In the summers of 1916 and 1917, the young folk music researcher Armas Otto Väisänen travelled through the remote villages of Border Karelia with a phonograph and a small hollow kantele from a museum. He aimed to collect the laments, kantele tunes and shepherd’s songs that were so scarce in the archives at the time. The old kantele tradition connected with the ancient runosong culture was disappearing, and by bringing an old instrument, Väisänen gave those who didn’t even have a kantele of their own the opportunity to play what they could remember. Supplemented by a short trip to Olonets Karelia in 1919 and later meetings with some individual tradition-bearers, Väisänen made detailed observations about the scales used by kantele players, the old playing technique and, above all, the special aesthetics of the music within the ancient tradition.
The copies of the wax cylinders are kept in the archives of the Finnish Literature Society in Helsinki. They present many challenges to modern listeners as it was not possible to get the instrument close enough to the phonograph horn, and thus it was not able to record all of the highest and lowest sounds. Also, the extremely poor quality of the surviving copies and their short examples, mostly of the dance tunes of the time, don’t open up the hours-long trance-like improvisation described by Väisänen and other scholars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But they do provide insights for musicians seeking new ways of performing this ancient music.