Blacks and Whites
So far, I have described and discussed processes where folk music has been the inspiration for new works, and where folk music has been the inspiration for extended possibilities in interpretation. A question that followed me throughout this work was, how I could relate to my folk musical background as pianist; what can ‘folk music on the piano’ be?
In the Norwegian artistic research programme, several performers have searched into musical and instrumental possibilities from folk musical perspectives. Mattis Kleppen has searched his way to a personal synthesis of three traditions on his bass guitar; Hardanger fiddle slåtter from Telemark, West African griotism and blues from Mississippi (Kleppen, 2013). Bass player Håkon Thelin has imagined a ‘folk music for the double bass’ that involves ‘helping the instrument to find its own voice’, and he sees this ‘folk music’ as a sort of contemporary music:
The folk music of and for the double bass is nourished by a venture of sound (timbre) through variation, improvisation and composition ... The concept of folk music for the double bass, as a true goal for expression and recreation, constitutes the same prepared spontaneity and rehearsed freedom as a folk fiddler’s performance, with the accumulation of thoughts and experiences through an unrestrained sound (Thelin, 2012).
To develop my own folk musical pianistic aesthetic, I played Hardanger fiddle slåtter as etudes on the piano. In the slått playing, I looked for ways to come closer to a flexible intonation. That one note might be varied microscopically in height from one phrase to another is an important aspect of the power of the folk music. When I sing folk music, such a flexible intonation is a natural and crucial part of the performance.
This is particularly problematic for me as a pianist: in front of me is an instrument tightly set in its tempered tuning, no half high intervals to find, and no possibility of sliding between them. I could use the tuning key and screw to affect the tuning during my playing — though that would not give any fluent flexibility. I could tune the whole grand piano to another tuning, but the pitches of the black and white keys would be just as set in one intonation.
The composers I worked with have tried different ways to extend the piano’s tonality and sound world: through live-electronics, through playing with electronic sounds and tape recordings, and by placing speakers and contact microphones inside the grand piano.
Playing with flexible intonation on the piano could have been possible using digital tools. But then the sound is moved from the acoustic and organic, to something electronic, and to me personally, it has been important to work with the acoustic nuances of timbre. So I concluded that when it is the grand piano I like, I need to accept the grand piano as it is.
The search from there was to go into the possibilities of the grand piano to create an illusion of half high intervals, or to affect the overtones to sound in that direction.
I work with this by ear, listening my way into affecting the overtones. Peeling off and playing more simply and less, helping me to come closer to this feeling of tonality. It is as if it is easier to come closer to the overtones I seek, the drier I play, the softer and more whispering I play. An illusion of flexible intonation can also be reached by continually varying which half notes.