Kokle and Kokle Playing

Kokle is the most admired Latvian musical instrument today. Kokles are associated with the oldest, most studied tradition playing styles, but also with great innovation and creativity. There are grounds for believing that kokle playing was ritualistic by nature, and the instrument has some symbolic elements that associate it with mourning the dead and perceptions about the journeys of souls. Mythologically, the kokle is associated with  the singing, “soul-inhabited” tree (the kokle was traditionally carved of wood). Mythologically, kokle, or “the golden kokle” is associated with the heavenly spheres and occupies the highest point in the hierarchy of instruments. People’s memory holds a perception that “the kokle is from God”. Modern kokle is a widely used and noted part of folk music heritage, a symbol of the spirit of folk singing. Although similar tools are known throughout Eastern Europe, from Prussian lands to Central Finland and Karelia, it has not discouraged the perception that the kokle expresses the unique Latvian identity.

Kokle tradition is believed to be more than two thousand years old. The oldest Latvian archaeological discovery related to the kokle comes from the 13th century, the first written testimony from the early 17th century, but the oldest physical instrument − the so-called Cours lute, held at the Latvian National History Museum, goes back to the year 1710 (that year is carved on the bottom), when it became the property of Bokums family from Kurzeme.

Testimonies about kokle music are more recent: the first known tune was notated in 1891, but the first recordings and motion picture soundtracks are from the 1930s. The currently popular Kurzeme kokle repertoire consists of instrumental pieces, called “Dances”, and song accompaniment. In Latgale the kokle repertoire includes songs and dance tunes along with an accompaniment of holy (spiritual) songs.

At the turn of the century, Latvian traditions of kokle playing were mostly lost and ancient instruments could be heard only in certain places in Kurzeme and Latgale. The revival is associated with the folklore movement of the 1970s and 1980s turned the spotlight onto the most ancient instruments untouched by modernization, including the kokle. Its known repertoire, as well as the living kokle playing tradition, as saved, for instance, by the Suiti kokle player John Poriķis, provided the basis for the renewal of this tradition. No less important to its revival were the musical possibilities the instrument presented. Above all, the kokle is an instrument that allows for great freedom. It can produce a gentle, sweet sound, but may also be disturbing and vehement. The number of kokle strings is just right, about the count of fingers of both hands. The basic number of tones is just as large, but they can be colored in many ways. Also kokle strings are considered free, because, unlike other stringed instruments − violins, guitars − the sound is not dampened by a bridge, which would directly connect them to the resonator. The kokle is a soulful instrument. It opens up best in silence, when the only listener is the player. The kokle responds to a variety of moods, it can express both excitement and melancholy. Kokle harmonics, consisting of less than a dozen tones limits and directs the range of feelings, excluding excess and helping to focus on one particular emotion.

Valdis Muktupāvels

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Valdis Muktupāvels par koklēm un koklēšanu Latvijas kultūras kanonā, 2008.

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Krasnopjorovs, Sergejs. (1951). Kokles skola. Rīga: Latvijas Valsts izdevniecība.

(Latvian) Kokles solo. (1995). No: Lettonie: musiques des rutes solaires [CD]. Izpilda ansamblis „Rasa”. Francija: Indedit. Latvijas Nacionālās bibliotēkas Audiovizuālais krājums, Fcd/1253 (pieejams LNB tīklā)

Kokles spēle (Alsunga); Kokles spēle (Rikava). (1986). No: Latvijas PSR muzikālā folklora [skaņu ieraksts] = The Latvian SSR musical folklore = Музыкальный фольклор Латвийской ССР [skaņuplate]. [Rīga]: Мелодия. Latvijas Nacionālās bibliotēkas Audiovizuālais krājums, F-3/3613