Between Folk and Pianism


With Folk Music as Inspiration 

A number of composers have connected folk musical traits into their personal compositional style. For instance, Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) integrated folk musical themes in his compositions, and Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) picked up inspiration from Polish mazurkas and waltzes and Franz Liszt (1811-1886) from Hungarian dances. Béla Bártok (1881-1945) studied Hungarian folk musical forms and melded them into his compositional style, while Luciano Berio (1925-2003) annexed folk songs from various areas. The visual arts have an equivalent borrowing and inspiration from folk art, for instance Pablo Picasso’s (1881-1973) inspiration from African folk art. In music history, we have seen a particular focus on individuals’ own national folk traditions during the nineteeth century’s national romantic period. At this time in Norway, a movement evolved which promoted the collection and transcription of as much folk music as possible. Ludvig Mathias Lindeman (1812-1887) was amongst the most important collectors. The same movement generated a project in which Rikard Nordraak (1842-1866) was at the forefront, to form a ‘national Norwegian music’.

Already at 19 years of age Nordraak wrote in a letter to his father: ‘First now I feel what Nationality is, and what it should be’. The programme was this: ‘Nationality does not consist of for instance composing Music of ‘Halling’ and ‘Springdans’ as our Fathers did. That is Chinese. No, but build a Mansion of all these small Villages and live inside it. Listen to these naked, complaining Melodies where fatherless and motherless Children walk lonely about in every Corner of the Country. Collect them around you in a Circuit by the Feet of Love and let them tell their Legends. Preserve it all, reflect and then play them after.’[Nordraak, as quoted in Greni, 1942, p. 46f] 

... Nordraak wanted to renew the music in a national direction, but like Bergreen he didn’t want to apply the folk melodies. He wanted to access the folk musical - dissolving ‘all Riddles’. Then the folk melodies would ‘become happy and cling on to Your Heart, then You are a national Artist....’ With his glowing nationalism, young Nordraak made strong impression on Edvard Grieg, who was the one to succeed the most in uniting folk music with the prevailing (German) universal style in an artistically convincing way (Havåg, 1997, pp. 83-84 [my translation]).


After Grieg and through the twentieth century, composers continued to make music with a fundamental influence from Norwegian folk music. These included the already mentioned Johan Halvorsen, as well as David Monrad Johansen (1888-1974), Harald Sæverud (1897-1992), Eivind Groven (1901-1977), Olav Kielland (1901-1985), Klaus Egge (1906-1979), Geirr Tveitt (1908-1981), Johan Kvandal (1919-1999) and Lasse Thoresen. 

With Modernism came new impulses, and ideas of turning against the old and towards the innovative. In recent times it has seemed as if folk music has found a new spring as an inspirational source within Norwegian art music. Eivind Buene gives it the term ‘New Folklorism’ and argues:


The combination of folk music and art music has an unbroken tradition in Norway going all the way back to Edvard Grieg, and one of the keepers in this area has been Grenager’s teacher Lasse Thoresen. He has worked with the microtonal aspect of folk music, the use of untempered natural tones outside the ordinary system ... a Nordic parallel to the way Asian composers, for instance, use their own timbre myths and folklorisms to create an unmistakable regional art music. ... The idyllic, the sound of the folk music’s harmonies, the pure, Nordic simplicity, has also had international success with Norwegian jazz (Buene, 2010, pp. 86-89 [my translation]).


As suggested here, Scandinavian jazz has opened itself up to folk music influence for several decades. Jan Johansson was out early with his Jazz på svenska (Johansson, 1964), and in the 1970s Jan Garbarek was a Norwegian pioneer in using folk melodies in jazz, followed by musicians such as Arild Andersen, Karl Seglem and many more, as well as folk musicians in cooperation with jazz musicians, such as folk singer Kirsten Bråten Berg.

The chapter Contemporary Perspectives will cover this project’s work with a selection of composers from whom I have commissioned new piano works. One of these is Asbjørn Schaathun. At an early stage of the collaboration, he wrote to me that he had had a dream; we met shortly at a dark café, possibly the brown one at Sollihøgda. There, I gave him a bag, and left. Within this bag he found a collection of texts, sound and transcriptions from Norwegian folk music. It was a 'budstikke'
, like those used in older times to convey written messages between the valley villages. After having this dream, Asbjørn asked me if I could make such a budstikke for him, a collection of materials creating an image of what interests me in folk music. This could provide a good entrance for him into his compositional work. From this impulse, I made a digital budstikke: texts, quotations and sound excerpts representing what engages me, what captures me in slått music. 

In the work of putting this collection together, five categories became evident to me, areas of particular personal interest in slått music. The first area was the linkage to unknown and mythical forces; the second was the non-personified origin of folk music; the third was the variability of the slått form; the fourth its asymmetrical rhythms; and the fifth was the way in which the intonation fluctuates in playing and singing. 

These five areas have been important elements thoughout this artistic project, and on different levels. 

At the end of this reflection, I have placed a similar budstikke, drawing a picture of each of these focus areas.

During the project period, a sixth area of focus emerged, that also influenced me greatly. As I was searching in the slått music; listening to it closely and intensely and at the same time working with the piano pieces of the project, certain performer-related, aesthetic qualities emerged as important.