Debuting back in 2010 with the sprawling, 17 minute long ‘Curiosities Of The Sky’ on Rednetic Records, Finnish producer Ukkonen has gone on to travel a path that is uniquely his own. Declaring himself to have ‘zero interest in dance music’, the press-shy artist has released music, that whilst electronic, avoids any easy classifications. Second LP, ‘The Ancient Tonalities Of…’, released this year on ‘polystylistic’ London label No Pain In Pop, flirts with everything from the under explored sounds of composers such as Bartok and Takemitsu to the likes of Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada. Finding a beautiful middle ground between these distinctly varied influences, the LP employs a range of techniques such as ‘isorhythms’, ‘mensuration cannons’ and ‘simultaneous tempos’, that are well outside the remit of ‘conventional’ producers.
Supplying us with a wonderfully different and individual Hyp mix this week, Ukkonen was also kind enough to grant us a rare interview. Touching on production methods, his reluctance towards press and influences amongst other things, the chat ( below ) is a sound accompaniment to his beguiling mix, which can be listened to here.
Ukkonen, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Where are you right now and what are you up to?
My pleasure! I’m in London, doing a few things. The big thing right now is that the album is out and this time around I’m trying to be more active during the release period. I’m also doing family stuff and working on a couple of music projects.
Information about you is rather thin on the ground and the word ‘recluse’ often pops up in press pieces about you. Does your lack of media presence stem from a dislike of media obligations from or is it purely coincidental?
I originally wanted to be anonymous, just to put out some music free of any history or previous identity. In the early days I tried to create a mysterious paper trail of clues to my real identity, but it was a bit lame and no one noticed anyway. Once accidental misinformation got online as well I stopped trying to manage it. The whole point to start with was to focus everything on the music not on the person behind it, so getting caught up in that was a bit of mis-step. I’m pretty easy to find now – got my Facebook, Twitter and website on the go. I just don’t chat much, as once I start you can’t shut me up, and what I’m talking about is usually music theory related and boring. You know when peoples eyes glaze over while you’re talking? That’s my world. I swear I can feel it happening even on social media. So it’s probably better for everyone if I keep out the way and just come out on special occasions.
Your new album ‘The Ancient Tonalities Of…’, features a lot of complicated production techniques and sounds to me like the work of someone with a classic musical education. Am I right?
I have no formal music education aside from your standard school music lessons. The thing that triggered my interest was harmony – hearing chords and wondering how people learn to make those sounds. So I taught myself to read music and got stuck into harmony, rhythm, counterpoint and orchestration books. I still love reading about these subjects… I am almost incompetent when it comes to music production, so I have to keep things simple or I’ll simply lose control. My arsenal of sounds is tiny. I use literally about 8 drum samples in total. 3 different kicks, 2 snares, 2 hi-hats and a ride cymbal. Sometimes I branch out but that’s usually it. For pads/bass I pretty much just use sine waves and home sampled guitar or piano sounds for everything else. Really basic setup. I would never say I’m a producer. I don’t really have a label that I’d call myself. Composer sounds a bit insecure. I’d probably go with “musician”. That said, the music on the album can be very complex and I’ve been very careful to manage that complexity so it is not a burden on the ear. I didn’t want it to be an effort to listen to. I love managing harmony, rhythm, counterpoint and timbre as individual parameters. That’s where my interest and my focus is. You could arrange everything on the album for solo piano and the music would not lose that much – just the timbre parameter, everything else would still work just fine. Just don’t ask me to play it!
Several writers have compared your music to the likes of Boards Of Canada or Aphex Twin. What interests me about comparing you to both of those producers other than sonic similarities is that you all come from relatively rural locations. Do you think your location greatly informs your work?
I don’t live in the country, but I do love the countryside – so perhaps there is an element of yearning there! This album was written in the city over the first few months of 2013, very much with the coming summer in mind. My environment didn’t have any conscious impact on the music that I can think of – each track was very much based on a vision of a process, or combination of processes. But people are sensitive creatures so I guess it’s quite possible we are all more influenced by our surroundings than we are ever likely to notice.
Although your music is electronic it is very clearly not ‘dance’ music in most recognized senses of the word. Its relatively rare to see an electronic music producer so openly pronounce their disconnect with dance music as you have done, what do you think is behind this and what qualities do you search for in the electronic music you like?
I think people are open minded enough these days to accept electronic music presented just as pure music. I don’t even know what constitutes house or techno – I honestly don’t know much about them as genres. One of the difficulties I have is that I get contacted by lots of techno labels wanting to work with me – but to my mind what I do is not techno so there is an awkward conflict there… That’s not any kind of slight on that genre…it’s simply that I have a kind of blind spot there, none of it makes sense to me. I think it may also be why I was drawn to No Pain In Pop – they are not a genre-based label so there was a good fit there. I’m pretty upfront about my ignorance though! For the Detroit mix I had to do research, and I ended up with a great appreciation for that music, but I don’t sit and listen to techno – or any electronic music really. I hope I’m not giving too long answer here but I just want to follow up on that as some people might construe it as sounding arrogant or something. Basically there are two reasons for me not listening to much music currently:
1 – I find making music way more fun than listening to it.
2- I’ve got hearing problems and this substantially destroys my enjoyment of listening. Imagine putting everything through a ring modulator effect – that’s what I hear. It sucks.
As you might deduce from this…making music is a challenge. But I still love doing it and will continue for as long as possible anyway.
You’ve spoken of relishing the ‘unusualness’ of music in the 20th century. How do you go about finding this quality in your own work?
I read about composition a lot – analysis of pieces and explanations. I love to learn about how people write music. Anything that seems a bit odd I will probably have a crack at. This in itself doesn’t usually yield results, but the widening of knowledge and expanded technique the comes with it almost always pays off in the end. I can’t understand for the life of me why someone would create something they felt was normal. Why not aim high? I intend everything I write to be compared to the best music in history. Obviously I fall very short every time but I think it’s good to push yourself that hard. I like to delve deep into music to truly get to know it if I feel like it might be influencing me. Steve Reich is a great example – so many people are influenced by him, or rather are influenced by the sound of some of his music. Very few musicians (as far as I know) who claim influence actually study the scores or read his writing about music. Steve Reich’s music can be very, very complex (and very simple at times too) – but the way he looks at creating a new piece is fascinating and inspiring. I try to be influenced by how he works – not how his music sounds.
I am pretty ruthless in terms of what I expect from myself – I will only put out stuff that I think is top notch. What might surprise some people is that I don’t consider myself any more able to make top notch music than anyone else – non-musicians included. To come up with something really good takes vast amounts of effort, imagination and most importantly failure. For every track that comes out there must be dozens that were no good. So for me writing is an effort of will to find that quality at any cost and I usually have no idea how I’m going to do it or where I’ll find that idea, but I know I want to achieve at a certain level and I won’t accept anything less.
What’s the general idea behind the mix? I really enjoyed the way you brought the Drexciya track in there…
It’s an influences mix – my problem being that my main influences are theory ideas not sounds. So I picked pieces that represented the kind of things that influence me. Rautavaara is such an effortless genius – you can just go to YouTube and type in his name and basically any track you click on you’ll be like “wow, that’s incredible”. He’s written so much orchestral stuff I don’t know how anyone could find the time.
The kinds of music being put together here are sort of wildly different – the recent Rautavaara piece segues to a 500 year old vocal piece that just sounds so fresh it blows me away. Yeah then there’s the Drexciya which sort of paves the way for my tracks and then things get mixed up a bit. If I wanted to say anything with the mix, it would be that we live in a glorious age where we can happily segue from modern Finnish orchestral music to ancient Dutch vocal to techno…and to anything. Not just the freedom of this but just richness of musical experience available to us today is astonishing. And we are so adaptable that the previously astonishing becomes mundane very quickly if we don’t pay attention. You ever have one of those days when you keep pressing next on your mp3 player? Skip – skip-skip. It’s not the music that’s wrong – it’s you. Stop skipping the tracks and appreciate the miracle you can hear right now. Whatever it is – don’t skip it. I’ve gained way more from learning to appreciate music I didn’t like than from listening to an old favourite for the 1000th time.