Contemporary Perspectives

Abstraction in Folk Art: Juxtapositions

Øyvind Torvund and I discussed how we experience composed music that uses Norwegian folk music material. We came to the view that many of these works, that take their inspiration from folk music, have not been able to carry forward the elements from folk culture that we value as especially powerful, aspects of expressive power that we cannot describe, that ‘something’ that could be described as a kind of 'magic'. Maybe it was this ‘magical’ energy that the composer wanted to capture in their score, but paradoxically, in the writing of a score, in the transfer to a classical performer, it is as though this ‘something’ has been lost. Where is this ‘something’ situated? Is it in the materiality, or is it in the performance itself? 

I believe this ‘something’, which is often lost in these cases, derives from the fiddler’s performance practice and performance attitude. The folk performer’s variability in rhythm, motives, ornaments, intonation and form is not easily transferred to classical playing through notated text alone. 

Could this power be situated by folk music in abstract aspects, asked Øyvind. From there he started looking at what this could be, by separating folk musical traits and investigating them in detached musical situations. 

He sent me etudes and tasks with isolated investigations: imitation, oblique rhythms, microtonality, ornaments. Some of the tasks were explained more in words than by notes, by email and telephone calls. What I performed on the basis of these descriptions, I sent back to Øyvind as recordings. Often he wanted to edit the task a bit, and I sent back new recordings of solutions. 

The first study was an ornament etude. Large interval leaps are placed in ornamental figures, instead of the smaller intervals often found in folk music ornaments 
(see Part I: Ill.III). Later, he asked me to send recordings of different ornaments extracted from slått music.

Øyvind composed a kind of catalogue of ornaments in Det abstrakte i folkekunsten, that is shown together with visual ornaments from folk art:  











A central idea in Det abstrakte i folkekunsten is to juxtapose one abstract music with another, 
separating the rhythmics of one slått, for instance the asymmetrical rhythmics of a springar, as a representative of one abstract quality. These rhythms were then placed in an atonal pitch world, like those of Boulez or Stockhausen, as representatives for a different abstract quality. 

I picked out small excerpts from Boulez’ and Stockhausen’s piano pieces, and put the notes in front of me. I listened to a slått recording, and directly afterwards I imitated the slått rhythm while playing the atonal pitches (see Part I: Ill.VI)Later, Øyvind asked me to go further with this idea, and improvise an atonal pitch world of this kind while playing the slått rhythms. 









Video excerpt from Det abstrakte i folkekunstenImprovised part based on the slått Siste leken Sulhusgubben spella, played by Sven Nyhus (Nyhus, 1999, spor 43).

The passages of point music in the opening of the piece are based on a parallel idea, juxtaposing abstract rhythms and abstract tonality. In these passages, the rhythms are not taken directly from slåtter, but it is an abstract rhythm Øyvind wrote out, almost like improvising them, when writing. The most important element to keep in mind while I was playing was to give the impression of point music: not trying to make concrete lines or forms, constantly avoiding that. 

sound excerpt from Øyvind Torvund: Abstraction in Folk Art, played by Ingfrid Breie Nyhus (Nyhus, 2015a, spor 1)

The concept of imitation was also subjected to experiment in our work on Det abstrakte i folkekunsten, by imitating point music. Folk musicians learn music by imitating, by ear. This situation was recreated by my playing a passage of point music and some ornamental passages, recording them on cassette. I then replayed the the cassette and played with it, imitating what I heard. A small delay gives the impression of an imitation, and at the same time the situation created a certain impossibility because the music was really too complex to imitate without reading notes or rehearsing. 


sound excerpt from Øyvind Torvund: Abstraction in Folk Art, played by Ingfrid Breie Nyhus (Nyhus, 2015a, spor 1)

The element of microtonality in folk music was explored through the use of cassette players. Playing together with cassette recordings and piano gives a sort of microtonality in itself, as the recording mechanism of the cassette player twists the pitches. In the section called Bølgeslåtten, eight layers of cassette recordings were laid on top of each other. I received notes for eight parts that were most alike, only with small replacements in rhythm and octave transpositions. I recorded layer 1 on cassette, then played it on another cassette player,while recording layer 2 at the same time. The recording of layers 1 and 2 on top of each other was played while I recorded layer 3, and the process was then repeated. By recording layers on layers, the oldest recordings became continually more twisted in sound. The uneven speed of the cassette recorder also adds to the oblique tonality. 


In the next version of this experiment, Øyvind edited down from 8 layers to 3, to give a clearer, cleaner rendition of the idea. This became the section called Bølgeslåtten. 

sound excerpt from Øyvind Torvund: Abstraction in Folk Art, played by Ingfrid Breie Nyhus (Nyhus, 2015a, track 1)

In parts of Det abstrakte i folkekunsten, the piano was given a parallel electronic sound, interferring with the acoustic piano sound. The music was expanded with a visual element, on two screens, with slideshows showing constellations of folk art and abstract art. I triggered the electronic sound with a foot pedal, and the slideshows with a hand pedal. Øyvind asked me to talk a little bit about the work at the concert, in between playing. He wanted it to resemble the way folk musicians talk when playing, in an informal style, or like a pop musician, seeing folk music as a kind of popular music in contrast to the serious contemporary music scene.

During the compositional process of Det abstrakte i folkekunsten, the tasks and notes Øyvind sent me were not finalized, but open for discussion based on our reactions. After the experimental period, Øyvind decided on a sketched form for the premiere concert, and we met for some workshops to test this. The form and details were decided only a couple of days before the concert, and the performance felt like just another ‘test’, another ‘experiment’, still open for change. My participation in the etudes and tasks during the compositional process gave me, as a performer, an insight and a voice in the choices with the material and the directions taken. Øyvind was the instructor, but at the same time he took on the role of a listening conversational partner. This interaction gave me a feeling for the intentions and goals we were looking for in different parts, and a feeling of searchingfor a joint goal, instead of only executing. 

This piece reflects various approaches to the idea of playing folk music on the piano. There is a conceptual approach: using a cassette player, the pianist is asked to record a sequence, and subsequently utilize this cassette recording as if trying to learn by ear, imitating what she hears, in the same way as many kinds of folk music have been passed on, by listening to recordings of the old masters. 

There are sequences in the piece inspired by Mikkel B. Tin’s book De første formene (The First Forms, Novus 2007), in which the author draws connections between folk art and modernistic abstract formal language in the Fine Arts. He points out that abstraction has been present for a long time, representing the incomprehensibility of existence, the mysterious, the religious and the sacred.

In particular, Tin sees a line of connection between different kinds of abstract patterns in embroidery and the geometrically abstract images of the Russian painter Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935). 

From the visual link between abstract patterns in folk art and modernistic painting, I wanted part of the piece to deal with these ideas in music. To be able to compose totally abstract piano textures which also could be related to folk art was a nice thought, not only to try to see with a fresh pair of eyes what ‘folk music’ might imply today, but also because I find the idea of an archaic abstraction, an archaic version of what we categorize as modernism, very fascinating.

The abstract materials in this piece are either point music (textures without a traditional sense of phrasing, melody, rhythm), ascending scales (as analysis or simplification of a complex texture) or abstracted folk music. At certain places in the piece, excerpts from traditional Norwegian fiddle tunes, pols and a gangar, are heard on tape, and then answered by the pianist. In the piano answer, atonal figuration is applied to the rhythms and dynamics of the phrases, resulting in a musical ‘bastard’ between the phrasing of the slåttand the atonal language. 

 The electronics in the abstract sequences were recorded on a Doepfer modular synthesizer. 

There are melodic ornamented elements here too, most apparent in the last sequence, Bølgeslåtten (Wave slått). In this last piece Ingfrid has recorded variations of the same line several times on top of each other, bringing out the sound colour of multiple layers of cassette recordings.

In the live version of the piece, images are projected on two screens, synchronous with the music. To the ascending scales there are corresponding colour scales, in a kind of 1:1 relation between image and sound. (Øyvind Torvund in programme note).


In this programme note, Øyvind points to the book, The First Forms, by Mikkel Tin, which discusses relationships between abstract formal language and the incomprehensible in human existence.

The tendency toward abstraction is present as an essential feature of folk art in all times and all places. … To abstract from the historical conditionality, the fashion and the époque, and from the personal conditionality, the individual and sentimental, and from the conceptual conditionality, the motif and the interpretations, is a way to uncover and hold on to the essential in the accidental. (Tin, 2007, p. 240-241, my translation).

Tin discusses a connection between abstract formal language and the capacity to access something mystical. This is transferred orally ‘from one presence to another presence’, tied to a distinct here and now. ‘When there is no formal logic as in the text culture, it is because logos has not yet supplanted mythos’ (Tin, 2007, p. 250, my translation). Abstract figures have been used as ceremonial objects in the rites of life, and appear as analogies to imaginations to which we no longer have access.

All in all these seem to be excellent hallmarks of the cultic actions, formulas and objects, that they are separated from everyday actions, languages and things by a certain non-transparency; it is in the mystery, not in the logic, that the sacral manifests itself (Tin, 2007, p. 256, my translation).


As a parallell, Johan Huizinga describes the playful human being’s access to the sacred though the musical;


All true ritual is sung, danced and played. We moderns have lost the sense for ritual and sacred play. Our civilization is worn with age and too sophisticated. But nothing helps us to regain that sense so much as musical sensibility. In feeling music we feel ritual. In the enjoyment of music, whether it is meant to express religious ideas or not, the perception of the beautiful and the sensation of holiness merge, and the distinction between play and seriousness is whelmed in that fusion (Huizinga, 1950, s. 158-159).


And isn’t accessing portals to someting ‘sacred’, to the mystery, something we musicians are searching for, day by day, in our performing?

Still, abstraction’s accessibility to 'holiness' is in Det abstrakte i folkekunsten (link to concert performancethematized through subtle humour, playfulness and an experimental attitude, where abstract elements in folk art and modern art are detached and put in unexpected juxtapositions. 



Image from the premiere of Øyvind Torvund: Det abstrakte i folkekunsten, Kulturkirken Jakob, September 2014. 
Photo: Ultima Festival 2014/Henrik Beck