in the summertime, when we did actual rehearsing on the tunes and the studio work, it was easy because we had a break from Lord of the Rings. Chris Nightingale was working on the orchestration and stuff like that, so we didn’t have to be involved all the time with Lord of the Rings. We found a nice little gap there, and it worked out really well.
SG: What is the significance of the title Miero?
JL: It means “outcast,” but it also means “world,” so it’s a word with different meanings.
SG: Have you been able to promote Miero as much as you would have liked to?
JL: Sure. Of course, we haven’t been able to do regular gigs, but the rest of the band has been doing a lot of interviews in Finland and some gigs. Obviously I’m in Toronto, so I can’t take part in that work at the moment. I’ve been doing some interviews from here as well.
SG: Were there any significant changes to the approach of writing and arranging songs for Miero as opposed to previous albums like iki?
JL: No, I think our working process is very much the same as ever. People write stuff at their homes, then we come to rehearsal and play. Everyone brings in their ideas, and then we have a Värttinä song.
SG: Did the writing for Meiro and Lord of the Rings overlap at any point, or were they alwyas separate entities?
JL: We had a discussion about whether we could or should use some tunes that were left over from Lord of the Rings. Eventually only one tune, the a capella tune (“Eerama”), came from the Lord of the Rings pile. So we created our own music. It’s different creating for Lord of the Rings because we know that we are not going to be performing the music ourselves, so that changed the feel of the music.
SG: What do you feel distinguishes Meiro from other Värttinä albums? What makes it different?
JL: Maybe there’s something darker, more sinister in the whole album. Ilmatar is like a cousin of this album, but I think we’ve gone a little bit further lyrically and also in musical expression. There aren’t very happy moments. That’s certainly one thing, and I think the girls’ vocal work has improved. So I think this is definitely the best album that we’ve done thus far.
SG: Meiro reflects a strong diversity of influences on the band’s sound. What are the musical backgrounds of the band members, and how do these different influences shape the band’s sound?
JL: Everybody has really different backgrounds. Some of us have studied folk music at the Sibelius Academy, and there’s people who have studied jazz, for example, at different schools, and played a great diversity of gigs and shows.
SG: So what have you, in particular, studied?
JL: I have been studying folk music at the Sibelius Academy.
SG: Have you studied strictly Finnish music, or have you studied other things as well?
JL: I’ve studied a lot of stuff, obviously. And also, you learn things just by listening to CDs. I’ve been playing a lot of Irish stuff, and music from the Balkans like Bulgaria and Romania.
SG: Have you had the opportunity to listen to a lot of music lately, or have you been focusing on the album and on the stage production?
JL: I’ve been concentrating quite a lot on the work, and there hasn’t been that much time to listen to stuff. But now, there’s a really interesting guy playing bouzouki in the orchestra for Lord of the Rings. He’s from Armenia. I’ve got a lot of Armenian music now. I’ve listened a little bit to that, and now I’m going to carry on getting deeper into that kind of stuff. I’m probably going to get a duduk at some point. It’s an Armenian wind instrument which has a really great emotional sound. It’s been used in a lot of movie soundtracks. That, at the moment, is something that inspires me, and I want to see what kind of stuff I can find from there.
SG: In the beginning of “Synti” (a song on the new album), what is making that repeated low note?
JL: That’s accordion.
SG: How did that find it’s way into the arrangement?
JL: It was Markku’s idea to play it. (Markku Lepistö is Värttinä’s accordionist.) When we got the studio, our studio engineer Riisto found a really nice plug-in, making it sound low-fi. So there’s a little bit of distortion, and it made the sound more mysterious. Not everybody can tell that it’s an accordion, that’s the thing; it sounds interesting and mysterious.
SG: Is Mari reciting some sort of witches’ incantation in the middle and towards the end of the song?
JL: She sounds like a witch, for sure. Yeah, you could say that.
SG: Was that her own lyrics, or was that something traditional?
JL: No, we are not doing things anymore that are traditional in a pure sense. I think we have evolved and gone a long way from the pure traditional stuff. It’s original stuff; we are influenced by the tradition, but I can’t find anything that is strictly traditional in our albums anymore.
SG: So what do you think is next for the band?
JL: We still have some work with Lord of the Rings. We have the premiere coming up on the 23rd of March. After that we’ll do some touring in Finland and in Europe. Then we’ll start working on the album for Lord of the Rings, and the album will be produced by me, A. R. Rahman, and Chris Nightingale. So I’ll be tied up with that project through this summer. The band will still be doing gigs at the same time, but I won’t be able to take part for that period. In the autumn, we’ll probabaly do some more touring, and at the end of this year we’ll go to London to rehearse Lord of the Rings there, to be able to open there next spring.
SG: Will you be coming to America at any point?
JL: We certainly would love to come. It’s just a matter of getting the funding and everything right, because we have so many people in the band. It’s pretty expensive whenever we go that far, so we need to have a proper tour for it to make sense to come over. But we would love to play in Canada and the U.S.
SG: You’ve been a part of Värttinä for a very long time at this point. When Värttinä started, did you ever see it becoming what it’s become, taking you to different places across the world and giving you the opportunity to work on major theatrical productions in Toronto and London?
JL: No, I couldn’t imagine at that point the things we are doing now. But here we are.