Interplay in genre crossover

What does genre crossover demand from the involved musicians? How deep understanding for each others genres do they need? And who must “give in”?

Nærbilde av hardingfele
Foto: NMH

In Norway and Sweden we have long traditions for mixing folk music with jazz and rock music. Also, Norwegian folk musicians collaborate with folk musicians from other parts of the world. A common critique particularly against the folk- and jazz blends has been that the musical expression is established on the jazz musicians’ terms, where the rhythmic and tonal nuances in folk music has had to “give in” for bombastic grooves and the tempered tonality in jazz.

Norwegian fiddle player Anne Hytta once said, based on an experience where a conductor could not perceive the beat she stamped with her feet, that music is not a “universal language” – quite opposite of the common used cliché.

Identity and compromise

Unni Løvlid is a Norwegian folk singer who teaches folk song at the Norwegian Academy of Music. As a performer she participates in constellations with musicians, conductors or composers with a different genre background than her own, and she explains how these collaborations often challenges her aesthetics.  On one side it is expected that she contributes to the musical outcome with her artistic identity as a folk musician, while the musical framework on the other hand demands that she has to compromise with her genre related distinctiveness. These problems are often quite concrete:

– Sometimes I get detailed scores, other times only sketches. I wish to maintain my own style and yet adapt to the composed work. One example is if we work with a ¾ meter, where my feeling for how that meter is, that is where the downbeat comes  from one bar to the next, is constantly changing [due to the phrases in my song]. In a more set rhythmical structure I then have to compromise with my feeling of the ¾-meter. 

“Music is not a “universal language” – quite opposite of the common used cliché.”

Interplay in genre crossover

In a workshop with teachers and students in the CEMPE project Practicing across genres, Unni has brought her folk song student Malin. Unni suggests that they work with the problem of how to relate to interplay in genre crossover collaborations. Malin’s co-musicians in this workshop are Henrik, a jazz student on drums, Eyolf, teacher in jazzpiano, and Bjarne, teacher in classical violin.

Malin picks a folk song with many verses that she has on her repertoire, which the others have not heard before. Unni suggests that they try to create different versions of the song based on defining different focal points each time.  The first time the three should deliberately try to accompany Malin, and abide by her. The second time they can try to deliberately “play themselves”, based on their own aesthetics, in the face of Malin’s melody.

Malin sings the first verse alone, and Henrik, Eyolf and Bjarne start to play along from the second verse. During the third verse, Henrik start to play brushes in time, and Bjarne creates various rhythmic figures relating to Henrik’s groove. Malin still sings rhythmically free, and Eyolf follows her time feeling. After the third verse Eyolf carefully joins in on Henrik’s groove. Bjarne then starts to create more tonal and rhythmic variations. Eyolf plays a short solo, and Henrik lets the brush figures fade out.

Unni: What did you think of now?

Henrik: What I imagined at first was a free kind of drone. But since you [Unni] had spoken about ¾ meter, I tried to pull it in that direction, that´s why I established an even pulse.

Bjarne: I mostly thought about harmonics, because we classical violinists are so used to play as tempered as we can all the time.

Unni: How did you feel, Malin, regarding rhythmical freedom, did you feel reduced or that you had the space you needed?

Malin: No, I didn´t feel reduced, although it often happens in settings like this.

Unni: I noticed that you started to listen more on the 2nd verse. Did the interplay influence you in some way?

Malin: Yes, when it sounds good you want to be inside of that, try to develop it.

Eyolf: I often go after a clear signature in the music. To me it is often tonality and scales. The signature here was perhaps that tonality was not that big an issue, it felt liberating every time we clashed. We [the instrumentalists] were also very taken by when you sang alone, it was a softness there, that worked as a signature from the start. It is important to make sure that Malin is the trendsetter. 


Unni Løvlid
Unni Løvlid

Unni picks up on Eyolf’s point about softness in Malin´s expression. When a melody is presented with only vocals, the expression has a tendency to become very tender and “beautiful”, whereas a fiddle might have added a higher intensity. She points out that the lyrics are really very passionate, and suggests that they try another version with more intensity. She asks Malin to use more dynamics, and claim more space.

They play a new and different version. Eyolf and Bjarne both introduce elements that dissolve the strong tonal centre in the melody. Unni asks how Malin experienced this version.

Malin: More interesting, it felt like it was room for more things to happen. The first time it was like it is always done.

Bjarne: Because you started to sing a semi-tone below where you started the first time, I discovered that I couldn´t play the things I planned, and then I had to work more with my ideas. That was good.

Guro comments that when one musician breaks out with a tonality that at first sound dissonant, it is often perceived as a strong effect to begin with, but at the same time it creates a bigger space, where it is easier for others to follow. Then that one, dissonant note might have become normalized. The same thing goes for the sudden implementation of a groove that is perceived as going against an established rhythm. It is important to sometimes take the role of the one who implements elements that go against what is there already.

Eyolf states that he perceives the second version as containing more “drama” than the first one, because the musicians came up with more contrasting ideas: “It is important to remember that not all stories have a “happy ending”, and that there should be room for those kinds of stories as well.”

Expanded scope of expression

Usually the folk singer focuses on the lyrics, Unni claims, but when one is working with musicians coming from different backgrounds, the purely musical aspects often get more attention. What then happens is what Unni calls a displacement of parameters, where the singer is forced to become conscious about, and relate to, more parameters than she perhaps is used to. To a folk singer, the question often arises of how she can keep the micro tonality in her tonal expression. Is it possible for one musician to work with micro tonality as a parameter within the tempered surrounding the other musicians often represent, and how far is it possible to go with different intonation within the ensemble?

Both Bjarne and Eyolf addressed, as we saw, the tonal parameter, where Bjarne tried to challenge his own tendency to play tempered, and Eyolf sometimes felt that tonality clashed, which he felt was liberating. Perhaps the experience from this workshop indicate that the more each musician understand of what the other musicians are trying to do, the larger the individual scope of expression becomes?

Last updated: 1. August 2016