C) About improvisation


Paco de Lúcia (2001), regarded as the world ́s leading flamenco musician during much of his lifetime, spoke about his bewilderment when facing improvisation in a guitar trio with jazz/rock musicians Al di Meola and John McLaughlin :

"I asked them: How do you improvise? What kind of system is that, what form? And then they laughed. 'Why are you laughing?', and they said 'come on man, you can do it, just follow us'. But I couldn't do it. Until I started to discover how it worked. On that day I gave a sigh of relief, and then I discovered how nice it is to improvise. The concept is completely different from flamenco or classical music. Classical interpreters don't improvise. They pay a lot of attention to the tone and to the score. They work very methodically. They never dare to improvise, for fear of getting lost or of playing the wrong note (...) When you improvise, you need to know which harmony you're in right now. That's what they call a sense of risk: not knowing where you'll be in 15 seconds; daring to go on, no matter where to. It's hard to describe, but this feeling is unique. And now I can't do without improvising."


Until I came across this quote, I could have sworn that there was a big percentage of improvisation in the flamenco tradition. Perhaps what he was referring to was the jazz-derived idea of playing solos over chord progressions, one lead player at the time. The explosive bursts of notes and short rhythmic chops that characterize his form of music are subject to spontaneity, but from what I understand it derives from interaction with dancers. Perhaps he'd been improvising his entire life when he gave the above statement, but didn't think about it that way.

Alterhaug (in Steinsholt and Sommerro {Ed.}, 2006) writes about how the roots of the word “improvisation” probably go back to antiquity. Visus means “seen” in latin, pro means “before”, and im means “not”. We ́re left with the tentative translation not seen before or, simply unpredicted. Aristotle considered improvisation a welcome part of the process leading up to a defined work of art, but not a part of the work itself, a view that would later be renewed by Friedrich Nietzsche.


Medieval rhetoric considered verbal improvisation a skill that could be prepared, and several schools of gestures and other improvisational movements was a part of the non-written passing on of knowledge.


Art music from the nineteenth century is generally considered to be the period when the written page was the highest musical authority (along with the composer who created it and the conductor who interpreted it). Nevertheless, improvising church organists continued the tradition of Händel, Bach and other masters of spontaneity. French composer Olivier Messiaen ́s music was perhaps a twentieth-century culmination of this tradition.


So “knowing and doing at the same time”, as Steinsholt calls it (ibid.), is nothing new in any of the art forms, nor is it exclusive to jazz. In fact, the jazz tradition itself has sometimes obliterated the dividing line between composition and improvisation, as we can glean from the fact that trumpeter Miles Davis was sometimes happy to formalize some of his solos into fixed tunes.


Jeff Pressing's article “Psychological constraints on Improvisation” (In Nettl and Russell {Ed.}, 1998) lays out the premise that Western musical cultures seem to insist on the individual and innate meaning of the word “talent”. That is, a certain aptitude for hearing musical relations as linked to a system, instrumental dexterity, and some other basic abilities need to be in place in order to encourage further pursuit of a musical career.


Pressing talks about how we group pieces of information: it may encourage moving between different work processes, handling larger as well as smaller chunks:


"(...) memory experts go to a great deal of trouble to have handy coding and “chunking” facilities available. The order of the information needed to allow chunking is either discovered by analysis, or, if it is not present, imposed by a personally meaningful correspondence scheme (a repertoire of pattern reference and analysis routines). These studies raise the possibility that special training may be able to improve musical memory dramatically, with potentially powerful effects on improvisation”.


So maybe it's never too late to change your instincts, even improvisational ones?


The music I've been influenced by, and the historical lines that precede us, indicate that there are many ways of thinking about improvisation. For this project, I aim at evoking tradition, lowering the timbre from the fiddle, and organizing musical chunks, perhaps arriving at a different way of improvising than the 1960s jazz traditions I'll borrow methods from.

A) Placing myself in the field


After a general training as a pop, rock and jazz musician I developed an interest in acoustic music based on various traditions around the world. Picking up my own region's folk music with very little prior knowledge, I started asking questions that may be typical of an outsider: Can the tunes be interpreted in solo fashion on acoustic guitar, like the British did from the 1960s and onwards? Can I compose folk-based music that expands harmonies, rhythms and melodies? And lastly, the topic for this project: Can I establish a way of improvising in a musical dialect based on regional traditions? Listening to the recorded work of for example Egberto Gismonti (1995) I noted that the improvised sections of his music sounded fresh to my ears not just because of the timbre of his 42-string classical guitar, but because the improvised material itself is rooted in a distinctive tradition. This stands in contrast to for example Swedish pianist Jan Johansson's record "Jazz På Svenska" (1964) - which is one of several cases where Scandinavian folk tunes are put in dialogue with improvisation, but where the improvised segment of the music takes its cues from jazz rather than folk. Norwegian guitarist Øystein Sandbukt (2005) suggests ways of introducing improvised passages into Norwegian tune-playing, but doesn't specifify any methodology for improvisation.


There seemed to be a territory to be investigated here, so I started developing folk-based chunks of musical material to replace my stock library of phrases from jazz, blues and rock. The aim was to come up with something that evokes Norwegian and Swedish folk music, perhaps slightly abstracted, mildly changing perceptions of "folk," in the same way my smartphone-created logo picture aims to blur national romantic notions of man's connection to nature.


Along the way, I borrowed influences from musicians who play personalized forms of music, based on tradition. From Irish fiddler Martin Hayes (1997) I got the realization that repetition is a marker and a strength in traditional music, and can be worked into improvisation. Ale Möller (1996) and Anouar Brahem (2000) gave me the idea of dark, midrang-ey timbre and slow, dwelling temperament in improvisations. From Bill Frisell (1997), Jan Garbarek (1973, 1976, 1981) and Pat Metheny / Charlie Haden (1997), I took an idea of evoking musical traditions rather than executing them minutely. And lastly, from contemporary Norwegian musicians Arve Henriksen (2007) and Nils Økland (2004) I borrowed the principle of working with very small cells of information, sometimes without any musical surroundings at all.

B) About Norwegian folk music


Aksdal and Nyhus (1993) provide a comprehensive introduction to Norwegian traditional music. They describe how Enlightenment-era thinkers such as Rousseau and Herder imagined remnants of a “national golden age” that still existed within every man (women don ́t seem to be mentioned a lot) in the shape of “folk poetry” and “folk music”. This interest-from-a-distance led scholars to collect and preserve cultural expressions from rural environments, and composers to assimilate - or steal, depending on the eye of the beholder - musical elements. Later on, this cultural capital was also used for nation-building purposes, as in the case of Norway.


Since World War II, the interest has shifted from the nation-building unification project towards regional and dialect-based differences within Norway. There was, and is, a need to distance folklore from the temporary monopolization of national symbols by the national socialists. However, the local interest in prominent musicians, knowledge of tunes, lineage of traditions and dialects within and outside music all seem to have much older and more positive roots in Norway than the unspeakable horrors of the 1940s.


It is generally believed that left to the free market, the indigenous strands of traditional music will be eradicated over time, and that organizational discourse is vital to keeping tradition alive. This sets tradition and traditionalism apart as an activity, as different from a mere descriptive term. According to Aksdal and Nyhus, this is the reason musicians in this field are occupied with questions of age, lines of tradition, and continuity.


The earliest unequivocal reports of fiddling in Norway stem from the late 1600s, and in the following century it gained massive popularity. The idea of sympathetic strings gradually emerged towards the end of the 17th century. Religious revivals, as well as competition from the accordion, threatened the fiddle ́s existence towards the late 1800s, and contests were initiated to help preserve the tradition. Interest remained low until the 1970s. The oldest Hardanger fiddle in existence is the 1651 Jaastad fiddle from Hardanger itself, and the sympathetic strings may be an influence from Scotland by way of England from India. In the late 18th century, most of southwestern Norway was hardanger fiddle territory, and the builders in the Telemark region in the south began building their own variants around this time as well. The first half of the 1800s is considered a golden age for the dissemination and perfection of the Hardanger fiddle and its music, and the mythical fiddler Myllarguten introduced the instrument to the bourgeoisie in Christiania (now Oslo) in 1849, heavily promoted by classical virtouso Ole Bull. After 1860 the modern Hardanger fiddle, with a violin-like shape and four, later five, sympathetic strings became the norm under the production standards of the Helland family. In Setesdal, the common practice for a while was to modify regular fiddles instead of importing Hardanger ones, and some fiddlers even sang while playing.


As a result of national romanticism and organized concerts by virtousos during the first half of the twentieth century the Hardanger fiddle became widespread all over the southern half of Norway. At the time of writing, there seems to be a rough geographic division between the two types of fiddles, with the Hardanger fiddle dominating the southwest.


Flutes, goat's horn, local reed instruments such as the Meråker clarinet and willow flute (which follows the partial scale and has a big effect on tonality) have also had an important role in shaping the music which forms the background here. A local specialty in my region is the presence of flat keys (some tunes are in Bb or Eb), which can be explained through the presence of military wind bands - and open-minded, multi-tasking musicians - in the Innherred region since the 1750s.


The main figure in the Innherred region was Hilmar Alexandersen, who lived for the greater portion of the twentieth century, and whose effortless and pitch- perfect playing drew on old dance tunes as well as entertainment music from Europe. Alexandersen was a typical master musician in that he commanded both regular and Hardanger fiddles, as evidenced on the compilation "Hjartespel" (1994). Many of the older tunes in our local repertoire have traveled back and forth between Sweden and Norway, and the mythical fiddler Lapp-Nils (of Sápmi descent) is mentioned often as a historical source for common tunes. He is the reason why I talk about "Norwegian" and "Scandinavian" folk music synonymously - and he appears to be the only famous Sápmi musician in a historical picture where his ethnic group has been gravely underrepresented (Roemke, 1994).


You will hear many other dance rhythms in Norway than the ones I work with here, such as Gangar, telespringar, mazurkas, and waltzes. Lullabies (bånsuller), slow tunes borrowed from traditional singers (visetoner) and some religious songs appear all over the country.


The tunes are often named after certain musicians (“Sprengar etter Johannes Brekken”, for example), or they may be linked up to areas where they have been used (“Bruremarsj fra Brekstad”). With few exceptions, they consist of two or three eight-bar sections that are repeated. Some halling tunes have uneven time signatures, because this particular form of mostly individual dancing is based on pulse rather than periods. Some regions have beats of uneven lengths - it is a common perception, for example, that many pols tunes from the Røros area have a “prolonged” second beat, but not everyone agrees that this is what the performers feel themselves when they ́re playing.



In the following four examples, you will see and hear examples of the basic dance rhythms that I base my work on. The tunes don't have any identified composers that I'm aware of.