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Sound Check Norway: Norway’s Folk Music – From the Outside

Posted: 25. Nov, 2013

MOJO magazine and theartsdesk.com contributor Kieron Tyler puts the spotlight on Norwegian traditional folk music and asks a timely question: ‘How can this large, sparsely populated place produce so much which needs to be heard? Although ultimately a knotty question, a significant part of the answer is to do with the music being embedded in the way of life. The story of how this happened is unique and also helps explain why outsiders find Norway’s folk and traditional music so exceptional, so addictive.’

By Kieron Tyler

“When we reached the room, in which the miners and the lasses were assembled, the male dancer practices every possible grimace, look and attitude that may express lasciviousness…exhibiting his amorous propensities. Like all national dances, this was grossly licentious.”

The staid British traveller Edward Daniel Clarke was in no doubt that the music of Norway was making its citizens cavort unacceptably. His shock must have sent his eye-brows towards the roof. That was in September 1799, in the east-central Norwegian mining centre of Røros. The dance he saw was the pols.

It’s unlikely traditional Norwegian dance could shock any non-Norwegians these days. Recently, Black Metal is probably the only music which could arouse a reaction like Clarke’s.

The spell of the Hardanger fiddle

Yet when heard live the Hardanger fiddle casts a spell which lingers long after the playing has stopped. An old-time dance band will be irresistible. Boundary-breaking artists – vocalists, violinists, even a musician with instruments of ice – draw from the traditional to make music which can hit like a blow to the chest. Outsiders become spellbound by the downright Norwegian.

There’s no shortage of folk and folk-derived music. Any visitor to Norway – at a festival, a concert or dance hall, or even at a spontaneous get-together in a back room – can find traditional music. The bands Valkyrien Allstars and Majorstuen have crossed into the mainstream. As it is with all Norway’s music, the amount created is disproportionate. The population is only 5 million, and that includes the indigenous Saami whose music is distinct from Norway’s yet still integral the wider traditional cultural landscape. The quality is also disproportionate.

How can this large, sparsely populated place produce so much which needs to be heard? Although ultimately a knotty question, a significant part of the answer is to do with the music being embedded in the way of life. The story of how this happened is unique and also helps explain why outsiders find Norway’s folk and traditional music so exceptional, so addictive.

Norway itself is integral to its culture – whether with film, literature, theatre, visual art and music or dance. Dig hard enough and it is always there. For a star like Kari Bremnes, the environment is fundamental to her identity and what inspires her. Yet she is not – in general – a traditional artist and could never be pigeonholed as folk.

Norwegian Romantic Nationalism
What Norway is and what is Norwegian became increasingly important after the end of Danish rule in 1814 and the imposition of Sweden in that role. As the 19th century progressed, the Norwegian Romantic Nationalism movement began to define Norway. Before independence from Sweden came in 1905, travellers sought out what was Norwegian and began recognising regional differences. It became especially important as the changing economy meant people were moving from the country to cities. Things could be lost.

Just as America had song collectors like Alan Lomax and Britain had Cecil Sharp, Norway had Olea Crøger, Magnus Landstad and Ludvig Lindeman – but in the 19th rather then 20th century. Naturally, Norway’s song collectors published what they had discovered in the 1850s, and did so before Francis Child published the English and Scottish folk song collection the Child Ballads in America. Norway was a pioneer in collecting traditional music.

Ole Bull

The violinist Ole Bull went further and brought the fiddler Targeir Augundsson – who performed as Myllarguten (the miller boy) – to Oslo (then Christiania) in 1849. It was the first time a stage in the capitol had hosted rural, traditional music. Håvard Gibøen, from Telemark like Augundsson, would also prove influential in this vital period. Bull also encouraged the young Edvard Grieg, whose music would become one of the world’s most important entry points into the character of Norway.

Now, after the work of the 19th-century innovators and pioneers, it is possible to characterise Norway’s indigenous music. Whatever the musicology, nothing can be hard-and-fast. Music, like people and culture, evolves and is fluid. Nonetheless, vocal genres include sæter (songs from mountain farming), various forms of ballad and stev (old ballads). Most striking are slåttestev (fiddle melodies which are sung) and stevleik (competitive singing). Characteristic instruments include the langleik (a zither) and, from central south-west Norway, the uniquely Norwegian hardingfele (Hardanger fiddle). The violin had only arrived in Norway in the 1600s and began to supplant the langleik. Horns, like an Alpine horn, the harp and the jew’s harp also crop up. So does the accordion, especially to accompany gammeldans. All are part of today’s traditional and traditional-inspired scenes.

With its sympathetic strings, the sound of the Hardanger fiddle is instantly recognisable, seductive and mesmerising, even though there is no set tuning. Sudden flurries of notes break a repetitive, round-style playing which evokes serial music and modern-classical minimalism. The drone of the sympathetic strings brings an air of the exotic. New York experimentalist La Monte Young would have heard himself in the Hardanger fiddle. The instrument is known from around 1700 and wasn’t built by trained makers until the 1850s – concurrent with Norwegian Romantic Nationalism.
Whatever the music, instrument or whether the playing or singing is solo or in a group, it can be for dancing or listening. Augundsson preferred to be listened to. His performances were appreciated as music. So institutions were set up to preserve, promote and educate: the national fiddlers association was founded in 1923, the University of Oslo added musicology to its syllabus in 1956, the Ole Bull Academy opened in 1977. Festivals began to be dedicated to folk and traditional music. As it had been with the song collectors, music born in Norway was helped along by a form of organisation – and helped along earlier than jazz, despite the latter’s international profile.

All this means there’s no lack of access to the music – both for players and audiences. It also means the boundary breaking and genre blurring can comfortably exist side-by-side with the avowedly traditional.


At the annual Landskappleiken festival, Norway’s folk music faithful gather. Up to 7000 dance, play and celebrate each year in a different city or town. They also compete. It’s possible to take a chair and listen to six unbroken hours of Hardanger fiddle. There’s solo singing, group singing, the mind-blowing acrobatic Halling dance (spectacular somersaults a speciality there) and other relatively sedate forms of dance. Winners are chosen in different categories and, at the Mesterkonsert, an overall champion declared.

It’s inclusive. Anyone can pop in on the inevitable impromptu sessions, whether a player, singer or neither. Beer is drunk. Lots. Traditional costume becomes the day-to-day. Landskappleiken reveals all the faces of Norway’s traditional music scene. Even with no grounding in the intricacies of, say, the ganger (the walking dance) differences between performers can be seen and it becomes apparent who the likely winners may be. An immersion in this remarkable, wonderful event is essential.

The Landskappleiken immersion also makes it possible to detect subtle hints of players breaching the limits of the traditional. In 2013, the Hardanger player Erlend Apneseth gave off the air that he could be just such musician.

Beyond boundaries

There are certainly precedents for the Hardanger fiddle being taken into avant-garde territories – as its sound suggests it could be. Nils Økland straddles the boundaries between the traditional and modern minimalism and has created soundscapes which, although sparse, can be extremely powerful.

Taking music even further beyond boundaries – kicking them over – saxophonist Karl Seglem plays a horn yet will still be found in jazz listings. His is a world where the traditional meets jazz, without each giving in to the other. Terje Isungset is primarily a percussionist, but he has played instruments carved from Norway’s ice. Not necessarily traditional, but his work suggests Norway’s environment.

The members of the wonderful vocal trio Eplemøya Songlag are drawn from the folk and jazz worlds, yet their music – the melodies – and lyrics are rooted in the traditional. They have transposed fiddle music to the vocal. The trio Slagr have performed the compositions of composer Geirr Tveitt – who placed fiddle tunes in orchestral settings – and collaborated with vocalist Camilla Granlien. Their reimagination of the traditional is stately and still. Norway’s traditional instruments and music lend themselves to the minimal.

70s pioneers

Back in the ’70 though, the marriage between the traditional and rock was less seamless. The pioneers were Prudence (pictured) (named after The Beatles’ song “Dear Prudence”), who had formed in 1969. They incorporated folk elements into their sound, especially by featuring the accordion. The explicitly named Folque formed in 1973 and leant more heavily on the traditional. But the band which first brought the rigorously traditional onto the rock stage was Saft. At 1973’s Ragnarock Festival they were joined by Hardanger fiddle player Sigbjørn Osa – the future founder of the Ole Bull Academy.


Although the Saft-Osa collaboration resulted in a record capturing their performance, in 1974 the television music awards show Spellemannsprisen wouldn’t allow them to play together. They were give separate spots on the programme. Folk was folk, and rock was rock. The two were not meant to meet. What would Britain’s Fairport Convention have thought?

With jazz, collaborations with folk had occurred much earlier and more smoothly. The Kristian Hauger Jazzorkester’s jazz-folk Norwegian Jazz Fantasy was recorded in 1929. Visiting American Dexter Gordon had performed with singer and fiddle player Ivar Medaas in 1964 at the Molde Festival.

Now, the traditional – the folk – respects no barriers. Norway’s search for its unique qualities in the 19th century created the building blocks. Yet it took a long time for such sensitive components to fuse with other styles. Inevitably, it took courage to adapt what had helped define Norway. But it happened.

Norway is a country where boundaries between musical genres are constantly broken and the startlingly new created. This is one thing which makes the country special. Folk isn’t immune. But Norway still has an astonishing, vital traditional music scene. It all thrives in a country with a population less than London’s. Whatever Norway is doing, it’s doing it right.


Kieron Tyler contributes to MOJO magazine, the leading British music monthly. He also writes for theartsdesk.com, the UK’s first professional critical website and winner of the Best Specialist Journalism Site at the Online Media Awards 2012. He is The Arts Desk’s reissue CDs editor. His writing has also appeared in Billboard, Q, The Guardian, The Independent, Music Week, Les Inrockuptibles, Ugly Things and the European Commission’s 12 Star Culture. Consulting for major and independent labels on catalogue reissues (including Universal, EMI and Rhino), he worked on EMI’s reissues of all Magazine’s albums and Rhino’s Jesus & Mary Chain and a-ha reissues. Since 2000, across various labels, he has worked on all reissues of the original albums by The Damned. His own imprint – RPM International – is dedicated to of non-UK, non-American music. In the field of music PR, campaigns worked on include Morten Harket and Charlotte Gainsbourg.


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