Searching for the Soul of the Decacorde

INTERVIEW BY ROBERT SCHULSLAPER / Fanfare Magazine May/June 2018

Since discovering the ten-string guitar, or decacorde, Mari Mäntylä has not only immersed herself in its unique sound and technique but has introduced it into a wealth of musical situations. Besides commissioning music, appearing in numerous solo and concerto concerts of the classical variety, and recording CDs, she’s performed with a Fado band, formed a bandonéon and decacorde duo, and played with Finnish folk musicians. Orfeo Amoroso, her latest release, brings a sampling of music written for her alongside other pieces of which she’s especially fond and will delight those new to the decacorde as well as knowledgeable guitar connoisseurs.

For a country with a relatively small population, Finland is home to an impressive number of professional musicians. Have you every wondered why this should be so?

Three things come immediately to my mind. First, our Nature: Finland is not primarily an urban society and multiculturalism is still in its first stages. Instead, our forests, lakes, seaside, and the Northern Mountains have been a continuous major inspiration to our composers and musicians. We still do have the privilege to listen, touch, and feel the silence in nature.

Secondly, culturally and geographically, Finland resides between the West and the East, which has created a refreshing springboard of influences. Thirdly, music education in Finland is of high quality. Starting from the 1970’s a nationwide network of music colleges was realized. The state of Finland also supports professional music making and even non-professional choirs and non-profit associations and there’s significant support from private foundations.

Were you born into a musical family?

Yes. My mother was a singer and she accompanied herself with a guitar. My father is a visual artist. He has been an amateur musician and interested in music the whole of his life. Both of their families have included professional classical, folk, and rock musicians.

When did you take up the guitar?

I began to play guitar seriously when I was six or seven years old. There were many kinds of instruments and different kinds of guitars at our house when I was young and it was just very natural to try to play all of them at one time or another. Anyway, I have been always interested in the guitar as an instrument, the sound of it and its percussive characteristics, as well.

Did you play classical music from the beginning?

My grandfather was my first guitar teacher. The first pieces which I played were not by any means classical guitar pieces but my grandfather’s favorite waltzes, tangos, and folksongs. Even though my grandfather was just an amateur musician, he was very talented and he taught me very skillfully when I was still a small girl. He was demanding but taught me with a gentle spirit. By the way, one amusing but in the end, beneficial “side effect” of my grandfather’s teaching was that he taught me to play the guitar with a sole thumb [using only the thumb], because he himself was mainly a banjo player, not a guitar player. So I inherited a strong thumb technique, which has helped me a lot in playing the decacorde. All credits to granddad!
Quite soon I began to study in the Tampere Conservatory and then in the Sibelius-Academy. Later in life I studied with Oscar Ghiglia who was a great teacher who contributed most to my professional guitar studies. He immediately saw my strengths and at the same time he was able to encourage me but also to skillfully guide me to pay attention to the right things. His key doctrine was that a student should find his or her balance between the powerful presence in performing, with one’s whole concentration focused on being physically and mentally present, and understanding the notational and underlying structures of the music.

Not all classical musicians embrace improvisation: how about you?

I like to improvise. That is a part of my musician’s personality which I want to develop more and more. Composing is interesting also. I have written some little pieces, mainly yet for fun, put them into my drawer or used them as pedagogical tools for my pupils.

What about jazz?

There are many kinds of jazz. Really good old Swing is wonderful to listen to. I have always admired the top jazz musicians who improvise in complete freedom. Classical guitar music with a jazz inspiration somehow has interested me quite a lot. For example, our Duo Dryades’ CD includes jazz pianist Sid Hille’s Promenades for Bandonéon and Decacorde. Besides that, you can find Sid’s Impromptu pour decacorde on my latest solo CD, Orfeo Amoroso. I have also played some music by Dusan Bogdanovic in which jazz, classical, and ethnic influences intermingle.

I understand that you’ve also performed with Finnish folk musicians.

I have accompanied folk singers in their concerts and participated in recordings of the folk music ensemble Nordic Choro. Playing folk music is just as natural as playing any other kind of music. Even as a youngster I played with my father’s cousin, who is a folk musician. There is a living folk musician in me.

Another fascinating facet of your genre-crossing career is your immersion in Fado through your involvement with the Tirioni Fado band.

A Finnish actress and singer Sirpa Taivainen invited me to join her Fado project years ago and I eagerly accepted her offer. I have always deeply liked Fado’s melancholic moods, which are a distant cousin of Finnish melancholia with its own musical tradition. I played piccolo guitar and decacorde—both the extremes of the guitar family! We did concerts and theatrical productions with an ensemble of voice, accordion, percussion, and guitar(s).

What led you to form Duo Dryades?

Kristina Kuusisto and I both studied at the Sibelius Academy at the beginning of the 90’s. She played traditional accordion and I performed with a six-string guitar. We were musically “kindred spirits” and wanted also to perform together, though it did not sound like a good idea with those instruments. Kristina went to Paris to study bandonéon and I went to Basel to study in the concert class of Oscar Ghiglia. So, our paths went in separate ways. Then I started to specialize in decacorde in 1998 and four years later we decided to give a bandonéon and decacorde duo a try. And, all at once, it just clicked together brilliantly and we have been playing, performing, and recording together ever since.

Although you obviously don’t limit yourself to any one era or genre of music, are there some to which you’re especially partial?

The combination of old and new music in concert and recorded repertoire has inspired me for a long time. Since childhood I have loved renaissance and baroque music. They are surely the epochal music that will reside with me until the end of my days. It is also very interesting to create new music together with contemporary composers. I am a curious musician and want to find completely new musical landscapes as well as sound worlds. Of course, one aspect is that too few compositions have been written especially for decacorde. It is interesting to create music where the instrument’s full capacity is put on display.

Tell me a bit more about your interactions with contemporary composers.

The longest-running partner and the most prolific composer for decacorde is definitely the minimalist composer Pekka Jalkanen. He has composed both solo music and chamber music for my instrument, including Aeterna, a Double concerto for Bandonéon and Decacorde, and Dominus Krabbe, an opera for countertenor voice and decacorde, Mr. Jalkanen’s musical language flows fluently and naturally for decacorde playing. One can even say that his sensitive, gentle, and dramatic compositional language has reached the soul of the decacorde.
Currently I collaborate with another Finnish composer, Eero Hämeenniemi, who is writing a song cycle for soprano voice and decacorde.

Is Dominus Krabbes written in a thoroughly modern idiom or does it revisit the Baroque or even the Renaissance, when countertenors were “all the rage?”

The compositional language of Dominus Krabbe is typical of the dramatic minimalism of Mr. Jalkanen. The basis of the musical texture is woven from a couple of brief diatonic motives, and it is seasoned (or embroidered) with a few citations from 9th century liturgical music (Orbis Factor, Dies Irae) and allusions to the Baroque era. The countertenor performs seven different characters and the decacorde showed its capability to accompany all these characters excellently and flexibly. With its fifty-five-minute duration, Dominus Krabbe might be one of the longest compositions ever for guitar. For those who would like to learn more about this work, the composer has written an article about it that has been published in the book, Finland—a Nation of Opera (2015) edited by Elke Albrecht, available through

What series of events persuaded you that there would be a decacorde in your future?

I have been singing, even since my childhood, in choirs and in different vocal groups. As a child I sang a lot and my mother accompanied me with a guitar. I studied singing as a secondary subject in the Sibelius Academy and in Basel, as well. I sing to my guitar students also, because that’s how some of the important things in music can be understood better than in any other way. I also wanted my guitar to “sing” in a louder, resonating sound. I also missed the lower sound quality, while I wanted to play the bass lines that J.S. Bach had written in his lute suites perfectly. While finishing my studies in Basel, I developed an interest in the decacorde. Opposite the Music Academy is the Scola Cantorum, where I visited to listen to the lessons given by Hopkinson Smith. My dream to get a guitar with more strings got stronger. One day I walked to the Scola with Anders Miolin, who wanted to perform his concert program for me and one of my student colleagues. He played a ten-string guitar—and I was thrilled. I decided all at once, that in one way or another—after finishing my studies—I was going to get one! Ever since then (1998) I have played the decacorde as my first instrument.

One has to remember that everything written for a six-string guitar can also be played with a decacorde. So there is much to be played with a ten-string one! Obviously, music written for a lute or a decacorde brings forth all of the capabilities better, and definitely the lower registers of the instrument. That is the reason why I continuously collaborate with composers writing specifically for the decacorde.

When I think of the ten-string guitar I always remember Narcisco Yepes, one of its early proponents. Was he or any other guitarist from that time an inspiration to you?

I am not able to pinpoint one particular person who has had a major influence on my playing, not Yepes or any other. I have heard and seen many great musicians. I have also listened to lots of music, besides classical music. But I do remember a certain Julian Bream vinyl record, which my uncle sent me from Sweden in the 1980s: I was quite entranced by that recording. It got me to practice even harder.

Did you have to go through a period of adjustment when you were learning to play the decacorde? Is it more difficult to play a guitar with a substantially wider neck? For example, does the music ever call for a full barre? [The use of one finger to stop all the strings simultaneously.]

For some reason shifting to decacorde has been quite easy for me. Naturally, there were specific things to be studied, challenges and more to do for both hands. I have studied with specialized physiotherapists (who work with musicians) on how to take care of one’s body and overall ergonomic issues. This has helped a lot to become acquainted with the physical aspects of a bigger instrument. When it comes to a barre, every now and then one has to take a barre fingering of eight or a maximum of nine strings, but those are rather occasional. Different scordaturas [tunings] can also make playing easier.

In your album notes, you refer to “the completely novel touch” required by the instrument.

Playing without frets with the lowest bass strings brings a novel touch when one presses a string to the fretboard. The sound becomes gentler and at the same time increases the chances for more vibrato, microintervals, and glissandos. We developed a technique with luthier Mr. Kauko Liikanen as to how to find the correct notes from the fretless board. Instead of frets he made marks on the board, which naturally makes it easier to find the proper notes.

Was it you or Kauko Liikanen who wanted to design a guitar with fretless bass stings?

It was my idea. I commissioned this particular type of decacorde from Mr. Liikanen. He readily agreed to my request but asked me to sleep overnight before the final decision.

Did you collaborate with him in the design of the guitar?

I did, in a general way. Of course, he is a master lutier, but he had to think over a lot of details to get the decacorde to function at its best. I had the vision, which he realized.

When tuning for microtones, do you use any device to help you (I’m imagining something like the electronic aides used by piano tuners.)?

Naturally the new devices can be helpful. But if one trains one’s ears properly, they become used to strings that have been tuned a quartertone upper or lower.

Have you ever played a theorbo or the various lutes that have multiple courses of strings? If not, would you like to?

As I’ve said, I went in Basel to listen to the Hopkinson Smith’s lectures at the Scola Cantorum, and I even had the possibility to try some of the Baroque instruments. Despite the fact that there exist many beautiful guitars and lutes from that time, I realized that classical guitar is my instrument. I just need a few more strings.

To my mind, the decacorde’s freely vibrating lower strings, coupled with the seamlessly connected notes made possible by the fretless fingerboard, are particularly evocative in a piece like Koshkin’s Orpheo, and lend the music an aura of antiquity.

Nikita Koshkin composed the piece originally for the archlute. He wrote the version for decacorde for me in 2014. I do agree that he uses the low bass lines brilliantly, which create a strong ancient atmosphere. The work is deep, strong, cohesive, and gentle at the same time. I think it is one of the greatest of his compositions! It is more dramatic and profound, but still his unique compositional style is easily recognizable.

Speaking of style, it seems to me that many contemporary guitar compositions employ what I might call “modified” tonality, a sort of middle ground between traditional common practice and atonality.

It’s true that the sound of the guitar favors tonality which anchors itself to open string playing. However, there are limitless opportunities to write and perform atonal guitar music—if only the composers take notice of the particular techniques to be used in guitar music. E.g., in the upper registers, with the combinations between open and pressed strings it is possible to produce chromatically full-bodied and highly musical textures. Dodecaphony and post-serialism have produced a lot of guitar music. Many times, the problem has been that composers who compose on and know more about the piano do not know enough of the specific characteristics of the guitar. Especially in Finland, the result has been very little expressive guitar music and still less music for decacorde which takes full advantage of the requirements of the instrument. Policy—wise, it seems that in Finland dodecaphony and post-serialism have been challenged by composers focusing on neo-tonality. This is also one of the reasons why I have wanted to collaborate with “modern” composers, neo-classicists, post-modernists, microtonalists, and minimalists—but the ones who have the proper know-how to make the decacorde sound great.

The recording is quite resonant but not excessively so: was this in an attempt to highlight the guitar’s distinctive sonority?

The medieval church in Hauho, where all of my recordings have been done, is ideal for decacorde. The sound of the instrument is unique, more resonant, which we wanted to document. It is more than “just an ordinary guitar” with four additional strings.

Is there a movement afoot among guitarists to champion the decacorde?

There is a lot of enthusiasm towards the decacorde among guitarists—they love the sound and the extended range—but not too possess the dedication necessary to mastering it.

Have you performed Orfeo Amoroso’s program live? If so, how does the audience react?

Yes, I have played this repertoire in my concerts. People like that the music touches them. The audiences have given me positive feedback, which just shows that contemporary music can be expressive, ideal for the instruments to play, and affect the listeners deeply. People are generally very curious about my instrument and after the concerts they come to ask me questions and want to know more about decacorde.

I have the impression that contemporary music might have more of a following in Finland than in some other countries. Would there be any truth to that idea? Of course contemporary music has its devotees everywhere but it can be a rather arcane taste compared to the wider musical environment.

This issue tackles the quality and the quantity of music education. Contemporary music forms a moderate part in basic musical education in Finland, and in university studies it has a major role to play. The international success of Finnish contemporary music also nourishes this kind of change in education.

In a perhaps frivolous nod to Finnish musical taste, I remember reading of a craze for tango: Is that still the case?

Yes, the tango is here to stay! And it is different from the Argentinean mentality. It is an expression of “the Finnish Angst”, which resides deep down in our blood heritage. This manifests itself in the duality of Finnish tango music, in which there are two predominating melodic features. The prevalent descending fifths can be heard in folklore singing of the Kalevala [Finland’s national epic] as well as in Gregorian chant and Protestant liturgical music and hymns. Associating the descending fifth with the latter references conveys a feeling of anxiety. Conversely, despite its melancholy mood, the rising sixth, stemming from old Russian folk and popular music (which also strongly influenced 19th century Russian classical composers), serves as a counterweight for that anxiety. These two elements also live persistently in more recent Finnish folk songs and popular music, particularly in tango.

“My second decacorde disc is like a set of Orphean attributes: belief in the spellbinding power of music, courage to rush headlong into danger, to love contrasts, to act rationally yet at the same time to rely on intuition and spontaneous displays of emotion.”

I can see why you, as an adventurous musician, would identify with most of the “Orphean attributes” but I’m not sure how “to love contrasts” applies to Orpheus himself.

The myth tackles the polarities, life and death, love and the loss of it, gods and mortals, the all-encompassing divinity and the all-destructive mistake in the Reign of Death, in Manala. [Manala is the Finnish Underworld].

Before you go, tell me what performing means to you.

Playing the guitar is an inner urge for me, as much a part of me as being human. It is a joy to play the music that touches other humans, as well.