Folk Musical Interpretation

Interpreting and Traditioning 

In Norwegian, we have a verb from the root ‘tradition’, å tradere, ‘traditioning’. In many ways, the word means the same as to interpret: learning and embodying a piece of transferred music, and from there performing it. Even though the words are related, to interpret points primarily to the work, while å tradere (‘to tradition’) points to an activity between past and future; a continuum is implied in picking up material from the past and carrying it forward into a future. Where interpreting is often used related to the reading of text, tradering (traditioning) is used about the oral transfer. 


Both the activities of interpreting and traditioning are about trying to understand and incorporate a musical material. They are about taking hold of a possible core of the material, through ideas, expression, aesthetics, or other things, as a skeleton or a main essence of what the work is built upon. What that might be, will vary from one performer’s experience to another’s. To me, it is often about searching for something in the work that is tangential to something in me, and if I find that tangent, it can be part of opening up the possibilities in the meeting between me and the material. 


Interpreting, in a musical sense, does not only involve reading and understanding, as in literature, but also, aiming all the time at the reciting of the work from our voice and body. We as performers are to appropriate and embody the music, and take it further to new utterance in our performances. We are like Janus in this work, the god standing at the threshold, as we turn our faces both to the interaction between ‘me and the material’, and the interaction between ‘me and the listeners’. 

The performance of an interpretation involves a multivoicedness, a dialogism. Bakhtin called this a hidden dialogism, when two voices speak simultaneously in an utterance (see quotation about hidden dialogism in Part I: Mask). The first voice is the author’s, or the composer’s, who is not present at the performance themself, while the second voice is the narrator or performer. The performer offers this polyphonic utterance ‘with a sideward glance’ (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 196).


In interpretation and in traditioning, several voices are present in the performance, both that of the present performer and of those who came before her. Some folk musicians speak of pulling one’s own self back, so as to get access to the other voices and to give them space. The master fiddler Knut Hamre describes this attitude as ‘being nothing’. ‘With that I mean that it is not me playing, even though it is obviously me that is physically playing. It is something else playing through me’ (Maurseth, 2014, p. 140, my translation).

Every time a piece of music inhabits a new body and voice, the piece is somewhat varied. How large a degree of variation will be very different, depending on the ideals of the tradition in question and the ideals of the individual performer. In folk musical traditioning, the skeleton of a material makes the point of departure for a variable performance, like for instance the descriptions of Albert Lord and Susanne Rosenberg in Part I: Outline of a Universe, and in the section about the slått music’s variability


The slått tradition has supported a broad range, from the performer who wishes to recreate their master’s form and details as far as possible, to the performer who makes changes by atmosphere and occasion, who varies, reshapes, transforms, either spontaneously or as planned. The performer spins the slåttout from a core material rich in details. In earlier times, there were more reshaping fiddlers than we see today. It can seem as though creative fiddlers today often choose to recreate in the direction of jazz and other improvisational expressions, rather than reshaping within the folk musical framework, which is interesting, but also evidences the potential loss of a rich attitude and method of traditioning. 


Before Romanticism, a performance of a piece of classical music could also be about playing out from a skeleton or outline. ‘We should bear in mind that in actual performance musicians were often required to add their own unique layer of interpretation, which could or even should be different each time the work was played’ (Kuijken, 2013, p. 2). With Romanticism came a movement from focusing on performance to focusing on the work: 


As music began to be understood first and foremost as one of the fine arts, it began clearly to articulate its need for enduring products – artefacts comparable to other works of fine art. Hence the emergence of a work-concept in the field of music in the mid- or late-eighteenth century. ...The assumption as to the occasional and transient nature of performances undermined the need for what we now take to be a fully specifying notation. In early centuries, say, in the sixteenth, it had been believed sufficient to notate the figured bass and the melodic outline, leaving the performance to embellish and perform extempore according to established conventions and taste. Even in the eighteenth century, performers used well-established and traditional conventions for reading incomplete scores. Despite the latter’s increasing complexity, performers were still required to fill in requisite embellishments according to contemporary principles of taste. Performers did not generally play music, then, with the idea of instantiating an already completed work, completed in its every structural component. Like composers, they performed with the understanding that they had an extra-musical function to fulfil. They treated music a language or medium for use ...According to a more or less detailed outline, with more or less detailed instructions for performance, provided by the composer, the performer filled in and completed whatever musical expression was required (Goehr, 1992, pp. 151-152, pp. 187-188). 


Through the emergence of the work-concept, and the focus on the originality of the composer, the classical tradition moved farther away from being performer-controlled. Music moved from being a universal language to its artefacts becoming original entities with an author’s ownership, musical works, Goehr continues. To keep the originality of the work, the notation had to be rendered without changes, and in this way, the composer’s and the text’s authority emerged, the ideal that we know as Werktreue (see discussion of the ethics of interpretation in Rules and Leeway). The Romantic performer should be faithful to composer and score, as reflected in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s description in 1810: ‘The true artist lives only in that work which he has comprehended and now performs as the master intended it to be performed. He is above putting his own personality forward in any way’ (Hoffmann, 1810, quoted in Haynes, 2007, p. 95). This image was not unambiguous: it was still common long into the nineteenth century that musicians had improvisatory and compositional knowledge; preluding into a piece and making paraphrases and adaptions. For instance, it was not only allowed, but a demand from Chopin, that his students and himself made use of variability in their interpretations. The students must not imitate him without ‘giving some of themselves’ (Holcman, 1954, Interpretation). In the twentieth century, with the growing complexity of scores, the advent of the gramophone and the rise of the record industry, the classical performer became continually more specialized as instrumentalist and reader of the composer’s work. 


As a classical interpreter, I have longed for of a greater sense of leeway when I play composed music. I would like to experience a space for tolerance around the work in front of me, as a parallel to the musical room of choices that the composer made his considerations in. Finding this room can be about acquiring a greater bodily knowledge of idea, structure and details belonging to the work, in turn allowing more choices and greater movement with currents that arise while playing. Only knowing that the possibility was there would change my attitude in playing. Maybe my position in between performance traditions and ideals underlines this quest, as I stand between an aural variation practice and a score reading practice.