Folk Musical Interpretation

Rules and Leeway  


Loyalty is among the principles of being a performer of a tradition. But traditioning also involves the articulation of the individual: 


When Merleau-Ponty writes that, ‘I am the one who brings into being for myself (…) this tradition that I choose to take up’ [Merleau-Ponty, 1945, p. III], it admittedly means that I can choose, but this, that I choose my tradition, simultaneously involves that I choose to respect a certain set of rules. Without rules, no tradition. To choose to take up a tradition indeed means to let certain rules lead certain of our choices, and one of the most important functions of tradition is exactly that it leads our choices. A language is a tradition because it is run by a set of rules that we need to follow in order to speak and understand this language. On the other hand, the rules of language give me the opportunity to articulate as an individual in my community. The tradition is based on an agreement that opens up certain patterns of action and excludes others. That again involves a certain predictability, a certain recognizability, that agrees with the reprise as principle. But the repetition is only the point of departure for the projection that is involved in articulating as an individual (Tin, 2011, p. 39, my translation).


To participate in a tradition, we also have to accept and incorporate some of its ways and attitudes. It is not necessarily folk music if a person imitates one folk musician; she would need to familiarize herself with the tradition as a whole, make the material corporeal, be aware of several sources. The same applies to classical music: you are taught certain mindsets and ways to play, to be able to take part in the classical performance tradition. Text loyalty and understanding of style are central elements of this tradition, and have thus been held as important foci in the classical education.

In Solspill, I wouldn’t have been able to work the way I did if I hadn’t released the composer from the processes of rehearsal. Our conversation about the compositional techniques and inspirations provided an initial impulse to explore the work more broadly in a bodily manner than if I had just read the score, and through this strategy there was still a loyalty to the origins of the work and to its text, or its subtext.

Classical performance tradition is based on the reading of scores, and one often talks about rendering the composer’s original idea; many classical students still learn that we should try to interpret ‘the intentions of the composer’. This is an old fashioned idea, as intentionality was discussed in literature criticism in the mid-twentieth century. The argument was that the author’s ideas do not live inside the work, that the author does not ownthe meaning of the work. The meaning of a work, is for the reader to discover, independently from the original intentions of an author or a composer. As Roland Barthes writes in The Death of the Author, we can not see the author and the writing as the same thing. By releasing the text from its author, the emphasis is moved to the reader (Barthes, 1967/1977). 


In slått tradition, we see a tradition that is not notated, but lives in between people’s memory. The core knowledge has been kept through generations, even though continual new changes and restructuring appear. In the classical world, we have notation and sound-wise documentation galore, which we can always to return to. Thousands of performers play the music from a provident reading of notation and rendering of style, but still, few performers try out different directions in interpretation. 


Loyalty is important to tradition, but isn’t risk, putting something at play, stepping into unknown waters, crucial for art? To quote Susan Sontag in Against Interpretation: ‘In some cultural contexts, interpretation is a liberating act. It is a means of revising, of transvaluing, of escaping the dead past. In other cultural contexts, it is reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling’ (Sontag, 1966, p. 98).


Before Bakhtin developed his concept of dialogism, he spoke of ‘answerability’, the responsibility to respond: ‘...the process of mutual response, answering, that happens between two persons or between art and life. ... answerability is the name for individual responsibility and obligation that leads to action for ourselves, of course, but also on behalf of others’ (Haynes, 2013, p. 42). What would an ethics of interpretation involve? What do we respond to as performers?

As a participant in a tradition, the performer has responsibility not just for the material that is carried on, but also to express her own voice as an individual. To respond to a work can also mean to give it room to breath. 


In a good dialogue, both parties, according to Hans-Georg Gadamer, must listen carefully to each other and make themselves open. 


Just as any human player must take the game seriously – as not to be, as Gadamer puts it, a spoil-sport – the game of understanding requires of us a profound commitment – a commitment to listen with care, to be sensitive to the alterity of what each other has to say, to take seriously each other’s claims to truth, and to stand ready to be challenged and truly transformed in our own thinking. … This comportment of openness characterizes in a general way the ethical conditions which must be met by both/all parties involved for genuine dialogue and a common understanding of some truth about our world to take place (Vilhauer, 2013, p. 80).  


In an interpretation, I make myself, as a classical performer, open to the work; that is, the work can affect me and my playing. Can the work make itself open back to me, in a dialogue? 

The composer of  Villarkorn has gone out of time, and the notation is not a thinking body, but I created a fictive dialogue with the work, and opened it up to a larger space for me and my playing, in the balance between the two parts of the dialogue. 


Ole Lützow-Holm, Anna Lindal, Anders Hultqvist, Henrik Hellstenius and Magnus Haglund recently conducted an artistic research project in Sweden, Mot ett konstmusikens utvidgade fält (Towards an extended field of art music) (2008-2012)where they looked at art music from the perspectives of composition and interpretation, with questions about where the work ends, and where the interpretation begins (Lützow-Holm, 2012a). Lützow-Holm describes a tension in his work as a composer, between text and orality:  

The music begins where the score ends… No, that is too simple. The music begins when I start putting out and organizing the material in relation to its secondary meanings… No, that is too complicated. The music begins in the moment I am aware that I listen… Better. Then the question will be about freedom, readiness and presence, rather than about one thing. … (Lützow-Holm, 2012b, p. 109-110, my translation)


Several artistic projects in recent years have seen interpretation as creative work more than a traditional classical rendering. For example, I we should note Misha Alperin and Misha Rudy’s improvisations on classical piano works (Rudy & Alperin, 2004), Terje Tønnesen and The Norwegian Chamber Orchestra’s  playful version of Vivaldi’s The Seasons (Det Norske Kammerorkester, 2005), Nils Henrik Asheim’s Chopin mazurka project (Asheim & Gjertruds sigøynerorkester, 2010), Eivind Buene’s singer-songwriter versions of Schubert lieder (Buene, 2012) (part of the result of his artistic research project Again and Again and Again: Music as site, situation and repetition), and Aisha Orazbayeva’s interpretation of Telemann fantasies with contemporary playing techniques (Orazbayeva, 2016).

These projects, as well as my work with Villarkorn, could borrow a description from theatre director Eugenio Barba, as working with the text rather than for the text:

The narrative context of a performance can be given by a written text and there are infinite ways of dealing with it in theatre. But they can all be grouped within two tendencies: working for the text and working with the text. Working for the text means to consider the literary work as the principal value of the performance. ... The written words become flesh and thought-in-action. ... Working with the text means choosing one or more literary scripts and – instead of placing oneself at their service – extracting a substance which must nourish a new organism: the performance. ... The literary text was originally an autonomous and complete organism. Now it is material ready to change, plunged into a process of choices and visions which are foreign to it  (Barba, 2009, s. 123).


An extended understanding of musical interpretation can also be illuminated by Erika Fischer-Lichte’s three models of the relationship between text and performance in the theatre. In the first model, the interpreters work with sacrifying something, to be able to highlight something else (‘sacrificial ritual’): ‘What appears to them as “bones”, “inedible innards”, or even “fatty vapour” is left to the “gods”; in other words, it will be excluded ... In this sense, each and every production that uses a text performs its dismemberment, a ritual sacrifice’ (Fischer-Lichte, 2010,  p.35). The second model involves playing the text together with other material (‘play’): to play with the text means to exploit fully its potential for generating associations. ... the ludic process of creating a collision of the text with other materials ... allows us to find out what kinds of new meanings can be generated’ (Fischer-Lichte, 2010, p. 35). In the third way to work (‘resonance’), only fragments are left, and the rest of the text ‘...resonates in certain scenes, actions, movements, or behaviour without actually being spoken’ (Fischer-Lichte, 2010, p. 35). In this case, the text is sensed only as a resonance behind the new performance.

These three ideas could also be applied to interpretations in this artistic research project. The idea of a ritual sacrifice may point to Villarkorn, where I ‘sacrificed’ Romantic elements and parts, in exchange to highlighting the folk musical. The material was played with together with other material, as in the idea to ‘play’; and also in the process with Solspill, other musical material was improvised into the skeleton form of the piece. The idea of ‘resonance’, is relevant to the work I describe in the next chapter: text that no longer is heard.