Folk Musical Interpretation

Villarkorn: As If It Were Folk Music 

Olav Kielland’s Villarkorn, 20 quiet pieces is a piano work of 20 movements, 40-45 minutes long, written in 1951. The composition was inspired by traditions from the valley of Telemark, and most of the movements were based on folk musical forms such as ‘halling’ (2/4 dance type), ‘lokk’ (cow calling) and ‘springar’ (an asymmetrical 3/4 dance type). At the beginning and end of the score there is written a quotation from a ‘stev’ (a type of folk song with specific rhythm and rhyme framework where diverse text is put to certain base melodies). These stevverse quotes can be connected to a version of Draumkvedet (The Song of Dream; an old ballad telling the story of Olav Åsteson who slept for 13 days and travelled to the other side in his sleep). The mythical and mystical qualities of the folk traditions provide a background to the music in Villarkorn, also evident in movement titles such as ‘Tussar’ (dwarfs/elfs), ‘Huldr’ (mythical female), ‘Troll’ (trolls) and‘Draum’ (dream). The compositional style is neo-classical: here are baroque, romantic and modern inspirations, in addition to folk music inspiration. The Norwegian pianists Kjell Bækkelund (Bækkelund, 1974) and Eva Knardahl (Knardahl & Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, 1992, track 2-21) made recordings, but today this work, and Kielland’s piano composition as a whole, are very little known among pianists. Olav Kielland himself writes about Villarkorn:


Villarkorn are the seeds that troll females and people of the hills mix into the drink they offer the human beings that they have stolen, and these seeds give them troll eye or troll ear, that is, special senses which extend their consciousness to include incredible things. The signs of the music, the notes, are here allegorically called Villarkorn, as if, with some ‘trolldom’ or magic from the northern hill, to nurture the Norwegian embers, tune the ear to Norwegian timbres - as one tunes the strings of a fiddle - and turn the thought away from gaunt materialistic understandings and over to the tempting lands of fantasy. Thus supernatural creatures and subterranean elfs are used - without going too close - as allegorical concepts that witness longing, dream and attraction, and refer to much that is strange and hortative of Norwegian nature and Norwegian mood. As an old man said, one who lived his life contemplating nature, loving its movements, listening to its voices, and never stopped wondering - What is life? What is truth? What is reality? (LP-cover to Bækkelund, 1974, my translation).


I fell for some of the movements from the first time I opened the score of Villarkorn, because they immediately invited me to a play of spinning and variation: it was as if the music asked me for it. Some movements were written in a way that was so close to a folk musical language that it wouldn’t have occurred to me to play it any way other than as if it were folk music. To keep, and to be able to build further, the improvisational potential of the folk musical style, I tried to learn Villarkorn more ‘by ear’ than by reading; a kind of oral learning method of score studying, to the degree that this was possible. I tried to learn the motifs into my hands, to learn the outlines of the forms, without getting to know them as too locked or specific, and by putting the score quickly away, so that I only almost remembered them. This was to open my ears in another way, to open up the actions of my hands, to open up for another flexibility. 

















Sometimes I felt that the folk musical and the classical fused into each other in a natural way, but in other places I felt that there was a real collision between two different worlds. Some movements are based on classical music forms: movement no. 13 is a baroque inspired fugue movement; movement no. 14, ‘Troll’, is built as an even crescendo towards massive chords. Both forms are very far away from the repetitive expression of slått music. 


The many different stylistic elements of the work made it demanding to find good portals to interpretations. Because I didn’t allow myself to read the music too much, I was forced to build the phrases together more on my own, a process which gave me a fruitful resistance. I used slått variation principles to extend the music, where there was a possibility for such a ‘spinning’.  

Style can also be a tool of illuminating different layers of a musical work. Exchanging the original stylistic world with another can be a way to step into the work from another angle. What if I put away the classical Romantic language, exchange it for more of a folk musical language? I imagined this as a headline for for my work; ‘as if it were folk music’. I let the folk musical aesthetics guide stylistic choices, such as drier sound, downplayed expression and employed flexible oblique rhythmics. 

sound excerpt, Olav Kielland: Villarkorn I +II, played by Ingfrid Breie Nyhus, piano (Nyhus, 2015b, track 2)

sound excerpt, Olav Kielland: Villarkorn VIII, played by Ingfrid Breie Nyhus, piano (Nyhus, 2015b, track 6)

I was looking for a sense of the core of what Villarkorn could be in my experience. From that core, I was open for further recomposition or improvising, if it was needed. Being an interpreter is often about stepping towards the work. Allowing a piece of music into my own voice and body demands a positive, opening attitude, as it is important to me that I convey it with conviction. But when I opened the possibility of considering and editing the form of Villarkorn, I could not just accept in the same way as I would in a traditional classical interpretation. Instead I went into discussions or negotiation with the work. 

The functional harmonics of classical Romantic works inspired by folk music create conflict to me. Chord progressions always disturb me when they are used together with slått music, where they do not belong. Chord instruments have been used in some places in folk musical Norway, but more often in recent times. I am more drawn to sonic structures or timbral colors. To me, harmonizing slått music is a kind of cultivation that is out of place, in music whose power lies in something more ritual, lingering. 

An open, spinning way of playing of the repetitive structures of Villarkorn soon comes into conflict with structures built upon harmonic progressions. I came into conflict with myself about the next step. How far should I go in this rebuilding of the work? I pictured directions where large parts of Villarkorn disappeared because I was tempted to go for large restructuring. I realized that at this point that I would like to maintain my dialogue with the work, searching within the gap between me and it: that friction is an important impetus for me as musician. 

If I had had more experience with composing, I could have worked more with rebuilding the work within the time frame I had available; but my position as performer leads to other choices than those a composer might have chosen from her desk. The restructuring that I make in Villarkorn comes out as bodily reactions between the music and me, in flexibility in timing and rhythmical freedom, patience through listening and lingering through the repetitive.

sound excerpt, Olav Kielland: Villarkorn IX «Lokk», played by Ingfrid Breie Nyhus, piano (Nyhus, 2015b, track 8)

The header ‘as if it were folk music’ also affects choices in form, governed by the idea of variability and learning by ear. Practising without reading the notes had given me a bodily freedom through the motifs. It gave the possibility of micro variations in my playing, and the music felt more fresh in my hands by never having the exact same form.



sound excerpt, Olav Kielland: Villarkorn XVII «Huldr», played by Ingfrid Breie Nyhus, piano (Nyhus, 2015b, track 16)


During this process I read and talked to several musicians about Olav Kielland, a Norwegian composer who is not so well known today. ‘As a conductor Kielland was recognized and accomplished, but still controversial. He was very ill-tempered and often seen as authoritarian and difficult to work with, something he was offended by and perceived as almost persecution’ (Kielland, 2009, my translation). Kielland took part in Quisling’s musical advisory board during the war, a fact which gave his music even more uncomfortable associations for me. This board was created in 1940 by the Quisling government serving Hitler, with Geirr Tveitt as chair, and David Monrad Johansen, Iver Johnsen and Per Reidarson in addition to Kielland. The members withdrew one by one, and Kielland left in June 1941. After the war he was also suspected of having collaborated with the Nazis in his position as artistic director of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, even though these accusations were later withdrawnI thought this was difficult to be in dialogue with. How could I manage to play this piece in an honest way, with this as the backdrop?

Then I became aware of my attitude: why was I so attentive to Olav Kielland the composer? What if this music I was working on, was folk music - then the origin could have been something enigmatic, mystical, as in Part I: Thrice Over the RiverAt least, I could fantasize such a mystical origin, one that dissoved the idea of the composer. Then the work moved and I started to think of Villarkorn as only Villarkorn; I interpret the work, not the composer. It is so simple, but still not, when seen from a classical performer’s point of view. This insight opened my perspective, and gave me more space. 

I wished to expand these words with something more abstract, something that was related to the same ideas and the theme of the mystical. By juxtaposing Villarkorn with something else, I could give it another lighting, open another view. This could be a sort of omkved (a kind of refrain in folk songs) that keeps returning. The connection to Draumkvedet in the verse written in the score led me to material in Avstandsriss. 
One of the movements there was based on a recording of Draumkvedet sung by Margit Bø in 1937. In Avstandsriss it was composed as different variants. Erik Dæhlin and I took this movement further and formed new renditions adapted to the context of Villarkorn. They were placed as windows, with another sound, another spaciousness. The movements’ names were the different days in the story of Draumkvedet.

Erik Dæhlin: The Third Day, played by Ingfrid Breie Nyhus, piano (Nyhus, 2015b, track 1)

Olav Kielland & Erik Dæhlin: Villarkorn XVI + The Eight Day, played by Ingfrid Breie Nyhus, piano (Nyhus, 2015b, track 15)

Villarkorn was recorded and published in the album Stille-stykkje («Quiet pieces») (Nyhus, 2015b). The installation The Eight Day by Erik Dæhlin was created in the same process.