Tracing the traditional
Playing with traditions
Nyhus grew up surrounded by folk music, and studied classical music. Her doctoral research project, “Playing with traditions”, has focused on examining how these two performance traditions relate to each other. Does it focus equally on playing them in relation to each other?
“Yes, both of these traditions address the performance and interpretation of material that has been passed down,” says Nyhus. She explains that she has tried to combine elements of both traditions when playing piano music inspired by folk music. “I have found that this work has expanded my palette as a pianist, and also as an interpreter and a bearer of oral traditions. The folk music tradition has opened up possibilities for me, and has inspired me to reflect on the aesthetic of the piano, for example.”
What do you think about in that connection?
“Accepting simplicity is a motto that I have lived by. Practising ways of resisting the classical idioms in piano playing, searching for modest and intimate qualities rather than shiny and lush ones. What is the opposite of polished, and what are the qualities that exist there?”
An outline of a universe
How do you view the concept of the work in the two traditions?
“I read an interview with playwright Jon Fosse a few years ago, where he described his plays as ‘an outline of a universe’, where the texts are highly detailed but can also be interpreted very broadly. I think this description could also apply to the way a fiddler relates to a tune.
“The tune exists as an outline, with clearly defined details, but is still open to change when it is played. It is different each time, from fiddler to fiddler and from district to district. Almost like you recall a fairy tale. You remember the core of the story, and some essential features that you find important. Not primarily word-for-word, or sound-for-sound, but the gist of the musical material – a core of an idea.
“Isn’t that how we should understand classical interpretation, too? That our work concerns not only finding and understanding a musical core, a skeleton of structure and expression that has been rendered physical, and then playing our music from that point of departure?”
Outline and “Solspill”
How have you yourself made use of the “outline” metaphor?
“I have brought that image with me, and have used it from different angles, according to the needs of the music, of course. In ‘Villarkorn/Stille-stykkje’ it felt natural for me to try to learn the verses ‘by ear’, so to speak, so they could spin – like dancing to a fiddle tune. But how could I do it without the work losing its own identity?
Listen to Villarkorn XVII and Villarkorn XX on Tidal (log in required)
“With Lasse Thoresen’s ‘Solspill’, composed in 1983, I wanted to try to approach the work as though it were an ‘outline’ in that sense. How could I explore its internal structures and ideas even more deeply? ‘Solspill’ consists of variations on a folk melody.
“Lasse explained to me in detail what he had been thinking about when he wrote the piece, in terms of both inspiration and specific compositional techniques. I worked feely with these compositional strategies and the idea material rather than practising the notes themselves. And then, at the end, I returned to the form as Lasse had notated it. It was an interesting process! I like that piece very much; it has a simplicity and intimacy about it, while at the same time there is a great deal to work with in the nuances and in how it stretches out in time: a detailed little universe.”
Solspill ligger på samme spilleliste som over.
On being a performer within a tradition
Nyhus tells about a lovely image described to her by a folksinger: he always tried to place his own identity in the background in his performances, as though he were wearing a mask in which his own voice merged with all the older voices that shared the same tradition.
“In my experience, this is the same concept that Knut Hamre refers to when he talks about ‘being nothing’ when playing the Hardanger fiddle. Stepping into a tradition is stepping into and becoming a part of all the voices – and this applies whether we are referring to classical music, jazz or folk music.”
Nyhus finds that the outlook exemplified by that image can influence both the expression and the focus. She finds that liberating, because it implies that individual musicians do not need to be afraid of stamping their distinctive characteristics on their own version of a piece. “It sounds like a contradiction in terms, but one has a responsibility to make one’s own voice and taste heard and, at the same time, draw the focus away from oneself.”
Trilogy of folk music for the piano
In the course of the past year you have recorded three CDs, a trilogy of folk music for the piano. All these recordings are part of your doctoral research project, but how are they connected?
“The three recordings represent three different directions taken by my project. The first addressed it from a contemporary point of view and by working with composers. I wanted to generate some new pieces within the Norwegian folk-inspired piano repertoire, and to see what approach contemporary composers would take to this this aspect,” she says.
The second direction she refers to is classical interpretation, where she alludes to her work with “Solspill” and “Villarkorn”, and her view of interpretation as the passing down of oral traditions. The third and final direction explores how the piano can sound from a folk-music perspective. The work she has done in this last area emerged as the recording Slåttepiano.
The abstract in folk art
On the first CD, Abstraction in Folk Art, you recorded two works that you commissioned from Øyvind Torvund and Asbjørn Schaathun. Why did you choose those two particular composers?
“There were several reasons. For one thing, they are very different. Øyvind is my age, has worked a great deal with folk music, and works conceptually in a variety of genres and traditions. Asbjørn is somewhat older than us, composes in a modernist style, and had never worked with folk music before. It was a new challenge for him, which he tackled enthusiastically. The results they arrived at were very different. It was also important to me that Asbjørn has a background as a pianist.”
What was the approach taken by the two composers in these pieces?
“Øyvind created a conceptual, playful work, which refers to abstract elements in folk music. The concert version features two slide projector screens showing both abstract pointillist paintings and abstract folk-art ornaments. And the same goes for sound: modernist and pointillist music can be heard side by side with asymmetrical rhythms and tonalities.
“Asbjørn, for his part, composed the work ‘Nations’ for piano and live electronics. It alternates between sweeping modernistic passages and rambling, lingering, fragile episodes, and the entire work is characterized by driving rhythms and repetitions. This work also became a piano concerto that I premiered with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra on 31 March.”
Did your work with these two pieces influence your further work on your doctoral research project?
“Yes, absolutely. The entire process and the discussions with Øyvind and Asbjørn, and also with composers Erik Dæhlin and Lasse Thoresen, were very important for me. I had to put into words what it was about folk music that interested me, and convey it to them. This also helped me clarify my own mindset, and that was something I could bring with me into my playing.
“When I worked closely with the composers and saw how bold and clear they were when making their choices, I was inspired to discover my own answers to what I had asked them to do. When they were so brave, so honest, I felt that I had to be the same.”
The second record is called Stille-stykkje, and consists of Olav Kielland’s neoclassical work “Villarkorn”, with the subtitle “20 stille-stykkje” (“20 Quiet Pieces”). Why did you decide to make a new recording of this?
“This work has been a part of my life for many years. I think it was Jens Harald [Bratlie], while I was studying with him, who thought I should play something by Olav Kielland. Then the journalist Stein Eide, from the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK), showed me the recording by pianist Eva Knardahl, and he also felt that I should play it. I was allowed to borrow the sheet music from Eide at the NRK library, and loved the piece immediately. It has so many wonderful movements.”
How would you describe its sound?
“Some of the movements, in particular, strike me as being open and giving plenty of scope. At the same time, it is a piece that holds references to a multitude of different styles, which makes it demanding to work with. There is folk music there, but it is also ‘Bachian’, a little ‘Rachmaninoffian’, and also more modern. It comprises a great many styles all at the same time, and I felt that I had to make some choices with regard to the framework and stylistic interpretation I would adopt.”
What did you focus on most when you reinterpreted this work?
“There is a lot of folk music in the ‘Villarkorn’ movements, as well as references to mythical figures and dreamlike states. It was recorded by Kjell Bækkelund in addition to Knardahl, but in my version I place greater emphasis on the folk music elements in the sound, the rhythm and phrasing, and the form.”
You decided to include yet another new work on this recording – a piece by Erik Dæhlin. What was your reason for this?
“I wanted to open up the neoclassical world with something newer and more spatial, and to introduce a different perspective to the dream world of folk music. As Erik Dæhlin had once composed a lovely little piece based on ‘Draumkvedet’ for me, I asked him if we could create some new variations on it. It could be a kind of refrain, or windows looking into something else, within ‘Villakorn’. Behind Erik’s music we can faintly hear an old recording of Margit Bø singing ‘Draumkvedet’.”
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Ingfrid Breie Nyhus and Erik Dæhlin working with the concert installation performance Avstandsriss at Nasjonalbiblioteket in 2014. Photo: Felipe Ferraria.
What do you think Erik Dæhlin’s new work has added to your doctoral research project?
“It’s the same as with the other composers – the conversations with Erik were also very constructive. His ideas are not limited by boundaries, and that’s how the others are, too, each in his own way. They can come up with ideas that you didn’t think were possible. It’s inspiring for me as a performer to experience this lack of boundaries, which they combine with clear ideals and styles.”
Are their ideals clearer than those of the performers?
“Composers have had much greater opportunity to think, read and find a stylistic direction in the course of their studies than we performers have had, as we spent most of our time practising during our student years. It can’t be denied. We don’t have the same opportunity as they do to delve more deeply into the material, because developing technique and experience with one’s instrument demands so many hours of practice.”
How much room for manoeuvre did you have with Erik Dæhlin?
“Erik let me participate in creating the work, so the installation we made lists both of us as composers. It was a collaboration where both of our voices were heard. Whereas, for example, Øyvind’s work is his own; I was given tasks and carried out various trials during the process, but he was responsible for the concept and the totality.”
Folk music on the piano?
Some people would not regard the piano as a folk instrument, and would be surprised that it is possible to play folk music on it. What conclusion have you arrived at?
“Misha Alperin was one of my co-supervisors, and his first questions when we began our discussions were: ‘Inspired by folk music – what does that mean?’ and ‘Folk music on the piano – is that possible?’ We kept coming back to those questions. Misha told me that he had always wondered whether it was possible to play folk music on the piano, and had decided that it wasn’t. I thought the same thing, that it would always be ‘something other’ than folk music – a different style, a different language, a different genre.
“But I played some Hardanger fiddle tunes on the piano, and liked how they sounded. So eventually I realised that I could change my mind. Yes, playing these fiddle tunes on the piano could have intrinsic value. It could be possible to play them while still keeping them within the folk music idiom. To refrain from adding more just because the instrument is larger, to avoid forcing anything even if the history of classical piano calls for an expressive idiom, but eliminating everything that could disqualify it from ‘being folk music’. Once again, accepting simplicity. Identifying what the fiddle tune tradition constitutes for me, and then probing as deeply as possible in order to rediscover it in the grand piano.”
What was your approach when you arranged these fiddle tunes for the piano?
“I had already been exploring a framework for solving this problem for a while. Searching in the transference between instruments – Hardanger fiddle to grand piano – and the possibilities or impossibilities this implies. Just the process of translating fiddle tunes to the piano involves so many changes that other references and associations arise automatically. Sometimes, for instance, the tempo has to be changed radically for it to work, otherwise the motif that forms the basis of the tune acquires a completely different nuance. I have listened to a lot of fiddlers as sources, searching for a personal understanding of the core of the tunes so I could decide how they should be played on the piano.
“So I chose the same pieces that Grieg used in his opus 72 – but this time, Grieg is not there. On the one hand you could say that this is Grieg’s music minus Grieg, but on the other hand it is traditional music played on the piano. Fiddle tunes as they sound when translated into the language of the piano.”