Attitudes to the long-cherished folk tradition in Scandinavia are changing fast – with beautiful results, finds Andrew Mellor
The road of the pioneer is rarely a smooth one, and conductor Grete Pederson knows it. She’s recalling the time she first suggested members of the Norwegian Radio Orchestra adopt techniques from the folk tradition in certain vernacular-inspired repertoire. It didn’t go well. ‘What are you trying to do?’ some players asked her. ‘This is just rubbish’ protested others. And they weren’t the only ones.
You might get a feeling we’ve been here before – and we have, of course. Four decades ago, when musicians began to experiment with ‘authentic’ techniques in the performance of Baroque and Classical music, the approach was labelled bizarre and unmusical by some. What’s so exciting here is that this quiet revolution within the burgeoning niche of folk-inspired Nordic music – its performance and its composition – is developing before our ears and eyes. Pederson is commonly viewed as one of its bravest and most visionary exponents, and yet she and her colleagues are rarely cited in the press – or by the global musical community – for the significance of their work.
That might well change, if the staggering progress of her Norwegian Soloists’ Choir gets the recognition it deserves. White Night, their latest release on the Swedish label BIS (Amazon - and scan to page two of this article to hear an excerpt), sees technically superb professional singers throwing out the rulebook – opting-out of conventional western tuning principles, placing consonants wherever they feel like it and adopting a vocal tone that’s grainy, a touch nasal, and shot-through with true-sounding vowels. The result? Some of the most striking and moving singing put down on disc for years.
In a broad sense, it represents a flipping-round of folksong’s centuries-long role in Nordic music: composers including Grieg and Svendsen respected the folk tradition deeply but often felt the need to dignify its musical material by cultivating it in classical soil. The big change in the last two decades is a new willingness from Nordic musicians to view the music on its own terms – bearing classical sensibilities somewhere in mind, but not necessarily at the forefront. ‘It’s about seeking the actual folk tradition but not losing sight of your classical approach’, Pederson explains. ‘You have to have a willingness to experiment with the sound and timbre just like singers and players have done in Baroque music.’
If anything can prove how far the movement has come since those early days when Pederson grappled with the radio orchestra, it’s the record catalogue. A year before White Night, a disc on 2L from The Trondheim Soloists combined music by Grieg – including his string miniature In Folk Style (Amazon) – with two new orchestral concertos for folk-instrument soloists (one of them Gjermund Larsen, whose Hardanger Fiddle also weaves its way through White Night).
In one sense, it was nothing new: Johan Halvorsen’s incidental music for the troll-play Fossegrimen (1905) – just recorded anew by Chandos – places a Hardanger Fiddle soloist against a standard Romantic symphony orchestra (Presto). But while Halvorsen’s work is akin to painting a vernacular subject matter with classically schooled brushstrokes, the two new works on The Trondheim Soloists disc were conceived as unadulterated folk music – written for classical and folk musicians to play together in, to paraphrase Grieg, ‘the folk style’.