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Majorstuen – one of Norwegian folk music’s flagships – premiered their very first commissioned work themed on birds at the Førde Festival earlier in 2013.

For more than a decade, Majorstuen has explored the nation’s folk music heritage and presented a steady output of their own, stylistically strong compositions. Their energetic, pulsating, exploratory and humoristic approach to composition and playing has earned the celebrated folk music ensemble a loyal following at home and abroad.

The name Majorstuen has come to signify the revival of Norwegian traditional music and its popular image as a hugely dynamic and forward-looking musical expression. Already with its eponymous 2003 debut album, this five-strong fiddle ensemble made it clear that things were changing in the sphere of Norwegian folk. Words like “explosive” and “ground-breaking” had not previously been associated with pure fiddle music, but that was before Majorstuen came along.

For the 2013 Førde Traditional and World Music Festival, Majorstuen penned their very first commissioned work titled ‘Kvitre’ (translation: Twitter). Inspired by our feather-clad friends, the Majorstuen members have written songs steeped in Norway’s folk music tradition and themed entirely on birds; their singing styles and characteristic traits.
We reached Majorstuen’s Tove Persdøtter Hagen as the ensemble was preparing rehearsals for their Førde Festival premiere. When asked why Majorstuen chose birds as the theme for their very first commissioned work, Hagen replies by drawing some lines through Norwegian folk music history:
‘For ages, birds have been a common theme for traditional folk music. Traditional dances have often been named after bird species and the musicians would often recreate the characteristics of each bird’s song’ says Hagen. ‘Jorun (Marie Kvernberg, ed.note) came up with the idea of writing a whole concert’s worth of material with a bird theme while she was out running. For years, we have wanted to compose and arrange a commissioned work for a larger format, and we liked the idea of birds as a theme immediately.’

Swans and Woodpeckers
Says Hagen on the ensemble’s compositional approach: ‘We started the process by assigning three bird species to each band member and began to compose tunes that would match the traits of each bird. Some of the tunes are inspired by the bird’s singing while other compositions are based more on the specie’s demeanour. One of our new compositions is titled ‘The Swan’ – we wrote it to mimic the movements of a grand and graceful bird. A tune like ‘The Woodpecker’ would naturally sound quite different as we tried to recreate the percussive sound of the bird hacking its way through a pine. We’ve also focused on the humoristic side: we wrote a tune to salute the now extinct Dodo bird. The end result was a song that is sombre, slow and dark – a homage to the very last Dodo to walk the earth. It has been a long compositional process that began in autumn 2012 and the pace has picked up gradually as the project has begun to take shape. This spring has been hectic and the whole project has taken up most of our available time as the deadline is approaching.

Youthful backing
The Kvitre Ensemble, featuring ten young and talented fiddlers representing Norway’s strongest folk music regions, is set to boost the Majorstuen stage presence at the Førde Folk Music Festival. Says Hagen on working with the new fiddle ensemble: ‘We’ve recruited ten of Norway’s best fiddle players aged 17 to 22, and it’s really boosted the output of the whole ensemble. The players were a bit timid at first, but after a focused rehearsal period in May, things have really loosened up and everyone is getting quite excited about the project. All of the new players have proved to be quick learners, regardless if they learn by ear or by score.

So what does this new nearly orchestral version of Majorstuen sound like? Says Hagen: ‘Even if we have brought in a large crew of new players, we’re still staying true to our artistic ideals. Basically, the new work and ensemble sounds like a huge version of Majorstuen.’

New album & tours
After a hectic compositional process, the ensemble is now poised to hit the road and head for the studio later this year: ‘This autumn we’ll record the material written for ‘Kvitre’ and are planning for an album release next year. We’ll also tour with the new repertoire at home and abroad’ concludes Hagen before rushing off for yet another rehearsal with Majorstuen and the Kvitre ensemble.

Judging by the numerous glowing reviews bestowed upon Majorstuen in later years, it would appear that the ensemble’s secret is the way the six fiddlers have refined their widely-different musical dialects into a single characteristic and playful language. Many will also argue that just as important is the fact that they have allowed this folk idiom to be influenced and energized by urban and eclectic musical impulses, making their pure fiddle music zeitgeist-y and fresh. They are conservative about sound and instrumental line-up, but all the more open and playful when it comes to ways of reinterpreting and reinvigorating the fiddle heritage.

The result is music that is deeply rooted in tradition and distinctively Norwegian, and at the same time it is something new. Majorstuen breaks down old barriers between rural and urban concepts by presenting fiery, energetic and clever music that seems just as appropriate in a city club as on a village stage. More than anything, it is the live spectacle that this band puts on that has earned a reputation. A live spectacle that one should not miss out on – especially when it involves a brand new work, ten spirited young players and a Majorstuen ensemble as spirited and eager to play as ever.