Summary: A research project by Njål Sparbo and Einar Røttingen

This research project revolved around meaning and ambiguity in seventy songs by Geirr Tveitt (1908-1981). The theoretical mode of conceiving music by reading a score (eidos; music-as-analysed) was combined with a phenomenological investigation (aesthesis; music-as-experienced).

The primary sources of the investigation of Geirr Tveitt’s songs were Tveitt's own musical treatise “Tonalitätsheorie des parallelen Leittonsystems” (Tonality Theory of the Parallel Leading Tone System) published by Gyldendal in 1937, and Lasse Thoresen’s book about phenomenological musical analysis “Studies in Music - Emergent Musical Forms: Aural Explorations” published by University of Western Ontario in 2015. In addition, score and poem analyses and other background inquiries were made.


Tveitt seems to connect a particular ethos (character; fundamental value) to each of the modal modes, and the tonics (tonal foundation) constitute the basis of the gravitational forces in the music, affecting the expressive arcs of tension as well as subtle expressive intonation alterations in the vocal part. The rhythmical aspects are particularly important in Tveitt’s music, countering the so­ftness and pliability of the modality with structural strictness, and sporadically adding rhythmical Norwegian folk-music associations to the songs.

None of the chosen songs were published, and copies of Tveitt’s manuscripts were found at the National Library in Oslo. The classical music training leans towards submerging personal intuitions in awe for the composer's pre-eminence, and following scores dogmatically are considered to be respectful. However, many of Tveitt’s manuscripts lacked tempo markings, and articulation marks were sparse. When searching for suitable interpretations of Geirr Tveitt's songs it therefore seemed constructive to follow our own basic instincts, and gradually develop a sensitivity for his musical palette. A series of experiments were made with alternate tempos, articulations, rhythmical displacements (dismissing bar lines) and rubato.

Staying true to the notated score - but reframing the performative mindset

"It is the mindset - not the music - that is the main theme. I am not thinking about the musical score, but about the eloquence." Geirr Tveitt

Investigations of Tveitt’s treatise led to a series of auditive experiments with modality, polymodality and ambiguous modalities. The most unsettling experiments resulted from mentally refashioning the fundamental structures in a song by deliberately choosing alternative “imagined tonics”. This intentional shifting of “structural hearing” during musicking affected the gravitational points in the harmonic progressions as well as the rhythmical structures, gradually leading to a more intuitive and innovative palette of dynamical phrasing options.


For the singer, this type of mental reframing stimulated variants in vocal timbre, melodic trajectories and expressive intonation (according to the imagined tonics). Allowing the prosody of the lyrics to follow the musical interpretation (contrary to the norm) resulted in unpredicted and ambiguous literal meanings, providing a variety of perspectives on the emergence of possible interpretations in each of the poems.


For the pianist the mental reframing motivated shifting the harmonic weight and articulation in order to support the intended tonics as well as raising various musical elements from the deeper (structural) levels to the foreground, creating alternative rhythmical patterns as well as melodical counterpoint.

Continuous experiments with form-building elements and musical flow

Performing music with a preconceived resilient interpretation supports clear and professional expressions. However, a series of authoritative and fixed statements often decreases the sense that something genuine is happening in the spur of the moment and may also diminish the listeners’ sense of autonomy to make their own interpretations. If the experience is perceived as a second-rate “copy” – a duplicate of a “flawless”, but absent original – the performative responsiveness is reduced for the performers as well as for the audiences.


The study of sounds (Sonology, or “music-as-heard”) is one of Lasse Thoresen’s points of departure in his methodological approach, which “combines a phenomenological perspective with a pragmatic use of selected structuralist techniques. Phenomenology provides the global outlook, with its emphasis on the Lifeworld (hence music-as-heard), its explication of internationalities, and its emphasis on describing and reflecting on an experienced object, rather than on its explanation.” (Thoresen: Studies in Music, p. 164)

Incorporation of Thoresen’s viewpoints led to a variety of intentional “listening behaviours” whilst rehearsing the songs, and several focused mindsets were tested systematically. Using the scores as points of departure rather than as musical recipes, the aspired attitude of the researchers could be described as applying phenomenological sonology in real time by actively changing mindsets and listening behaviours during “musicking” – and immediately attempting to respond to the perceived emergent meanings. Increasing the aural attentiveness towards multiple perceptions of music and lyrics during performances and the equivocal attitude towards musical expressions could be described as applied sonology in real time: a fusion of aural analytic reflections and intuitive improvisations.

Embracing the mindset of continually altering our attentive focus and generating innovative reflections whilst musicking, the suffix “sono-logy” was altered to “sono-tic”, coining the musical endeavour: "sonotical interpretations". Allowing spontaneity and free associations to shape the musical form and flow requires a heightened sensitive alertness between singer and pianist.

The prosess of unlearning, dismissing preconceived intentions, disregarding bar lines and improvising with tonics led to an increased aural awareness during musicking, and a sense of personal creativity and ownership of Tveitt’s music. One could argue that these experiments were apophenic, constituting falsifications of Tveitt’s musical intentions; that the creation of alternative patterns and meanings would lead to profound misunderstandings about the central essence of a piece of music, and that the singer’s intonation could be perceived as “out of tune” when based on eccentric tonics.


However, when the sonotical improvisations of some of the songs were presented to the research group, the listeners responded that the performers' focused sonotical attitude only seemed to activate the listeners’ attention to details, contrasts and musical form. The musical alterations were observed merely as subtle changes of rhythm, articulation and timbre – as intentional expressive gradations to enrich communication. It also seemed to offer the listeners more freedom to make their own interpretative choices.

"A genial interpretation of the music can give increased insight into a piece of art." Geirr Tveitt

In various ways this approach linked into the six research topics of the group: “Unsettling sites and styles - in search of new expressive means” - 1) Performance tradition, 2) Score fidelity, 3) Essential means of expression, 4) Extra-musical contexts, 5) Articulating tacit knowledge, and 6) Intersubjective collaboration and research methods.

The researchers turned back to being performing musicians after three years of unsettling and resettling their habitual mindsets (completing the artistic research circle). Results were publications, performances, commented score editions, and recordings.

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Foto: Bente Elisabeth Finserås