Born in Los Angeles in 1956, Björkenheim has spent much of his life shuttling between New York and Helsinki. Descended from a family of musicians, Raoul first tried his hand at playing violin, trading that in for a trumpet before finally settling on the guitar. Having played in rock bands as a teenager, he studied first at the Helsinki Conservatory, then at the Berklee College of Music in Boston before moving back to Helsinki in 1981.Since then he has been an active member of many music scenes, developing a bold approach to playing electric guitar and composing eclectic music for big bands, symphony orchestras, films, modern dance companies and his own groups.
Björkenheim formed several bands upon his return to Helsinki, most importantly Arbuusi, Roommushklahn and Symbioosi, and in 1983, he met the guru of finnish free jazz, Edward Vesala. This led to an intense four-year apprenticeship in Vesala’s group “Sound and Fury”, a master’s class in improvisation. In 1987 Björkenheim formed what was to be one of his major groups, Krakatau.
Several influential recordings for ECM with Vesala and Krakatau brought Björkenheim to the attention of the international community, leading to encounters with musicians such as Juhani Aaltonen, Bill Laswell, Anthony Braxton, Reggie Workman, Andrew Cyrille, Mats Gustafsson, Henry Kaiser, Elliot Sharp, Paal Nilssen-Love, and Lukas Ligeti.
Björkenheim has been a soloist with the Helsinki Symphony Orchestra, the Avanti Chamber Orchestra, the Radio Symphony Orchestra, the UMO big band and the Tampere philharmonic, with material ranging from Rachmaninov’s “Vocalise” to Turnage’s “Blood on the Floor”, as well as his own concerto “Situations”. Most recently he recorded Arnhem’s “Signals” with the accordionist Frode Haltli.
Today Björkenheim’s main performing energies are focused on the Scorch Trio, the quartet Ecstasy, the trio with Hamid Drake and William Parker, Blixt with Bill Laswell and Morgan Ågren, and solo guitar.
Björkenheim has been awarded the Georgie Prize for best jazz musician of the year, the Young Finland Award, the Emma prize (finnish grammy) for best jazz recording of the year, and been nominated three times for the Nordic Music Award.
What do you remember about your first guitar?
My first guitar, a sunburst steel string acoustic, could have been used as a cheese cutter, the strings were so high off the fingerboard! It cost 25$ at a small store in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and I learned to play my first chords on it, the very first piece being the Band's "Long Black Veil".
Which was the first record you bought with your own money?
My first record was Jethro Tull's "Stand Up", which I got in 1970.
What do you expect from music?
I try not to expect anything in particular from music, prefer to let it surprise me, and I like music for so many reasons that there's no logic to it. I can listen to Abba and then to Messiaen, then Coltrane and Beck, then Hariprasad Chaurasia and Led Zeppelin...see what I mean? I'd have to answer like Ellington: I like GOOD music.
Which work of your own are you most proud of?
I'm most proud of the newest CD just being released on Cuneiform, called "eCsTaSy". But I'm proud of all of my CDs, and I have had the luxury to NOT release anything I wasn't happy with. I have a special spot in my heart for my first Krakatau LP, "Ritual", which is mainly an emotional one.
What's the importance of technique in music, in your opinion?
Technique only needs to be good enough to express one's chosen music, whatever that may be. I mean, Dylan's guitar playing on his early records wouldn't perhaps be classified as terribly technical, but it's perfect!
One of my favorite records is Coltrane's "Interstellar Space", and the visceral emotion on that record would be impossible to achieve without an amazing technique, so I spend a lot of time with a guitar in my hands. I love african rhythms, and the polyrhythms in that music demand a very clear control. Since I'm a rhythm freak, as well as a color freak, technique is indeed important, as it urges me to focus very intensely. But I love a lot of music that doesn't highlight technique, for example the Shaggs "Philosophy of the World", so it's no guarantee for quality.
What quality do you admire most in a musician?
I want to be drawn into music, to close my eyes and travel somewhere, so the things I most admire in a musician is that he/she has an imagination, ways of making inner ideas sound out loud and a solid sense of purpose. It could also be called expression.
What’s the difference between a good guitar and a bad guitar?
There are many ways in which a guitar could be called "good", but mainly it should suit the music you're trying to play. In general terms, a good guitar will play very easily and resonate well, will stay in tune and be well adjusted for intonation. A bad guitar will sound dull and boxy, with no sustain and no tone. It won't stay in tune, and no chords sound good on it.
What are the challenges and benefits of today's digital music scene?
Digital technology makes it ridiculously easy to record music, so the main challenge is to remain critical and not release everything just because you can. I started making records when you had to buy four 2" reels of tape for 16-track recordings, so when you were in the studio, you really had to make the takes count. So many records are being released because of the digital advantage, but I'd prefer to release three really super good cds than twelve mediocre ones.
From the point of view of the listener, it's of course amazing that anyone in the world can go online and listen to any music I want to put out there, thanks to it being digitalized. I also write music using software, which allows me to spend a lot of time trying things out at home, a great educational benefit.
Define the sound you're still looking for.
Not the sound, but the "sounds"...I love acoustic guitar and have spent much of my time working on good tone. Polyphonic music sounds great on an acoustic, so one of the sounds I'm working on is really one that necessitates an almost pianistic technique, being able to play two-three separate melodic lines at the same time. Tapping, two-handed tapping etc are helpful.
On electric, each guitar offers a huge amount of very different colors, my Strat plays things that my Les Paul couldn't do so well.
I'm a pedal slave, so I keep trying out different combinations/orderings of them, and that's very inspiring.
Paul Schütze - Keyboards + Tapes, Raoul Björkenheim - Guitar, T. Kondo - Trumpet, Alex Buess - Bass Clarinet, Bill Laswell - Bass, D. Wachtelaer - Drums
What's your preferred device in the sound chain?
The combination of guitar and amp is the most important factor for me. Recently I've learned to use compressors to fatten up the tone. My Ernie Ball volume pedal, which is very smooth, is in use all the time shaping dynamics, aiming to make the guitar sound as vocal as possible.
Mars Williams, Raoul Bjørkenheim, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Frank Rosaly
One thing do you have learned with effort in the guitar...
The hardest thing that I've learned on my guitar is patience, knowing that some things must be done little by little over a long period of time to really "learn" them and without hurry.
What dead artist would you like to have collaborated with?
I'm afraid it would be quite hard to collaborate with a dead artist.
What’s your next project about?
I've been working for years on a solo guitar album, which will be my next completed project. I could have made quite a few improvised solo records during the past years, but I prefer to record composed pieces with complex lines, complex harmonies, something more thought-out. My working title for this has been "impossible guitar", but the album will be called "Cabin Fever".
This year I also plan to record with my new trio called Triad, and another record with Mats Gustafsson and Morgan Ågren.