When someone asks me to tell them who Pekka is and what he does I find it pretty difficult to answer in any coherent way! I can tell you that Pekka Kuusisto is a violinist from Finland, that he can play ANYTHING in an astoundingly beautiful way but that he can also create new sounds that one has never heard before. Pekka crosses boundaries, challenges you to consider life and music in new ways, to listen with new ears and seek out new meanings and ideas. Whether he is playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, old Scandinavian Folk tunes or even just improvising on the spot, there is an artistry in his work and a special humbleness in his character that creates something truly magical and utterly unique.
I have to admit that Pekka has been a hero of mine for many years (maybe then, this post is a little biased…!). Throughout my student years, I was that annoying violin pupil that sat in my room for hours, watching and re-watching videos of him playing any repertoire that I was working on, making notes about every small idea or movement that he would make and trying to copy and implement it into my own playing (God, this is embarrassing). When I got to meet and work with him on Beethoven’s Op. 127 String Quartet a couple of years ago, it was a DREAM and I still feel inspired by that experience! Pekka treated my colleagues and I as equal musicians, listened eagerly to our ideas, cared about us and our group like it was honestly as important to him as it was to us, worked with us for hours and hours after the schedule ‘told’ us to finish and then continued to sight-read Haydn Quartets with us late into the nights, ate ice-cream with us and made us laugh. It was such a joy to realise that this violinist whom I SO admired, was also such a nice, friendly and beautiful person, and as a result I am now able to call him my friend.
Alright, I think I’m doing OK so far, I think you get who Pekka is – great violinist, great person. Now let me try to explain the Reddress.
I first heard about the Reddress during those 2 weeks of working on Beethoven with Pekka, when he told me all about its concept and design. Very literally, the Reddress is like one huge organism; in the centre and high up on a podium is the nucleus of the dress, where the performer stands and commands, and throughout the body and folds of the dress, which take up the entire auditorium, are little pockets (200 in all) where members of the audience nestle in and become part of it. The dress was designed by artist, Aamu Song, who questioned the traditional concert set up of a musician on stage in relation to their audience, who are usually so far away from them and sitting in de-humanising rows of seats. She wanted to invent a new way of connecting musician and audience, make them all part of one event and overcome physical separation and distance. And this is exactly what the Reddress does.
Song originally envisioned the Reddress for a female performer, and you might be wondering what it’s like to see a male artist, such as Pekka, at the centre of such a dress. Well, when Song first saw Pekka playing in the dress, she found that he kind of became part of it, that the dress was gender-neutral and that the whole experience was about so much more than just the dress – it became about the power of music and connection in performance.
In the miraculous and incredible way that life sometimes works, I was lucky enough to get the chance to see Pekka perform in the Reddress at the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin. It was one of those pinch me moments – I somehow got a very last-minute ticket, jumped on a train from Hannover and just went for it, because I knew I might not get the chance again. When I arrived at the hall, dry ice and atmospheric electronic sounds greeted me in the foyer and all the way up the stairs and into the main auditorium. I heard other audience members gasping as they also arrived at the hall, asking ‘What’s going on here?!‘. Because it was such a spontaneous decision to go to the concert, I sadly hadn’t managed to get a ticket for one of the pockets of the dress, which meant that I was sitting on the balcony and viewing from above. But actually I found this to have some advantages – I could see the whole thing in action at once and, because of the magnitude and height of the dress, I still very much felt involved.
When the music died away and the lights dropped, Pekka walked out into the room, whistling and making sounds with his voice into a microphone, as he walked between the people in the pockets of the dress. When it came time to get into the dress, a woman helped him up into it, zipping him in and Aamu Song passed his violin up to him from her own spot in the dress. Pekka began to play folk music, alternating between deep and moving sounds, upbeat dance movements, cold and shuddering harmonics and improvised ideas. He played each tune in many different fragments, which were then electronically looped, on top of which he added the new fragment, creating a really rich tapestry of music. Sometimes the looping stopped and he took the mic off his violin, letting himself play alone, just a sweet violin playing a simple Finnish folk tune in a red dress. The Reddress also had the capacity for 360 degree rotation, and this gave Pekka the freedom to constantly move as he wanted; he played to every single person in that room, constantly switching his direction, moving left to right and vice versa, up and down, sometimes bending right down to the ground, other times reaching as far up as he could, and I felt that he was always trying to establish a connection with everybody that was present.
When he came to the end of the performance, the ritual of exiting the dress began; the violin was passed back down to Song, the woman who had helped him into the dress unlocked him from it and he climbed back down into the folds of the audience. The concert ended with Pekka walking again among the body of the dress and the live bodies inside it, playing the Sarabande from Bach’s D minor Partita for solo violin, adding his own ornaments and decoration in his typical ‘Pekka’ style and silently leaving the auditorium and Reddress behind.
I found it really interesting to watch the emotional reactions of the people who were inside the dress. There were those who sat up, wanting to be actively a part of the event, those who were tapping their hands along to the beat of the tunes, couples who shared the experience together, children who were fascinated by everything, and even those who were probably asleep. The Reddress gave this audience total freedom to be who they wanted to be during this performance, and they in turn made up part of the performance itself.
Like me, you might be bursting with questions about the physical logistics of the dress. How is it maintained? How do they pack it up and transport it? What is it made of? When I first laid my eyes on the Reddress, I was immediately struck by the sharpness of its colour and by how perfect it looked. The majesty and passion of the red colour that was totally unblemished was extremely powerful. I was so interested to read about the cleaning process of the dress, which is of utmost importance to Aamu Song, who insists on this for each and every performance. Apparently the dress, which is made of wool, felt and satin, is vacuumed and frozen at -20 degrees, and it takes several people to set up and lay out! Once you see the vast size and sheer volume of the dress, you can only imagine how much work this takes.
Song and Pekka have both remarked on the addictive quality of the Reddress; Pekka commented that he now misses that same connection to the audience in any normal concert and that the Reddress is his absolute favourite performance platform. And I can also say, as a member of the audience, that I will definitely miss feeling so much part of a performance as I did on that night. Both as an audience member, watching concerts from some distant little chair in the dark, and as an artist, performing from a stage which feels so lonely, just seems to make NO sense now! It feels so unnatural and false. Of course something like the Reddress is so huge and awesome that it would be practically impossible to bring it, or even something like it, to every performance. But being part of the performance of the Reddress has really got me thinking about how we, both as musicians and as audiences, can work to make this connection something real and break down that silly boundary between us. Should we be rethinking the design of the typical concert hall? Should we reimagine our performance style altogether? Are the general public of audiences and of artists on board for this transformation? Personally, I am hoping that the Reddress starts a revolution!
So, for now, that’s the best I can do – and I hope I did Pekka and the Reddress justice!