Honing its playing over a decade, this trio from Eastern Finland aims to create genre-free music without traditional jazz trappings – music that can be played in any context. Virta's latest album, "Horros", open-mindedly combines influences from jazz, ambient and post-rock.
The third album in the band's 10-year career follows "Tales From Deep Waters" from 2012 and "Hurmos" from 2016.
This album forms a more seamless entity than its predecessors. Sweeping, epic themes meld into trance-like meditations. The line-up, playing a range of traditional and digital instruments, consists of Antti Hevosmaa (electronics, flugelhorn and trumpet), Heikki Selamo (bass, electronics and guitar) and Erik Fräki (electronics, drums and percussion) – with all three adding vocals.
“For us, making music involves a lot of waiting. It is satisfying to get the album out; to get to talk to people about where the band’s going now and what Virta sounds like in 2023,” says Hevosmaa.
Watch VIRTA's music video Aelita, directed by Appu Jasu.
The new album’s sound has been shaped by the years that have passed since the previous release and the trio’s active touring since then, says Hevosmaa. The group’s sound has evolved, with less focus on individual instruments.
“Not that there was too much of that before, but we’ve tried to be less attached to our traditional instruments and who plays what,” he says. “Horros has a broader range of expression. We’re focusing on how the band sounds as a whole.”
As Fräki sees it, three members is the ideal set-up for Virta. The members can communicate, and when one person comes up with a new idea, it can be naturally incorporated into the group’s sound.
"When you basically do everything with just the three of you, it takes time" – Antti Hevosmaa
The recording process was more influenced by working with computers this time around, says Hevosmaa. Although that was already familiar for the band, it has become a more natural way of working, allowing the members to do almost everything themselves from the earliest stages.
“It's also been a process of learning new things. When you basically do everything with just the three of you, it takes time. However, we had a fourth person recording with us in Varpaisjärvi.”
Roots in Finnish Lakeland
Varpaisjärvi is a village near the band's former hometown of Kuopio in the North Savo lake district of eastern Finland. The recording took place there, at Fräki’s family's summer cottage – a place that left its mark on the album’s soundscape.
Virta is bound by long shared histories and friendship, as the three met while attending a music high school in Kuopio.
“Making this album was really good because it was a really grounding 'home base project' over the coronavirus period, making music to your own taste with guys from your home village,” Fräki says.
"We’ve had quite different musical tastes over the history of the band. That’s brought different impulses into the music and taken the band forward" – Erik Fräki
“After our last year in high school, we decided that we wanted to do something together. Unfortunately, we all ended up living in different cities, but we kept in touch: playing together on weekends, composing, recording and playing gigs,” Selamo recalls.
Shared roots and playing experiences, and remaining connected through music while living apart all strengthened the communication that is evident in the group's music.
“That's where it comes from, when you start doing things together at a sensitive, receptive age, your own style takes shape organically. And some of that has survived to this day,” Selamo notes.
“I think deep friendship is the driving force of Virta,” says Fräki. “To some extent, we’ve had quite different musical tastes over the history of the band. We've been into completely different things, but that’s brought different impulses into the music and taken the band forward.”
Watch VIRTA's music video On the Run, directed by Otto Kylmälä
Nordic sound and new audiences
Most of the songs on Horros have Finnish titles. The lyrics reverberate enigmatically or blend in as ornamentation in the ambient background. The few distinguishable words are associated with natural elements.
Hevosmaa says that he associates instrumental music with strong visual sensations. The band has long featured lighting technician and light artist Jere Suontausta as part of its live performances. The members of Virta spend plenty of energy and time thinking about how visual structures and lighting best serve their music.
In Hevosmaa’s words, “music is the anchor and the rest of life pulsates around it.”
The band has sometimes been referred to as “Nordic jazz” – but what makes it recognisably Nordic? From the band members’ viewpoint, they don't represent any strictly defined Finnish jazz scene, but say that some of the spirit of a place and its surrounding influences will always be part of the end result. More imaginary boundaries may emerge in performance situations or the audiences they reach, they suggest.
“Over the years, we've gotten a bit out of the jazz bubble. It makes sense to consider this new album outside of the traditional concert hall setting, where audiences passively receive music. On the other hand, our music does have a dimension that can fit into that context. But I think that in the future, our venues may be more dance-oriented environments,” says Fräki.
"It makes sense to consider this new album outside of the traditional concert hall setting, where audiences passively receive music" – Erik Fräki
“In the early days, when we played Finnish indie clubs, we might have gotten praise from old-school prog guys, but nowadays our audience may be a bit younger,” says Hevosmaa.
“Maybe in the future, people who are into electronic music and other contemporary music might get more into in so-called band music, and vice versa.”
According to Selamo, it’s natural for Virta to take influences from many sources.
“Let’s say we’ve been brought up well musically. We don’t worry too much about genre boundaries. A lot of our listeners are probably people who consume music extensively and open-mindedly anyway.”
As Hevosmaa sees it, jazz audiences are, by definition, open-minded. Of course, there are some purists, but people who follow the Finnish or Nordic jazz scene tend to be more open-minded, he says.
“At least that genre of music shouldn't scare anyone,” he says with a grin.