Norwegian folk music, polytonality, and lowering the divorce rate – part 1

Cellist Zoe Martlew tells us what happens when Norwegian Hardanger folk fiddler Nils Økland meets the London Sinfonietta in preparation for the first event at Written/Unwritten

Written/Unwritten with Nils Okland

(anticlockwise from left) Zoe Martlew, Sam Walton, Eniko Magyar, Nils Økland, Jonathan Morten and John Constable meet for the first time to collaborate for Written/Unwritten. Image © Briony Campbell

The words “Norwegian folk fiddler” for me immediately conjure up images of craggy old men with flowing white beards leading solitary lives in lonely log cabins by fjords, casting spells on mountain trolls and mist-bound elves with melodies of impossible sadness and antiquity. Cheerfully smashing this picture to smithereens, the youthful Hardanger fiddler Nils Økland burst into our rehearsal space at The Warehouse, full of twinkly humour, an immediately engaging and lively presence, delighted to share the art of his music with us assembled London Sinfonietta players.

He was carrying two Hardanger fiddles with him, custom made modern instruments with exquisitely wrought inlaid mother of pearl fingerboards, embellished wood carving on the body of the fiddle, 4 main strings with 4 sympathetic resonating strings underneath and enlarged f holes (compared to modern violins). He explained that each of the strings is made differently to produce a different timbre: one is wound gut, for example, another straight gut, and so on.  The reason for this became apparent as soon as he started playing.

Nils Okland introducing himself at the Written/Unwritten workshop

Nils and the Hardanger fiddle. Image © Briony Campbell


Each melody is played on the higher of two strings, the lower played simultaneously as a drone, with the sympathetic strings creating a haunting halo of resonance. The multi modal melodies are freely embellished and mostly un-tempered. By shifting to a new melody and drone on another two strings, the tonality and mood changes with the new string timbre. The result of these shifting melodies is a lilting polytonality accompanied by a regular left-right foot stomp “heart beat” that often seems to go against the melody. The polyrhythms and harmonic colour reminded me strongly of Stravinsky’s music, L’Histoire du Soldat in particular.

The fiddle has a specific tuning for each melody and Nils explained that there are many different scordatura (retunings) used – as many as 50 in some traditions. It’s relatively easy to retune the Hardanger fiddle as the tension on the strings is considerably less than that of the modern violin. Still it was impressive how often and how quickly he was able to retune for each piece, never once needing to refer to a central pitch or tuning fork, revealing the extraordinary aural skills that the Hardanger art demands.

Nils told us that the folk fiddle tradition had almost died out in Norway but is currently enjoying a revival. He has travelled around the country gathering old tunes from the old men in log cabins that do turn out to exist after all. So pure is this aural tradition, says Nils, that he came across one father and son duo arguing about 17th century ornamental performance practice as passed down by their great, great grandfathers. Eat your heart out Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Some of the tunes Nils plays he has learnt the modern way, over the phone, to avoid the more traditional method of travelling for miles on foot across the mountains to gather music. From all this material, Nils has also composed his own melodies, which have the same seductively mournful quality.

Our task is to collaborate with Nils to come up with an evening’s music both of our written repertoire, his improvised music, and something completely new combining both traditions. We string players immediately face the issue of whether to imitate the delicate sound of the Hardanger fiddle or stick with our own more sharply defined articulation and tone. We all try out his bows and marvel at their lightness and springiness. The one I tried felt as though it barely weighed a gram and certainly made imitating Nils’ style much easier. We have all had some experience playing baroque music, especially violinist Jonathan Morton who owns his own baroque bows and was rapidly able to improvise with the light bow strokes of the Hardanger style. After considerable discussion on the best approach to the overall string sound we decided that a blend of modern and ancient string technique would be more interesting, allowing room for variation between the two. Fuelling further discussion, Nils played us a delicate piece of his called Moths which was full of what we would call “extended techniques”: bow flutterings on the fingerboard, whispered sul pont murmurs, left hand glissandi, tremolos, and so on.  Suddenly we were more in Helmut Lachenmann than baroque performance territory. Our violist, Eniko Magyar, suggested she perform a movement of Ligeti’s solo viola sonata in the concert that uses many of the same sounds and nicely integrates our collective stylistic possibilities.

Another collaborative question to be tackled was that of equal temperament. Interestingly, many of the young Norwegian folk musicians have stopped using the microtones that to my ears make their music uniquely coloured. I remember being struck by the haunting beauty and virtuosity of un-tempered modal Norwegian singing in a bar in Bergen some years back. Even though our ensemble includes the tempered piano, the microtonal embellishments Nils uses in some melodies still seemed to work well alongside John Constable’s carefully chosen chord sequences on the piano. These issues are all part of our process of finding where contemporary music performance practice and folk music can happily meet and inform the other.

Keep an eye on the London Sinfonietta blog over the next few days, when we’ll post the second part of this two-part blog.

Click here to find out more about London Sinfonietta’s Written/Unwritten festival at Kings Place, and to view for more photos from this first collaborative workshop.

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