Cross cultural meetings: Traditional music from Setesdal and world musicians


The purpose of this article is to document and provide insight into some of the processes in the artistic research project, Music Without Borders and Cross Cultural Meetings: Traditional music from Setesdal and world musicians (2014-2017).

The starting point for the project is a set of recordings by Norwegian folk-musicians of Norwegian folk-songs in the “stev og slåtte” (stave and tune) tradition of Setesdal in Agder. Four representative and acclaimed musical sources were invited to select songs that they felt were representative of the Setesdal tradition. The four sources were: Kirsten Bråten Berg on vocals, Hallvard Bjørgum and Gunnar Stubseid on the harding fiddle, and Sigurd Brokke on the Jew’s Harp. We wish to bring the recorded material with us to different traditional musicians around the world who will then make their musical responses to the source material. We want all the musicians to respond to the original source, rather than to each other’s responses. Our primary artistic research questions are: 

1. How do performers from other cultures respond to traditional Norwegian music from Setesdal, and how do Norwegian artists answer to these responses?

2. In further developing musical material, what tonal and rhythmical challenges and opportunities do the different instruments offer when developing a new sound?


These questions will be answered artistically by the responses documented in audio and video examples in the narrative phases of our field work. In addition to this article, the final result of the project are published as the phonogram Ferd. A 70 minute film documentary will be released autumn 2018. 


The research team

The research team has consisted of Professor Bjørn Ole Rasch (project leader), Associate Professor Ingolv Haaland (assistant project leader), Professor Jeremy Welsh (video artist), and Research Fellow Annbjørg Lien.  

Rasch has an extensive background and experience as a producer and musician and has built up a wide international network. He has worked with traditional music from Norway for over twenty years, touring nationally as well as internationally.

Haaland has worked for a decade in Southeast Asia and the Middle East with various music projects and recordings, including a year spent in Cambodia.

Welsh has an extensive background in video arts, and is a former Dean of Bergen Academy of Art and Design.

Lien is an artist and internationally acclaimed harding fiddle player and associated with the project through her PhD project at the University of Agder, which focuses on the music traditions of Setesdal. She is also a musical response.


The project is based at the Department of Popular Music, Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Agder (UiA), Campus Kristiansand in Norway, where Rasch, Haaland and Lien are employed, and the project is funded by the Norwegian Artistic Research Program and UiAJeremy Welsh are currently professor in Fine Arts at NTNU.


World Music and ethical challenges

World Music can be understood either as a commercial term in the music industry, or an academic term addressing various discourses regarding the use of (non-Western) musicians in Western music productions (Taylor 1998). Furthermore, musical appropriation (Felt 1994, 2004) raises ethical dilemmas with regard to missing the crediting of copyrights and credits to artists and musicians from non-Western cultures participating in, and contributing to, phonograms in Europe and USA. This raises several ethical issues that demand our attention in this project. The tuning and rhythm of the recordings from Setesdal set the standard to which the world musicians had to respond and relate, making this an inherently Eurocentric approach. However, we do draw from our extensive international network of musicians we already know and have a relation to, which makes it less problematic in terms of miscommunication and (a lack of) trust. We strive for a hermeneutic approach in meeting with other cultures and people. How far is it possible to see into the world of the significant other with whom you communicate? Gadamer (1960, 2010) present this as a horizon of understanding and experience. This is an evolving, learning process, and even though music is a language of its own, the context provided is not without meaning. The musical term world music is in our opinion an old and out of date term that says nothing of the complexity and variety of musical styles and mixes found around the world. But for now this is the only category available from the online streaming providers so we have to use it until other sub-categories can be introduced and agreed upon in the music industry.


We, as project leaders, have done our field recording studio sessions both separately and together. Since we, in most cases, already know the musicians and are in some way producers of the session, we are then, subsequently, participating observers using studio recording (Dybo 2017a) as our main qualitative method for collecting data, in addition to autoethnograpy. The aim is to have every session filmed as well as recorded, making our empirical data a mix of audio, video, and pictures. The main source for the collection of the audio will be the sequencer programs Pro Tools and Logic, in addition to two portable cameras for the video. We will bring an emergency kit laptop studio with mics and sound card should the equipment on the premises be inadequate, or in case of a power outage.


The use of music technology and digital tools

As an artistic research project, we aim for a high-level artistic result that can be experienced as an autonomous object by the listener, regardless of the research attached. Our background is from the pop, jazz and world music industries, and we are naturally coloured and influenced by these genres. However, this is hardly a pop project targeting radio play, where there is often a limit for songs which is set at a maximum of three-minutes. It is not a contemporary experimental art project either.


When there are many instruments with different tuning, things can get out of hand quickly. The question is not of adjustment, but rather how to preserve the (musical) identity or the response in the process. We want creative and impulsive responses. However, at the same time, we want a pleasing musical result. A key point is that every artist is to sing in his/her own language in order to preserve the ornamentation from the respective traditions. We believe that there is a fine line between challenging the listener’s ear and going too far with the dissonances. It is a subjective perception, and it is difficult to pinpoint at exactly which point this line is crossed. The aim is to keep recordings as intact as possible towards the final phases.


Do digital tools destroy musical identity or enhance it? This is a continual debate, and it is difficult to give an definitive answer since it is a question of aesthetic preference. Nowadays, there is a certain “retro” analogue affection involved in the re-introduction of old tape machines for multitrack recording and digital plug-ins simulating an analogue sound. Our approach is to use digital tools with caution when recording acoustic instruments. However, standardised plug-in studio tools, such as compressors, equalizers, reverb, and delays are often applied in the majority of productions from the earliest analogue mixers, introduced in the sixties, right up to today’s digital mixers. Editing and mixing volumes and panning of the instrument influence how we perceive the totality of a specific tune. Finally, the infamous plug-in, auto-tune, is also sometimes used. This plug-in came into the collective awareness in different media with the song Do You Believe in Love (Cher, 1998), with its heavy processing on the voice, making it robot-like, and in using only whole tone steps in the scale. Later, this effect was embraced by electronic dance music genres and in many pop productions where the entertainment factor was stronger than the artist’s ability to sing. Let us share a certain insider secret here: Everyone uses auto-tune in the professional music industry today, regardless of genre. However, in most cases you cannot hear when it is used. Why? Because its main use is fine-tuning minor mistakes from the vocals and instruments, not altering the identity of the voice or instrument. The alternative is to do multiple takes to fix small errors. Some of the artists in this project have actually asked us to use this plug-in instead of doing multiple takes. This is because they know it will not affect their signature sound.

A signature sound is described as an artistic expression in Haalands ongoing PhD project with the preliminary title How to Develop a Signature Sound – A Performers Perspective (Haaland 2016-2019), or, as the popular musicologist Tor Dybo describes it: sound signature as a distinctive character (Dybo 2017a). Now, with traditional instruments, this can be more problematic since some of their signature sound exists within the micro tonality. This is an ethical challenge in the sense that we do in fact wish to bring in editing and mixing phases.

Globalisation and especially the technological development have had an increasing impact on the music industry the last two decades, connecting people through physical or virtual (Skype/Facebook) meetings and expanding networks. The more affordable pricing of music soft- and hardware for recording have made it manageable to buy for mid-level productions in Asian countries like Nepal, raising the level of professionalism. Studio experience is important for any musician or artist, since it is a different setting and focus than live performances. This project has benefited on that experience from the involved artists so the focus can be on the music and not the surrounding technology.


Exposure to other cultures do colour the perception of music and influence (traditional) musicians and artists. One could argue that the autonomy of the pure (traditional) music deteriorates, but on the other hand it can open up the creativity and possibility for the musicians to enhance and expand the music of its own culture, and using technology like YouTube and friends sharing via Facebook to reach audiences and other musicians that otherwise would not be exposed to this music (traditional, experimental or new).