You have written in many styles and levels of difficulty, including virtuoso music, concert waltzes and polkas and tangos, teaching music, free bass works and even electronic music. Where do you get your inspiration?

He was born in the country side, so a major part of the pieces he wrote were inspired by the spectacular scenes and events in nature.

In addition to these nature inspirations which often had been retained from his childhood memories, he was also interested in the aspect of technical development. He therefore incorporated ideas to develop technical skills, so he would often add passages that would demand more difficult technical ability.

Matti Rantanen writes: The folk music he heard as a little boy, the marches of the fairground, the 'salon' music with its operetta overtures and show pieces such as Monti's Czardas all the rage in the restaurants of the 1930s, were all familiar to Pihlajamaa at various stages in his career.

The works of Pietro Frosini and Pietro Deiro were popular among Finnish accordionists, as indeed among other nationalities, in the 1930s; these, too, were performed by Pihlajamaa, though possibly not with quite the enthusiasm of most of his colleagues. The stylistic mainstream consisted, of course, of the dance music fashionable at the time: waltzes, schottisches, polkas, fox-trots and tangos.

The works of Lasse Pihlajamaa fall into several genres including: virtuoso pieces, character pieces, 'utility' music (waltzes, schottisches, tangos, etc.), teaching pieces and electronic experiments. It must be added here that almost all his compositions are of a markedly instrumental nature; so much so that even the traditional waltzes in minor keys bear some special accordionist trait. Many of the utility pieces likewise require a phenomenal technique. Pihlajamaa composed virtually no pure pop or 'Schlager' music at all.

The character and virtuoso pieces represent the finest and most distinctive category in Lasse Pihlajamaa's output. The earliest of these is Noiduttu Hanuri (1941). In its themes and overall structure it is not yet Pihlajamaa at his most original. The influence of the czardas and the Rhapsodies of Liszt can clearly be discerned. The instrumental devices are revolutionary: it exploits the potential of the treble fingerboard in a way that was totally new. The glissandos, the prestissimo arpeggios using the thumb in chromatic sequences, the use of vibrato to color the melodies, and the inconceivably fast wrist staccatos revealed new virtuostic potential. There is one superb moment towards the end of the slow section of Noiduttu Hanuri: a chromatic run in parallel major sixths down more than three octaves in all! And the way the composer himself plays it on the 1945 recording! Virtually impossible for virtuosos even today.

Virtuoso Pieces: Lasse Pihlajamaa composed Noiduttu Hanuri for himself for the Finnish Accordion Championships in 1943. The czardas-type Mustalaisinspiraatio and Romanialainen Rapsodia that capture the Romanian idiom and fire in a way that sounds astonishingly authentic followed two years later. These two (and many other) pieces were prompted by a very practical need; on his entertainment tours Pihlajamaa wanted some solo numbers that differed from those of his colleagues and accordingly composed his own.

The main source of inspiration for Lasse Pihlajamaa is nature. Scenes and events in nature, often as childhood memories, are transformed by him into lyrical, sometimes highly realistic moods. Sudenkorento (1948) is a childhood image of working in the fields. The composer is a little boy sitting with his feet in a pool of water; a cuckoo is calling, the birds are twittering, and all of a sudden a dragon-fly puts the finishing touch to the picture, darting hither and thither. A little motif spanning a fourth, from which the whole mood piece is constructed at different levels, arches beneath virtuostic tremolos and accompaniment figures. The waltz-like Sateen Soidessa (1958) is a little story about a summer night "when I was spending the night with the other lads out in the barn and listening to the rain pattering on the shingle roof". The intermezzo Karhun Tanssi composed a little earlier is a playful story about a bear that, according to a childhood legend, may really dance, whistle and give little shouts when in cheerful mood!

The best-known of all the virtuoso pieces by Lasse Pihlajamaa is undoubtedly Tuulen Tanssi, written during a tour of Lapland in early spring 1949. An eddy of snow rising from the valley while he was out skiing was immediately transformed in his mind into the scherzando section of the piece. This 'dance of the wind' is a waltz scherzo in variation form, its main motif the three-note G#-A-C#1; around it whirl chromatic prestissimo flurries, virtuoso runs and bellows tremolos. Tuulen Tanssi is in every respect a consistent entity that surely deserves the most classical status in its composer's entire output.

The literary moonscapes of Jules Verne inspired Pihlajamaa in the early 1950s to compose Raketilla Kuuhun, also known as Kuuraketti about a rocket flying to the moon. The chromatic, often third-less chords (on fourths), the dissonant tremolos on intervals of a second, the wavering between major and minor third in the main theme, the jazz-like rhythms and syncopation's of the moon rocket were simply too much for the accordion audiences of the 1950s. As a solo pure and simple, Raketilla Kuuhun is not perhaps shown to its best advantage. The composer himself most often played it on his electric accordion. For the disc released by Pagani & Bro. for the US market he also engaged the services of a percussionist whose timpani give the piece considerably more body. Played on acoustic accordions, it is most effective with two or three instruments. As a trio arrangement (by Pihlajamaa and Merja Ikkelä), Raketilla Kuuhun got a warm, enthusiastic reception from Finnish audiences in the 1970s.

Towards the end of the 1960s Lasse Pihlajamaa began to compose for free-bass accordion. While touring North America he wrote Muunnelmia Mollissa (1968), a set of variations in the minor that is really his only attempt at more absolute music. It clearly proves that he can, if he wishes, handle the established structural principles of music, even down to motif technique. He also did an arrangement of Sudenkorento for free-bass accordion. This is, however, so difficult to play that it has of necessity had to be simplified. A charming mood piece is the humoresque Ponin Rattailla (1969) in which the pony trots along with its cart to jazzy harmonies and rhythms.

Examples of other character pieces by Pihlajamaa, and there are many, are Höyhen Ilmassa (describing a feather in the air), Veden Balettia (the dancing of water), Joutsenen Lähtö (a swan departing), Rakeitten Rapsodia (a hail-storm) and Helisevä Puro (a tinkling stream) - all little cameos naturally featuring some basic accordion technique.

Waltzes: Nuoruusmuistoja (memories of youth), Ruusuja Sinulle (a bouquet of roses), Muisto Äidille (for his mother), Kyynelsilmin (tears in his eyes), and Kevään Ensi Kukkia (the first spring flowers) must surely be among the most popular pieces ever composed by Lasse Pihlajamaa. Their melancholy, bittersweet melodies are just what the Finns desire. Yet among the ones closest to the composer's heart are the waltzes in what he calls the Finnish style: mostly in the major, often eloquent, and with a suggestion of French and/or jazz influence. Wispy clouds, grasshoppers, silken dreams, rocking boats, swallows, and the lacy green of spring are all the subjects of waltzes that reveal Pihlajamaa at his most distinctive. The French element is most pronounced in Pariisin Pyörteissä, Margaret and Pariisi Yöllä (all about Paris). The authentic French touch of the last of these is captured to perfection in the stunning performance by Marcel Azzola and Lina Bossatti.

Tangos: It seems strange in a way that of all the accordionists of the 1930s and 40s, Lasse Pihlajamaa was the only one to show any true interest in the Argentinean tango. Others must undoubtedly have heard the bandoneon on record and in the live performances of visiting orchestras, but Pihlajamaa was the only composer whose music and style directly reflected the new sound. There is hardly a trace of the four-square approach and melancholy melodies of the standard Finnish tango in Hanuriini Kertoo Argentiinasta (echoes of Argentina), Auringon Nousessa (sunrise), Revontulten Alla (the Northern Lights) or in the arrangement Pikku Ystävä (about a little friend). The rhythms are varied, the melodies truly impressionistic and the harmonies rich. The imitation of the bandoneon rhythms produced a new combination of bellows and finger articulation so that the accordion most often approached the extremes of sustained sound and incisiveness.

Polkas, Schottisches and Mazurkas: The way in which Lasse Pihlajamaa plays polkas is nothing short of legendary. It is founded on the traditional, swinging style of the two-row accordion in which the accented bass notes sound for slightly longer than the backbeats. The beat often shifts from the strong to the weak parts of the bar, thus adding welcome variety to the polka (and schottische) rhythms. I suspect that Pihlajamaa is very pleased with the way the young generation perform their polkas, deliberately abandoning the rhythmically dry and business-like polka playing of the Swedish and Central European tradition. It is in precisely the polkas that he carries on the folk traditions of his homeland in a way that is genuinely beautiful, but with plenty of originality.

Examples of polkas displaying a clear two-row influence are Yks'pohjasten Polkka, Pollen Hölkkä (a jogging horse), Joosun Polkka and Porin Pirun Polkka (a devil's polka). Those in five-row style include Tampereen Polkka, Villi Viisirivinen (a wild five-row), Lämäskä and Pelimannipolkka. The most unusual of these five-row polkas is possibly the Bye-bye Polka inspired by Pihlajamaa's visit to New York in 1959. In style it is maybe the most cosmopolitan of all his polkas, and almost all his non-Finnish colleagues have fallen in love with it.

Jämijärven Jenkka (a schottische) would long ago no doubt have become the most popular Finnish accordion schottische were it not so difficult for the average accordionist to play. Despite its lusty folksy element, it is, along with Vipinäjenkka and Lysti Lauantai also composed in the 1970s, the work of a virtuoso for other virtuosos.

Whereas the Pihlajamaa waltzes have an element of France, the tangos are redolent of Argentina and the polkas and schottisches of Finland, the mazurkas have the marked easy-going lilt of the Swedish hambo. This is clearly audible in his hambo mazurka for one-row accordion. In this improvisation Pihlajamaa almost 'abuses' the traditional one-row, but in doing so indicates new potential for this instrument, too. Dollarimasurkka, Tanssiva Soitto and Manun Masurkka are show pieces reminiscent of the brilliant French accordion mazurka, even though this style was probably unknown to Pihlajamaa.

Electronic Music: Electronic music is undoubtedly the least familiar side of Pihlajamaa the composer. The 1970s saw the advent of the giant 'Data' accordion, an instrument combining the properties of the acoustic model with state-of-the-art electronics and computer technology. This new instrument inspired Pihlajamaa to improvise several electronic 'etudes'. He recorded them in his home studio in the early 1970s, and listening to them, one can only be amazed at his rich imagination and instinctive feeling for style. These improvisations well stand comparison with the electronic works of today. The most difficult thing was, so Pihlajamaa says, avoiding triads and tonal melodies. A single triad or familiar melodic gesture would have ruined the whole work. All accordion players should have a chance to hear these improvisations at the earliest possible date!

Is there any teacher or artist to whom you would like to pay particular tribute, for their inspirational effect on your musical career?
The three guys that originally passed by the house were the best teachers to him, including the star of this trio - Kai Kutti.

Other than that, he has mainly invented everything himself.
Your service to the field of music and the accordion is widely recognized including an award from the President of the Republic of Finland. Can you tell us about this award?

On the 1st of July 1988, Lasse was awarded the prestigious and honored title of:

  • 'Musiikkineuvos' by the President of the Republic of Finland

in recognition of his services to music. NB. Finnish citizens can be awarded honorary titles in public recognition of their service to society. Titles are awarded by the President of the Republic, following preparatory work by the Prime Minister's Office. Lasse's Musiikkineuvos award is signed by both the President of Finland and the Prime Minister.

It should be pointed out that in addition to this prestigious title from the Finnish Government, the accordion world celebrated:

  • The First International Lasse Pihlajamaa Accordion Competition

which was held in Finland in 2001 attracting accordionists from around the world. Lasse also holds the:

  • CIA Merit Award

from the Confederation Internationale Des Accordeonistes (CIA) recognizing his outstanding contributions to the international accordion movement. This Merit Award was awarded in 1996 by the General Assembly of delegates of the CIA at their meeting in Dunajska Streda, Slovakia.

In addition to your outstanding performance and composing skills, you have also been quite active in several other areas. Can you tell us a little bit about your involvement with the founding of the Finnish Accordion Association?

He was at the founding meeting of the Finnish Accordion Association in 1952.

Very modest about this question, he stated that he has been merely working with several others in helping found the Finnish Accordion Association in 1952.

In addition to being a founding member he also served as its Chairman from 1967-70 and has been now made an Honorary Member.

In addition to his work with the association, as a delegate for the Finnish Accordion Association, Lasse served as a jury member for the Confederation Internationale Des Accordeonistes (CIA) Coupe Mondiale in:

  • 1959 (New York, USA)
  • 1968 (Leicester, UK)
  • 1974 (Stockholm, Sweden)
As mentioned, you have been to the CIA Coupe Mondiale several times as an adjudicator. More recently Finland hosted a very prestigious international competition in your honor. What are your thoughts regarding competitions?
He feels they are important, and considers that competitions are the only way that we can develop the accordion and accordionists further.
Your name is found on many different models of accordion these days including student instruments through artist instruments. Tell us about your involvement with the manufacturing side of the accordion.

When they started teaching there were no small children's models. At the time, here was just one accordion factory in Finland, located in Kouvola. This factory had just a full size instrument, so Lasse went to Italy to help develop a child's model.

So in the early 1960's, he went to Italy in search of a factory that would be willing to work with him on developing a series of instruments for children, that would suit his work at the Institute.

During his visit to Italy, he remembers some humorous stories as he came across many interesting personalities. He visited approximately 10 factories as he was checking out different places that specialized in producing different parts of the accordion. At one such factory Lasse was asked to test an instrument which was supposed to be some kind of free bass accordion. Unimpressed, Lasse told them that he thought it was basically junk, and Lasse laughs as he recalls being told by the factory owner that he was worse than a Sicilian!

Lasse also laughed as he recalls the early days of working with the factories. He jokes, that he had to teach them a lot. After repeatedly getting the measurements wrong on an instrument, Lasse finally asked something to the effect of ....what is wrong with you people... don't you have a ruler!?

After doing the circuit of visiting the accordion factories in Italy, Lasse finally met Gino Pigini of the Pigini Accordion Factory. A small factory at the time he developed a fine working relationship with them that has continued to this day. Even since selling his business, the instruments are still produced for Finland at the Pigini factory. During these early days, Lasse took Mogens Ellegaard to Pigini, someone who worked with Pigini over the years developing instruments.

He sold his accordion company 'Lasse Pihlajamaa Oy' some years ago, however it is still operated today and is located in Seinäjoki, Finland, some 330 km north of Helsinki.

The 'Lasse Pihlajamaa Oy' is considered the oldest and still the leading accordion company in Finland to this day.

You were there during the development of the accordion from being used as a folk instrument to a serious concert instrument? This was a period of enormous development of repertoire, instrument design and teaching process. Tell us how you were able to keep up with it all?
He has been quite active with all these aspects, including the development of the instruments over the years, so has been able to keep up just by being involved. His career has seen his involvement in developing a range of student instruments right through to contemporary instruments with free bass.

One of his many interests in the development of the accordion was with the electronic accordion. His first involvement with this, was with the 'Data' accordion, which he spent many years working on. In 1951 he was the first in Finland to build himself such an electronic accordion, and he later explored the potential of the electronic 'Data' accordion as a means of enriching the repertoire for the instrument.

This first accordion with electronic features was similar to an electronic organ. In those days, it was quite difficult to get parts so he actually used components used from Space Rockets, as one of his colleagues who was helping him with his Data Accordion was involved with the Space program, and was able to get him some parts!

This project was ongoing for decades, however, unfortunately about five years ago, the project was vandalized and stolen from his house, so the work was lost.

He was very interested in electronics, as it was a great hobby of his, and he thinks he may have spent far too much time on this project, and in fact, he never really performed much in public on his data accordion but he always had it at his house to work with.
  In addition to his data accordion, Lasse also experimented with several other inventions, including the "accordion chair" and the "accordion boot". Below is the design for the 'accordion chair' which was subsequently made and is on display at the Accordion Museum in Ikaalinen. Pictured playing the accordion chair is President of both the Finnish Accordion Association and the Finnish Accordion Institute - Kimmo Mattila.
  The 'accordion boot' design is also pictured here.

This design never made it to the manufacturing table, however is still a fun concept which would have fit nicely into Lasse's show routines.
What other interests and hobbies besides music do you have?
He loves sailing and spent alot of time on his 33 foot sailing boat.

He proudly shows the picture of his boat called "Dance of the Wind" named after one of his compositions, which is pictured to the left.
You were also instrumental in the launching of the Sata-Häme Soi Accordion Festival back in 1972 with Heikki Eränen. This festival has grown to attract some 36,000 attendees from all over the world. Did you ever imagine it would become a major international event?
He couldn't imagine it then, and he can't imagine it now! He gives much credit to his co-founder of the festival Heikki Eränen with whom he spent many hours on the phone planning and discussing the festival. Pictured above and below are both outdoor and indoor capacity audiences that gather each year to attend the festival.

Kimmo Mattila explains further: In the early 1970's Heikki Eränen twice organized a local concert in Ikaalinen, where amateur accordionists from Ikaalinen played. Heikki asked Lasse to come from Helsinki to play there as well.

Lasse was very busy with his business and his teaching institute but Heikki Eränen managed to get him to Ikaalinen, because he originated from the Jämijärvi area (close by) and had many old friends and other people that would like to see him back in the area performing again.

Lasse came and played in the concert with a great success, and after that Eränen and Pihlajamaa decided to found the Sata-Häme Soi Accordion Festival. The first festival was next year, in June 1972.
(Heikki Eränen is now 76 years, and lives in the center of Ikaalinen.)
You are considered a true Idol for the Sata-Häme Soi Festival and have played there almost every year, and if not performing, you are often in attendance. The festival opens with a dedication at your monument in Jämijärvi. Can you tell us about this Statue?

He had experienced such a difficult upbringing with his family and his mother due to poverty and the horrible suffering and sometimes devastating experiences endured from bands of roaming criminals who routinely terrorized single widows and their families, that he supposes the wild west must have been so much better than what he and his family, in particular his mother, had experienced.

He cannot imagine that he lived through those dark days of some 70-80 years ago, and is thankful that they no longer exist today.

He had already decided the ideas for the statue for his mother, including its design and what words would be written, many years ago, in fact some 30 years before the actual realization of the statue!

Besides his wife, Lasse's mother has been the single most important figure in his life and he felt he must make some kind of memorial for his mother in respect for the extremely difficult times she endured bringing up his family. This monument therefore has such a profound meaning in memory of his mother and his tremendous respect for her.

Last year he donated the piece of land with the monument to the city of Jämijärvi. The statue receives many visitors during the year and of course during the opening of the annual Sata-Häme Soi
Festival, so this also helps in that the city of Jämijärvi can assist with the upkeep of the monument and surrounding land.

Lasse is pictured here with his wife Maire and the
Sata-Häme Soi Festival Minna Kulmala at the site of monument in memory of his mother, near Jämijärvi, close to the location of his childhood home.

The monument to Lasse's mother, located near Jämijärvi
What do you regard as your greatest achievement?

Lasse proudly states that the greatest achievement of Lasse Pihlajamaa was that he won in the lottery of life... the jackpot.. his wife Maire!

Married in 1945, they have enjoyed 59 years together!

Lasse and Maire are pictured here at the opening of the 2004 Sata-Häme Soi Festival.

What advice do you have for aspiring accordionists?
His says his advice is like that of a father to his children, just the simple old fashioned advice... work and practice!
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