The Polymorphic Kantele
The kantele is a Finnish version of an ancient zither-like instrument, known generically as the Baltic psaltery. Traditionally the instrument holds a strong symbolic significance as a part of Finland’s national culture, and it has been given the status of national instrument.
However, according to present knowledge, there are many different ethnic groups in the Baltic, Black Sea and Volga area, West Siberia and Russia that play kantele related psaltery instruments, zithers or plucked lyres. In each area the instrument has developed somewhat differently containing a variety of forms, and thus also the Finnish kantele has personal features that distinguish it from other related psalteries.
Nowadays kantele seems to celebrate its new golden age in Finland: diverse historical layers with different playing techniques live side by side with the modern versions of the instrument. There are amazing amount of different possibilities and versions among the family of kantele instruments, including 5 to 15-string kanteles, various other traditional models with 19 to 36 strings, concert kanteles with 39 to 40 strings and electric kanteles, for example. And only imagination gives borders to the utilization of the kantele among various genres of music from folk and jazz to classical and metal music.
In search of the music – the instrument
One of the most important factors affecting the quality of the music is the instrument itself. The timbre and the sound properties searched for in modern types of kantele, to suit modern aesthetics of sound, differ substantially from those of old models. To be able to come closer to the inner core of the old music, and to be able to understand its aesthetics deeper, the musician needs to have the right kind of an instrument. Without the understanding of the properties of the instrument, understanding of the music will be incomplete. In addition to the structure, the wood and the way the instrument is made, the material of the strings is also relevant. The Finnish-Karelian small kanteles of the 19th century often had brass or bronze strings (in addition to iron or steel and mainly formerly used horse-hair), and some replicas with such string material have now been made with striking results.
Examining the kanteles in the Finnish museums, it becomes clear that although some common local or structural features can be found, every instrument is still an individual which has had its own individual voice. Because it isn´t possible to play the museum instruments, and because many of them are in quite bad condition, the only possibility for the hunter of the old timbre is to commission a replica.
As one result of the three year project begun in 2009 by the museum of Nurmes, a book called Kantele eläväksi (~ ‘kantele turned into a living instrument’) was published in 2011 (writers: Rauno Nieminen, Timo Väänänen, Meri-Anna Rossander and Kari Dahlblom). The kantele #1626 (introduced below) as an example, the book describes (in Finnish) how to research and measure the museum instruments, and how to make replicas. In the book KIZAVIRZI karjalaisesta kanteleperinteestä 1900-luvun alussa Rauno Nieminen describes (in Finnish) 23 Karelian kanteles from several Finnish museums with detailed measures and images. Because each replica is also an individual, it is the task of the musician to discover the special features and qualities of that particular instrument so that it can bring out its best.
Examples of some replicas
Two 5-String Kanteles from Viena Karelia and Northern Ostrobothnia
The top replica in the photo below was made by Rauno Nieminen in 2008 of the 5-string kantele made by a famous runo singer, Ontrei Malinen, in Vuonninen, Viena Karelia. The original kantele is at the moment in the possession of the National Board of the Antiquities and stored in Orimattila. In 1833 Elias Lönnrot traveled to Viena Karelia where he met Ontrei Malinen (1781–1856), who was in his opinion the best singer of his time. The year 1833 is also carved on the short side of the kantele. The solid piece of pinewood is hollowed out from below. The kantele is fairly big and heavy, weighing 782 g. (The replica is made of heat treated wood and so not quite as heavy). The top is fairly thin, only 3–5 mm. Though the ponsi may look small from the outside, there is a fair amount of wood left underneath. The black colour of the original kantele is achieved by smoking the replica in the smoke sauna. The bronze strings currently on the museum kantele are not original, but it is very probable that the strings were bronze or brass in the first place, so bronze strings were also fitted to the replica. I played this replica on the CD Vaskikantele 1833 (Arja Kastinen, 2008, AANIA-6). The timber is warm and rich, the vibration of the strings last long, and it is easy to feel the resonance in the body of the instrument. As common with the bronze string kanteles, this instrument is tuned about a fifth lower than modern 5-string kanteles usually are. At the moment the tonic is around A3 flat.
The second replica in the photo was made by Rauno Nieminen of the 5-string kantele from Northern Ostrobothnia made by H. Roponen in 1893. Probably A. O. Väisänen bought it, and now it belongs to the Folklife archives of the University of Tampere and is kept in Kaustinen. The kantele is hollowed out from below of a solid piece of aspen, and it is very light. The original instrument has steel strings, but it is possible that they are not the original ones. We have tried gut and horse-hair strings but the sound and practicality were not as desired. At the moment the instrument has viscose strings, which sound like horse-hair but their tuning is more reliable. (Juhana Nyrhinen bought the viscose thread from the Native Americans of Canada.) The sound of these two 5-string kanteles can be heard at: http://youtu.be/xU1V8Y9jeIY
The 12-String Kantele Bought from Iivana Shemeikka in 1906
This replica was made by Rauno Nieminen of the 12-string kantele, bought by the museum of Perniö in 1906 from the kantele player Iivana Shemeikka. The solid piece of pinewood is hollowed out from the upper side, and the separate cover is fastened with small nails. The original instrument didn’t have strings even when it was bought, but there are a few small pieces of brass wire around the metal bar. The book in the museum reads: “From the famous runo singer Shemeikka bought by K. F. Kaarlonen in Kuopio. It is missing strings, and Sh. had warned about putting them on, because the sound will become excessively sweet, and the whole creation will come and listen.” The replica was completed in the summer of 2011. It had brass strings of which I changed some to bronze as an experiment. The sound of the low strings was quite rich already at the beginning, but the high strings didn’t open up and felt kind of stuffy. At first I tuned this kantele according to Ivan Trofimoff (Vanja Tallas): the lowest string an octave below the second of the scale, the next the fifth below the tonic (fifth scale degree), and from there the scale ascending diatonically. Thus the tonic was the fifth longest string, and it was tuned around C4: http://youtu.be/3qb6ws8CZsk During the spring 2012 I changed the middle area and the high strings into the cryogenically treated phosphor bronze by Brian Godden, Australia. Then I started to raise the pitch slowly to see if the sound of the high strings would open. I raised the pitch until the high strings started to break (around E5 flat), but the sound quality didn’t emerge as hoped. In July 2012 I lowered the tuning by ear into the pitch that sounded good for me, and tuned a scale that would go together with my 15-string kantele. On the third highest string I changed the Red Brass from Malcolm Rose, England, and surprisingly the sound quality wasn’t at least any worse than with the previous materials. After trying different playing techniques and sounds, this is what came out: Searching Perniö. In December 2012 I changed the third highest string into a little thinner bronze wire (0.016 in) from Lars Jacobsen (Rain City Music) and during the autumn 2013 I lowered the tuning to A4=438 Hz. The current timbre feels pleasant and soft, and together with the 15-string kantele the resonance sounds like this: Kekri
The kantele K1855:12 of the National Museum
The National Museum’s kantele K1855:12 is one of the instruments acquired during the fourth and most extensive collecting trip of the folk poetry and melody collector and researcher Axel August Borenius (1846-1931) in 1877. Detailed information in Finnish and pictures of the museum kantele can be found here. According to the National Museum’s database, the kantele was bought on 19 October 1877 in Kuuksenvaara, Ilomantsi, from “old man Niilo” (Niilo Suihko), and the kantele was made by a man from the village of Kuikka in Ruskeala in 1860. The copy shown above was made by the instrument maker Jouni Kurki in 2021. I have tuned it to several different pitches and tried different scales. The relatively close spacing of the strings makes it technically challenging to play. The sound of course varies with changes in tuning, but overall it is quite different from, for example, the dark and deep sound of Ontrei Malinen’s 5-string vaskikantele. The first sound sample can be heard in the video The First Touch. Slightly different sounds can be heard on tracks 1, 6, 8 and 10 of the album KANTERVO released on 5 November 2023.
The 12-String Kantele #1626 in the Museum of Nurmes
This replica was made by Rauno Nieminen of the 12-string kantele number 1626 in the museum of Nurmes. The aforementioned book, Kantele eläväksi, contains the description of making this replica. The museum kantele has steel strings that resemble guitar strings, some of them overwound, which means that they are not original. The string lengths match surprisingly well those of the previous Perniö kantele (the length of the shortest string is exactly the same). The replica has now brass strings. The kantele lacks the ponsi and the varras (metal bar) that are typical features of the Finnish-Karelian kanteles. The strings go over the thin inlaid metal batten and are anchored to the small nails or pins at the end of the instrument (- Lönnrot often used this method in his own kantele models). The timber was something of a surprise, and very different for example from the Ontrei Malinen kantele. The strings don’t sustain as long and the sound is straighter, not containing the typical beat (which is explaned later in the tuning section of this article). The replica was completed in spring 2011, and in June 2011 it sounded like this: http://youtu.be/d-CzDGZWzI4. I tuned the instrument in the way of some Karelian kantele players and with the same principle as the following Korpiselkä kantele: the lowest string is an octave below the tonic, the next string is the fifth scale degree, and from there the scale ascends diatonically. Thus the tonic is the fifth longest string, and while in my hands, the tonic was about C4 . After about one year and together with the 14-string Korpiselkä kantele the timbre was like this: Odd civilization
The 14-String Korpiselkä Kantele
This replica was made by Rauno Nieminen of a 14-string kantele, which was bought, probably by A. O. Väisänen, in 1916 from the village of Ägläjärvi in Korpiselkä (- this instrument is introduced in the KIZAVIRZI -book on the pages 284–287). The original instrument is stored in Orimattila by the National Board of Antiquities. The replica was completed in 1999, and it has 0,35 mm steel strings like the original one. It turned out later that the strings have been renewed in the museum, but because the model of the kantele is not so old but from the late 19th century, it is possible that the original strings were also made of iron or steel. The round end and the sides are bent from one piece of a pine board. The top and bottom plates are made of birch. The original kantele had metal tuning pegs forged by a smith. To ensure usability, the replica is provided with modern tuning pegs and pins. The structure is light and the sound is bright. It is assumed that Karelian kanteleplayers got the idea to build this kind of a new model after they had seen Kreeta Haapasalo’s performances with her Perhonjokilaakso kantele. In the Karelia area this type has been used by, for example, Trohkima Shemeikka and Jeyssei Pyy from Korpiselkä, Stepan Jänis from Suistamo, and Iivana Bogdanoff and Jehki Mujunen from Läskelä. The sound of the replica can be heard at: http://youtu.be/IMgAX2krPPs I have tuned this instrument as, for example, Iivana Shemeikka and Iivana Bognadoff tuned their kanteles: the lowest string is an octave below the tonic, the next is the fifth, and from there the scale ascends diatonically. Thus the tonic is the fifth longest string. Because of the thin string gauge, I’ve usually tuned the tonic to around F4, where the resonance seems to work best.
The 15-String Kantele Made by Keijo Säteri
This 15-string kantele, made by Keijo Säteri, is a modified copy of the Korpiselkä kantele introduced further up the page. The box is made of pine and the top plate of spruce. The round end is bent from pine plies. The structure is stronger than the original – for example under the top plate there are support struts, which aren’t the feature of the original – and the space between the strings is a little larger, plus there is one more string. The string diameters are optimized and thus the overall tension is greater than on the 14-string replica. The kantele was completed in 1992, and in 1995 I played my first solo album on it (IRO, MIPUCD401). This instrument was also the subject of the acoustical research for my Doctor of Music examination in 2000 (Erään 15-kielisen kanteleen akustisesta tutkimuksesta, Sibelius-Akatemian kansanmusiikin osaston julkaisuja 5, 2000). Later in this article I will say more about the results of that research. The sound of the instrument is strong, amazingly versatile and colorful. The strong structure also makes it possible to use many different playing techniques. I’ve tuned the instrument so that the lowest string is the fifth scale degree, with the diatonic scale ascending from there. The tonic (the fourth longest string) is usually tuned to (around) E4 flat. The sound can be heard for instance at: http://soundcloud.com/arja-kastinen/impro-22-1-2012
Strings – a.k.a. Adventuring the mysterious world of “vaski”
The word “vaski” is the oldest name for metal in the Uralic languages. Originally it probably meant copper, but subsequently the word has also meant bronze and brass (in some of the Uralic languages the counterparts of the word mean iron). Bronze principally signifies a copper alloy with tin as the main additive, and brass an alloy of copper and zinc. Thus, with the word “vaskikantele” people have referred to kanteles that have copper alloy strings.
In his thesis “Dissertatio de Poësi Fennica”, Henrik Gabriel Porthan wrote in 1778 about kantele: “..Finnish people have altogether three kinds of instruments in use: first so called kantele [Kandele], which has five strings that used to be made of horse-hair, but nowadays of brass, and they are plucked with fingers..” A. A. Borenius mentiones several times the kantele with vaski strings in his collecting trip notes from 1877. A. O. Väisänen wrote about kantele strings in his book “Kantele- ja jouhikkosävelmiä” (1928): “In the oldest kanteles we know, the material for the strings is vaski wire (from that comes the ‘vaskikantele’): later steel wire is utilised. Also the folkpoems’ descriptions about horse-hair or maiden-hair strings may be founded on reality.” In addition, studying the kanteles stored at Finnish museums strengthens the thought of “vaski” wire as the main string material on Finnish-Karelian hollow kanteles during the 19th century and earlier.
It is known that during the 19th century Finnish kanteleplayers made strings from hare-trap’s brass tripwire. The wire was made thinner by pulling it through an iron plate with ever-smaller holes. First the wire was made more resilient by heating it in fire and then cooling in cold water. It was said that this kind of treatment makes iron and steel harder, but brass more resilient. After that the wire was greased with tallow, and the end of the wire was trimmed with a file until it fitted through the next, smaller hole, through which it then was pulled.
In archaeological excavations in ancient hillfort of Paasonvuori, Sortavala, this kind of a wire-pulling plate, made of iron, was found in 1978–1980 by Svetlana Ivanovna Kočkurkina. It was made of a piece of a scythe blade, and according to Kočkurkina dates from the 12th or 13th centuries. [S. I. Kočkurkina: Muinaiskarjalan kaivaukset. Snellman-Instituutti. Arkistojulkaisu 3. Kuopio 1995.] So far, we don’t have any information about kantele strings from that period of time, but spirals made of bronze and copper wire were used to ornament women’s aprons and cloaks. Several smithys with their tools and implements, and the finds of casting moulds point to the local Karelian manufacture of metal artefacts.
In autumn 2011 I received three 19th century kantele string samples from the museum of North Karelia. In addition, Rauno Nieminen sent me two samples from Timo Lipitsä’s (1858–1950) kantele, which is probably made during the late 19th century, as well. The samples were sent to the Department of Materials Science at the University of Tampere. To be able to make comparisons, I also included one sample of 20th century bronze wire (the type I use at the moment in the replica of the Ontrei Malinen’s 5-string kantele, and which Rauno had bought from the estate of a former sitar builder in Finland), and two present-day samples: Malcolm Rose’s English Brass, and bronze wire from Lars Jacobsen (Rain City Music). During 2012 I received two more 19th century samples from the Museum of South Karelia and one from the Museum of Satakunta. Under the guidance of Development Manager Antti Hynnä, the samples were analyzed with the EDS-analyzer. (By clicking the image you will see it larger. The exact results are published in the book KIZAVIRZI on the pages 277–279.)
The results showed that one sample from the museum of North Karelia (Sample #1) was iron (+ small amounts of aluminum, copper and manganese) and two other (Samples #2 and 3) were brass (copper and zinc + small amounts of lead and silicon). The kantele with iron strings was originally from Olonets Karelia, and the two brass string kanteles were from Suistamo. The two samples from the Timo Lipitsä’s kantele (Samples #4 and 5) were also brass; the other had the same composition as the brass mentioned before, and the other contained also a small amount of aluminum. The wire that I now have in the Ontrei Malinen 5-string kantele (Sample #6) is bronze: copper and tin + small amounts of aluminum and silicon. Malcom Rose’s English brass (Sample #7) consists of copper and zinc + small amounts of silicon, iron and aluminum. The wire from Lars Jacobsen was pure bronze (Sample #8), just copper with tin. The samples from the museums of Satakunta (Sample #9, the kantele originated from Suistamo, late 19th century) and South Karelia (Samples #10 and 11, kanteles originated from the former Käkisalmi museum, late 19th century) were brass (copper + zinc).
Andres Peekna PhD (Wisconsin, USA) has researched the acoustics of carved Baltic Psalteries from Estonia. [See p. 99–122 in the book The Science of String Instruments, ed. by Thomas D. Rossing, Springer, 2010.] Instead of trying to find out what the old carved Baltic Psalteries might have sounded like, he decided to use the strongest available modern copper string material in his replicas, beryllium copper wire. In his research, he has come to the conclusion that beryllium copper is the best because of its sound quality and durability. I haven’t tried the beryllium copper wire yet, but among modern wires, I have bought the cryogenically treated phosphor bronze from Brian Godden, Australia. So far that wire has been a small dissapointment; the sound quality and durablity haven’t been as good as expected. The bronze wire that I now have on my replica of Ontrei Malinen’s kantele, and with which I am very content, I haven’t been able to find in the market so far.
The many ”vaski” wires that I have tried have shown quite big differences in quality. In some of them the durability has been weak, or the timbre hasn’t been as hoped. A lot of different copper string material is available nowadays, but the one matching the old or desired material may not be found anymore. In the search for timbre, one has to make clear to oneself to which extent it will be possible to restore the old sound, and which experiments just contribute the ongoing discovery in the world of timbres.
Tuning – a.k.a. Adventuring the varying world of interval relationships
How would it be possible to achieve the mode of the quiet enthusiasm (see: Research) in which the player and the instrument are resonating as one? As a result of many alternating elements the happening seems to be as nonlinear as the acoustical behavior of the kantele itself. Each small kantele (5–15 -strings) has its own special features and particularly well the spectrum of varieties can be seen in the museum kanteles and their replicas. Thus, the music is born from a meeting of two individuals – a player and an instrument – the interaction having an impact on both directions. Different individuals hear different things and pay attention to different aspects in music. Listening to music is always a subjective experience which is influenced by the space (the room acoustics), the state of mind, education, age, and cultural background, for example. To elicit the timbre one is looking for, one has to study the qualities of the instrument, and search for the pitch and the interval relationships where the whole body of the instrument and the player are resonating at their best in each moment.
Modern, serial production small kanteles are generally built in a way that the tonic is meant to be tuned in about D4 (- around a semitone or a tone alterations in pitch are usually easily reached). This is often not the case with the individually built kanteles and particularly not with the museum kantele replicas. The information about the suitable or ideal pitch for each kantele can be enquired from the maker of the instrument. Fine tuning is left on the shoulders of the player.
According to the manuscripts, the Karelian kanteleplayers of the late 19th and early 20th century tuned their instruments often with fifths, fourths and octaves. In 1917 A. O. Väisänen wrote down the following example of tuning from the kanteleplayer Teppana Jänis (1854–1921) from Suistamo (by clicking the image you will see it larger) [the original manuscript is kept at the Folklore Archives of the Finnish Literature Society in Helsinki, new transcription by Arja Kastinen]:
At the time when Väisänen was recording this information, Teppana Jänis didn’t have a self made, but a bought kantele in bad condition. According to Väisänen, in reality the tonic was tuned three semitones lower than it was written in the manuscript, and was thus around B3. As several other Karelian kanteleplayers of the time, Jänis didn’t tune the 7th scale degree on the high strings at all, but moved from the 6th scale tone directly to the octave of the tonic. On the low strings he tuned the 7th scale degree without the help of interval comparison, and thus, according to Väisänen, it was alternating between sharp and flat (in which case the scale turned from a major scale into a Mixolydian mode). According to Väisänen’s manuscripts, at the beginning of the 20th century most of the old Karelian kanteleplayers tuned the tonic either on the fourth or on the fifth longest string, and the pitch of the tonic alternated between B3 flat and E4 flat. Usually the lowest string was either the fifth below the tonic, and from there the scale ascending diatonically, or the octave below the tonic (or the octave below the second of the scale) after which the fifth of the scale and the scale ascending diatonically again. Often the scale was a major or a mode like Mixolydian or Lydian. Some players tuned neutral third and/or neutral sixth scale degrees. Several other scales were in use, as well.
In kanteles with more than 8 strings the tuning is always some kind of a compromise
Nowadays commonly used Equal Temperament is not a good choice on small kanteles if the goal is to achieve the best possible timbre. On the 5-string kanteles the fifth and the fourths can be tuned pure (according to the Just Intonation). In the old days the middle string used to be tuned in major, minor or neutral third. (Note that the small kantele music lived hundreds of years side by side with the runolaulu, runo-song, as a part of the ancient aural music culture, in which the singer was able to alter the height of the 3rd and 6th scale degrees during a performance.) On the 5-string kanteles the major or minor third can be tuned according (or closer) to the thirds found on the harmonic series (the fourth, fifth and sixth harmonics) as they are in the just intonation. (According to the just intonation the major third is 14 cents shorter and the minor third is 16 cents wider than the corresponding thirds in the equal temperament.)
In kanteles with more than 8 strings all intervals can not be tuned pure, instead the tuning is always some kind of a compromise. If, for example, on a 10-string kantele all fifths are tuned pure, the result will be a Pythagorean scale, in which the major thirds are 22 cents too wide and the minor thirds 22 cents too short compared to the just diatonic scale, and the overall sound is not pleasant. This means that some of the fifths have to be shortened – which fifths and how much, depends on the music and on the wanted scale. The fifths regarded as important ones are tuned pure, and the other, not so important fifths, are shortened as required by the music in question. In the manuscripts by Väisänen the neutral third can be found from one player with the 10-string kantele, and the neutral third plus the neutral sixth from another player with a little bigger kantele.
Especially with the bigger kanteles also the inharmonicity caused by the string material has to be taken into account while tuning. Some stiffness is part of the quality of any musical instrument string, and this feature causes the progressive sharpening of the partials (compared to the harmonic series) as the mode number increases. The greater the stiffness, the greater the sharpening will be. This means that the octaves have to be tuned a little wider than pure. Depending on the thickness of the string on the overwound bass strings, the amount of deflection is more or less about 10 cents. In small kanteles without the overwound strings, the need of widening the octaves is usually only about 1-2 cents. If the amount of inharmonicity is not too great (that is, if the partials of the string are not too far from the partials of the harmonic series), it is said to bring a positive effect on the timber of the instrument, sometimes being described as “warmth” in the sound. [Murray Campbell and Clive Greated: The Musician’s Guide to Acoustics”. 1987.]
A typical and important character in the sound of small kanteles is the strong beating of harmonics, which is caused by the knotted termination of the string at the metal bar or the pin, and from there the direct connection to the tuning peg at the opposite side. As a result from plucking, the string starts to vibrate both in horizontal and vertical directions (in the end the vibration is more like orbicular – vibration to all directions). These two directions of vibration give two different vibrating lengths on the string: the vertical vibration has the termination at the knot, and the horizontal vibration at the contact point to the metal bar or the pin. As a result, the vibrating length of the string is alternating about 0,1–0,2 % between different directions of vibration. Thus the beating is caused by the frequency difference between these two summed up vibrating lengths. [Karjalainen, Matti – Backman, Juha – Pölkki, Jyrki 1993: Analysis, Modeling, and Real-time Sound Synthesis of the Kantele, A Traditional Finnish String Instrument. Proc. Int. Conf. on Acoustics, Audio and Signal Processing (ICAASP 1993), vol. 1 Minneapolis, USA.] As the string length grows in bigger kanteles, the relative difference between the two vibrating lengths becomes so small that it can’t result in the strong beating of sound. [Kastinen, Arja 2000: Erään 15-kielisen kanteleen akustisesta tutkimuksesta. Sibelius Academy, Folk Music Department.] The beating makes the process of tuning a little bit more difficult, but on the other hand it also has the tendency of covering the problems in the fine tuning.
After the complex interaction the harmonic series of the resulting sound is not the same as the harmonic series of the original string
In small kanteles, in which the sound is produced by plucking the strings upwards, and they are not supposed to be stopped during playing, the resonance and the sympathetic vibration have an important effect on the total timber of the instrument. Thus, it is not reasonable to examine the tuning of one string at a time only. When the string of a kantele is plucked, the vibrations proceed through the tuning peg and the pin (or the metal bar) into the sound box and the enclosed air. After the complex interaction the harmonic series of the resulting sound is not the same as the harmonic series of the original string. The factors affecting the perceived sound are: the properties of the instrument – like the structure of the sound box and the way the strings are coupled with it – and the room acoustics, and also the way the player touches the string. Even the small changes in the touch will have an effect on the resulting vibration of the string and thus also on the total timber of the instrument. Because of the sympathetic vibration, the partials of the other strings with the corresponding frequencies start to vibrate along, and after a while they in turn strengthen the partials of the originally plucked string. Considering the quality of the sound, the most important part of the instrument is the top plate. Its resonance qualities and vibrational modes define to a great extent the quality of the instrument. The sound box and the enclosed air space have their meaning in inducing the so called Helmholtz resonance, though, which strengthens the lower partials of the sound. This means that kanteles with open back (no back plate) usually have the timber with stronger high partials than the kanteles with the back plate. Which timber is considered better in each situation, is again a sum of many varying components, from which the personal preferences of an individual are not the slightest ones.
In addition to the previously mentioned beating in the sound, also the fact that at the very beginning of the pluck the pitch rises somewhat, brings difficulties into tuning. The rise of pitch can be heard especially well in the older models of kantele, where the tension of the strings is not as high as in modern instruments. The stronger the pluck the greater will be the rise in the pitch. Also the amplitude rises sharply in the beginning and after the transient it starts to decay gradually. Compared to the bowed instruments, for example, the sound produced by plucked instruments therefore doesn’t contain any steady state at all. Because of the resonance and the sympathetic vibration, the decay of the sound is slow in the kanteles, though.
There is no such thing as the one and only correct tuning for the small kanteles
As a conclusion to all this, it is quite easy to state that there is no such thing as the one and only correct tuning for the small kanteles. There are different options, from which the player has to choose and try to find the proper one for each situation. The facts that may affect the choice can be the properties of the instrument in use, the music one is about to play, and if it is about one’s own music and improvisations, then also the mood and feelings of the player. Naturally it is easier to look for a certain timber if there is something to compare with, or the player already is experienced in different possibilities and timbres of kantele. Trained ear is able to hear the stuffy and other undesirable features in the sound. On the other hand, many of those different features can be regarded as personal matters of taste, as well. Maybe it would be the safest just to ask oneself, what am I actually looking for when tuning? For my part, I can say that I’m listening to things that react on my sensations – also physical ones, that is: I’m looking for the timber in which the whole body of the instrument is resonating in a way that I can feel it. The resulting sound is bright (which can also be dark), free and rich. Finally, especially in this genre of music, the Karelian small kantele music from the 19th century and earlier, the best way of tuning the instrument seems to be the way it has always been done, and that is to trust on the aural evaluation and the instinct of the kanteleplayer.