Duologue on Nations1
Nation and Identity
Asbjørn Schaathun: I grew up with the radio programme Folkemusikk-halvtimen (The Folk Music Session). This programme was a piece of sound that we didn't listen to actively, but we understood that this was part of our cultural inheritance. Even though I am a pale East-Norwegian, admittedly with some west coast blood, I always was engaged in what is ‘Norwegian’, because it has to do with identity; something has to give you identity, and what separates that something from the other?
Ingfrid Breie Nyhus: I am attracted by the fact that the folk music avoids a given time or given place – being too old to be traced, being so branched that placement dissolves. Maybe the folk music rather has a placement related to the individual's life, following alongside everyday life. As Misha Alperin said, folk music originates from need, as an ‘accompaniment to life’2. Certainly, slått music is connected to my own identity, as music I have listened a lot to, and maybe even as inherited music, if you like. But to me, the idea of the nationally ‘Norwegian’ is an unnatural delineation when it comes to folk music; as it is composed by so many different origins, sources and forms of expression. Speaking of sources, your piano work Nations [see also Part II: Nations: Recognition] has some ties to Grieg's op.72, as some of the same slåtter Grieg used are also lurking behind parts of your work. You mentioned in one of our earlier conversations that ‘we shouldn't pretend that Grieg isn't important’?
AS: Yes, it was about acknowledging what we belong to culturally. When we mention this opus of Grieg, we can't claim that he didn't do his best. It was probably heartfelt, with the cultural understanding of his time.
IBN: I believe both Grieg and Halvorsen had a burning wish to convey the slått music, but there weren't methods to notate it then, and one didn't know the slått forms well enough at the time. Grieg writes in the preface to op. 72 that he used dynamics and harmonics so that the music would be less humdrum, and that he wanted to raise it up to an ‘artistic level’ [see Grieg's preface quoted in the chapter Background]. He probably aimed for better access to the audience in question. It could be read as a condescending attitude, but I think it is best to think of the Zeitgeist.
AS: Exactly. It is important not to read it with today's glasses. It was the building of a nation. It was just before the dissolution of the union with Sweden! This national building had been proceeding since the middle of the 19th century, even back to 1814. It was as if shouting, ‘Hey ho, here is the Norwegian’!
IBN: When you say ‘hey ho’ like that, I think that the image of Norwegian folk music has suffered from that attitude, that it was used to bring out pride from something light and easy, almost naive. As the way folk music inspired classical works are played also today by pianists, for example a halling by Grieg is played springy and with ‘hey ho’ - ‘tjo og hei’. But that is not how the slått music is, generally speaking. The bow digs down to the string, it is not springy! And the darkness and the mysticism are present. But - in crossing to the world of art music, it has been transferred with an idea of ‘tjo og hei og hoppsasa’, to put it simply.
AS: One ‘needed’ the folk music for a political project, as in needing to have a sales item. But obviously, folk music has a lot of melancholy and introversion.
IBN: And the fierce and powerful. Such as when the music leads to trances, as in the ‘gorrlause’ slåtter, where the fiddler could be taken over by the devil or dark forces, and could not manage to stop playing; they had to clip off the strings to free the fiddler from the trance.
AS: I believe the melancholic and the possessed may have been pulled away in favour of the happy farmer on the postcard. But when we are here, post Bartók and turning around, we can understand Grieg in a different way today. Bartók can be super-fervent, and really dark too.
The Steady and the Ornamental
IBN: When you heard me play some slåtter on the piano, you asked me to come by your office and record some of it. I played on a small keyboard attached to your computer.
AS: The mix of the steady, as in the main motifs of the slått, and the ornamental, as in the variations - that fascinates me with slått music. From the material you recorded, I started immediately to cut out parts, bend and stretch it. The slått music is lingering, it is steadfast. I wanted to move this into tonal areas, to transform it pitch wise, so that it would move in a natural way. An interesting aspect of such a process, where you benefit from something that is known, is that you get some biproducts, you could call it intertextuality. Suddenly something may sound like something totally different, you hear other patterns. I could then amplify this, and even emphasize it further in the instrumentation.
IBN: By mentioning the steady and the ornamental, you touch upon a main feature in slått playing that I have been wanting to capture in my own piano playing: that something can be similar and not similar at the same time. A simultaneity of the stable and the changeable.
AS: It's about the relations between the large structure and the details. I was always interested in the relationship between laws and deviation. The music you play has this mix of steadiness and variation. To compose is to vary, and this folk music possesses a variation of this kind. You are also one of the few who can transfer slått playing to a tempered piano, it was something I got for free, in a way. These agogics of yours made a very strong impression on me. Things can swing by being oblique. That they can be similar and still unsimilar at the same time, fascinates me. I always tried to resist repetition, but here in the slått music, it is such a fantastic middle position. It is a kind of ‘micro composition’ to my mind. The process in Nations started with your improvisation, went through the note signs, and came back to recreating the same, but in another setting. The ring is closed, so to speak, because at its best during the concert, it sounded like you were improvising. It has to do with your playing style too, there is a feeling that here you are sitting, ‘folk musicking’ your way through the patterns within Nations.
IBN: I like this twofoldness when I am playing Nations – that there is both something there that my body knows from before, and also something new, which you created. It is as if what I started with is both gone, and it is present. This gives an interesting position to play from, where I can feel that the music is physically familiar, but at the same time, there is also a searching into something unfamiliar. Parts of Nations are groovy to play, or have an opening to add groove. By that I mean that they allow you to build longer rhythmical structures that are anchored in the body. Not unlike the experience I have in the flowing of the slått, when the slått is rolling, intensely and patiently at the same time.
AS: You get macro pulses, that aren’t all similar, but oblique. There is a groove there, and that is your contribution. I was touched by that in your slått playing. When fiddlers play, it can sometimes feel somewhat excluding for people like me, that this is their domain. But when you do it on keys, it seems so much more familiar to me.
IBN: A word that often came up while we were working with the piece, was ‘noodling’ (The Norwegian word is 'nudling', a verb that is made up, ‘å nudle’. It suggests an activity with a somewhat shy, small, on-your-own expression. It also implies some kind of fine-grained, detailed activity like mumbling a tune, ornamentally and continually repeating). It has almost become a refrain in our collaboration. I guess it started as a description of the manner when I play ornamentally or repetitively, but also with a kind of quietness. You also mentioned a word from Lasse Thoresen, ‘knobbliness ('knortethet'), in this. In your mind, are these two words related?
AS: This could be interpreted as a critique of modernism, the smoothness and lack of friction in modern society. The goal of lives being smooth and without resistance. The opposite is real life, isn't it, the knobbliness? It is full of bumps. Life doesn't turn out the way you planned. The knobbliness expresses the opposite of smoothness.
IBN: When we have spoken of 'noodling', I think that is about some kind of slow, elongated ornamentation. And simultaneously, it describes something more, like speaking low, as if with the hand in front of the mouth. Maybe in a way mumbling or secluded, maybe somewhat inaccessible, as if taking place somewhere else. Both close and far away.
AS: Noodling can be variation, maybe also ornament. But as you mention, it has another quality, talking to oneself in a way. There is an element of self-indulgence there. If you imagine a 16-year-oldyoung lady who is a singer-songwriter playing at a café, she is into it. You might say it is a quality, but it is very self-occupied and with personal texts. There is little touch of irony, as if you are in a jazz club, and there is this pianist that doesn’t have so much punch anymore: instead he resorts to something like this, talking to himself.
IBN: I believe there is very big difference between this image of the 16-year-old being very personal, introvert and emotional at stage, and some folk musicians who can have something hushed by the playing, but not into oneself; rather the music is taken away from the self. Then the music can be lifted to something almost holy, in the very simple.
AS: Yes, when it reaches a completely different level, rising two centimetres above the ground, that is something else, that is almost mysterious. In the most successful passages of our piano concerto I felt that there were such qualities. Then I am speaking as listener. There were these pulses arising, and the orchestral musicians were waiting for you before coming in with pipe bells or whatever, while the rhythms were almost floating on top of the stage.
IBN: It is hard to find answers for how and when that happens, when it rises. It can be such different things that give that quality. It is incredibly fragile to play something very simple or quiet. Sometimes it is easier to deal with things that are large and monumental, or virtuosic, that might even be impressive. But then it is so interesting for me to tackle things that are very small, or very quiet. Because there is a possibility there, a difficult possibility.
AS: 'Noodling' is an activity that can point to melancholy. I guess it is about the performer finding the right atmosphere.
IBN: Not only atmosphere, but finding an attitude, I think, finding the right position. And the music can receive a strength, when it is not trying; not trying to change, not trying to project.