I came to Kimmo Pohjonen’s single Sydney Festival performance from the Spiegeltent and the stark purity of Low, a band who never play three notes when one will suffice. I doubt that the two acts would find much common ground, for here was the Minnesota trio’s counter-opposite: a musician technically adept enough to sustain a sixty minute solo on a single instrument, yet wholly lacking in heart.
Pohjanen plays a digital accordion, using foot pedals to create layers that cross and loop over each other like tinsel garlands. It’s garish alright: his opening two pieces begin with the chromatic melodies most associated with the instrument, building up to a frenetic pace and a volume (via the pedals) that rivals a church organ. The bass notes in particular bring to mind the overdriven rumble that you’d expect from a hard rockin’ guitar band: I plumped for Led Zeppelin, my companion for Van Halen.
Relief comes during the initial moments of the third piece, where Pohjonen creates a long loop out of air: his own amplified breathing plus the accordion’s squeeze-box facility. The sibilant hiss sounds like a series of breakers, though rhythmically neater. But Pohjonen’s lack of compositional imagination means that even this promisingly minimal beginning becomes, literally, overblown. Unlike fellow accordionist Monika Brooks at last year’s Now Now festival, exploring the tiniest exhalations of her instrument, Pohjonen is all gusting winds. And airy gestures, too. During the fourth section he groans, he bellows, beats his chest like an extra out of Braveheart, screams a bit – and yet I remain unmoved. It’s too rehearsed, too calculated; the voice and movements failing to convey even the slightest sense of a grounded physicality. This wouldn’t matter if Pohjonen’s aim was a deliberate dislocation of sound from the body, but even with all his fancy toys he can’t convey the same wonderful disorientation that Melbourne’s own Pikelet manages so well. His mad mugging is meant to convey a sweating authenticity – gypsy-punk-Finlandian-goes-wild – but it comes over like a particularly kitsch interpretive dance routine.
Beyond that it’s hard to remember, a deadly sheen of boredom having settled between me and the music. At the end there’s sustained applause, enough to warrant an encore, so Pohjonen’s performance clearly impressed a lot of people. And it was impressive, as a feat. Just not very likeable.
By Emmy Hennings