Veli Kujala is an exceptional musician by any standard you could care to name. When I first encountered Veli as a young man, I only knew that he was an excellent classical accordion player, a talent of the first rank. And oh boy, what a musician he was even at that early stage! I had heard skilled accordionists before, but Veli was a virtuoso like none other. His musicianship was about much more than nimble fingers, presenting as a handsome richness of colour.
Soon Veli also emerged as a composer, and it is here that his broad range really shows itself. He neither chases after the European avant-garde simply because it is the thing to do, but neither does he have a traditionalist’s pining for the safe haven of the tonality of yesteryear. That his first love was jazz is apparent in how he seamlessly produces music that is structured with mathematical precision yet sounds like free improvisation. He spins out harmonic progressions in the finest minimalist vein while borrowing rhythmic ideas from beyond the realm of Western music.
Obviously Veli could not be content with a mere 12 pitches per octave, and thus microtonality has become an important component in his work, not just in writing music but also in his own instrument: Veli has been seminal in the development of, and is proficient on, the quarter-tone accordion, and he completed a doctorate in music by studying both the instrument and the contemporary music written for it – much of it commissioned by himself.
Let us take a few examples. Hyperchromatic Counterpoint features a minimalist soundscape that incorporates his youthful passion for jazz, microtonality and Bach-style counterpoint. In CybOrgan, live electronics transports a traditional organ concerto to new spheres by modifying the sound into exciting new dimensions and colours. The expressive, descriptive music progresses in compelling twists and turns. The violin concerto Auseil presents an unusually powerful and inspiring narrative that converts the music into a thriller in the listener’s head. The sextet Taz is a virtuoso chamber music piece that requires performers not only to have technical brilliance but also to breathe together. The virtuoso element is also present in the several organ works that Veli has written for his spouse, organist Susanne Kujala.
Veli’s diversity is also apparent in that contemporary music alone is too narrow for his pursuits. He is a member of several ensembles that span the gamut from free improvisation to pure entertainment. And when the Metropolitan Opera in New York happens to need a world-class accordionist for a demanding contribution, they call up Veli – who basically steals the show with his incredible performance!
Where does all this come from? Perhaps the origins lie in magic tricks, which Veli has been doing as a pastime since childhood? Performing as a magician requires incredible dexterity and the ability to capture the viewers’ attention in order to be able to surprise them. Veli Kujala has a knack for this, not just with magic but also on the classical accordion and as a composer.
-Osmo Tapio Räihälä