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’.
It means, in the case of Emilia Amper’s Suite for Nyckelharpa and String Orchestra, very particular and attractive ingredients: melodic bass lines prone to chromatic alteration; a tuning temperament that scrunches those chromatics irresistibly up against each other; and a particular movement of the bow on the string which creates a light, plain tone that doesn’t overtly bend across the note (similar, in fact, to that produced by a Hardanger Fiddle). Here and in much of the music on White Night, musicians indulge in individual touches of ornamentation – sometimes even shunting passing notes in the bass up a semi-tone to create ‘diminished’ chords that oil the harmonic wheels.
This individualism of spirit – always a stringent fuel to Nordic creativity – is at the heart of Norwegian folk music’s steady emancipation in recent years, both in terms of musical technique and the wider issues of leadership and influence. When you try to analyse just why the music on White Night sounds so strangely, honestly human, it’s best to do so in non-musical terms. ‘You have to get out of this black-and-white concept of tonality’, says Pederson. ‘It’s just a personal decision about how to tune or phrase something: hymns in Norway were often sung to individual inclination, with idiosyncrasies in ornamentation, intonation and rhythm.’
Of equal significance, then, is the effect of these new approaches on small-c ‘classical’ repertoire – vernacular-inspired or not. Both ensembles mentioned focus most of the time on standard fare: Brahms and Duruflé choral music; Mozart and Tchaikovsky serenades. When Pederson’s choir recorded choral works by Grieg in 2007 and threw in some of those experimental techniques further developed on White Night, the effects were striking: a desperate, plain melancholy injected into Grieg’s psalms; a sighing, heaving strength in the way the singers moved and ornamented together. ‘Grete, you mustn’t do this…it’s disturbing the voice’ Pederson was told by colleagues. ‘I just ignored them – I said, let’s just do it,’ she laughs now.
Just when these stylistic developments seem localised by their very origins, artistic director of The Trondheim Soloists Øyvind Gimse points to the wider cultural and even economic thrust behind his ensemble’s experiments. ‘It’s important for an orchestra like ours to work on raising its artistic profile’, he believes. ‘Our connection to this city’s folk tradition and the music of Grieg has meant we’ve almost developed our own musical language. A recording project like our In Folk Style disc helps us work even further on our flexibility and sense of stylistic adventure, but it’s also unique to us – to our sound and our style.’ Mission accomplished: Øyvind and co found themselves in Los Angeles last year accepting a double Grammy nomination for the disc.
International recognition is vital, but there’s growing domestic momentum behind this renewed appreciation of folk music from Scandinavian musicians and the striking results of the experimentation it’s prompting. Another brand-new disc from BIS combines folksong and ‘yoiking’ from the Sami region of Arctic Sweden with new, improvisatory sounds from organ and electronics (Amazon); an upcoming release from 2L sees the Oslo Chamber Choir cross-fertilise motets by Rachmaninov and Bruckner with the raw individuality of religious folk songs (Amazon); fiddle tunes and reels from Denmark has string trio The Fiddle Ministry using a strangely ‘zingy’ and close string sound on a new disc from Danish label Go which arrived in Gramophone’s office even as I wrote this paragraph (Folkshop).
‘There’s a stronger confidence in our musical heritage here in Norway and a feeling that we have something to bring to the international table’, reflects music critic of the Adresseavisen newspaper, Ole-Einar Andersen, when asked about this resurgence of respect for indigenous music. ‘We have a generation of classical musicians who are also very good in other genres. There’s an appetite for experimentation and it’s a very exciting time.’ True. Much of the excitement, though, lies elsewhere – in observing just how far the tentacles of this experimentation will reach into the increasingly rich and well-funded musical lives of the Nordic countries.