Welcome

What is this all about?

The idea of this thesis is to describe my experience and development as a musician during my studies at the Nordic Master in Folk Music (NoFo) programme. This will be done with special attention given to the tension-field between folk music as Functional Music and folk music as Art Music. I will make an attempt to put this tension-field in a historical context, and also make rough definitions of how I use the terms Function and Art. My own development during this masters programme can very much be described as a movement from the idea of folk music as Function towards the idea of folk music as Art. I will try to describe how this movement is intertwined with my self-image as a musician, and how that has affected my music making.

 Furthermore I will describe the methodsI have been using in my artistic development. This includes different ideas I have been using as a starting point for music making, as well as how I have been using my body and playing as tools for development.

 I have tried to keep the focus of the thesis on the present day situation, and what I have been doing during the two years master’s course, and not giving too much space to how this all relates to my past. Even so, I have felt that it is necessary to describe some things about my my musical background to help the reader understand what the shifting of view on folk music means to me, and why it created such a big change.

 As an appendix there are some musical examples included, as well as some more anecdotal texts from the blog I was running together with my fellow NoFo students, as well as a quite random paralell to a book I read during my stay in Helsinki.

Writing this master thesis has been a great way of helping myself understand what I have been doing during these two years of traveling, playing, experiencing, exploring, practicing, thinking and developing. In the end, the legacy of my NoFo studies is something that will stay with me for a long time.

All ideas and perspectives that I bring up could be extended a lot further, and I am greatly aware of the fact that a lot of the texts lack in depth and/or consistency. In the end, it is an artistic degree I have been doing, not a traditionally academic one. This written thesis is only a small part of the final examination. The reasons why I have chosen to present this thesis in the shape of a hypertext are explained here and here. For instructions of how to get going with reading, please look here. Or just move on to The Beginning.

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Updates

I am about to finish the work here. I’ve updated the texts about my musical background and inspiration and will soon finish the reading instructions and present a suggested path through this text. I will also upload some mind map-images of the site, that might help in reading and understanding it. The promised pdf version will be uploaded as soon as I get all the layout done in accordance with the KMH guidelines.

The NoFo Legacy

So, where have I ended up now, after two years of exploring, developing, understanding and questioning; myself as a musician and artist, and folk music in itself?

 I have a lot of ideas that I have gathered during these two years that I want to explore further. With many of them I feel that I am only in the beginning of understanding where they lead and what they actually mean. There are no tunes, Archaic Music, Body as method & Embodied Knowledge are some of these ideas and methods that I intend to work more with in the nearest future. The Music Marathon is an idea I really want to carry out at some day and in some form. In the near future, I also intend to gather some sort of improvisation collective in Malmö, continuing working with ideas of free folk music improvisation that were presented during the Kandiakatemia in Helsinki.

 Another interesting method I haven’t made use of yet, but want to try out in the future, is different ways of bathing in a repertoire or style, overloading the brain, and then see what comes out. Learning some 50 (or 500) polskas within a certain style and then (mentally) tearing them to pieces, throwing them up in the air and see what comes down. (And of course, I ascribe this method to Heikki Laitinen.)

 I have acquired some good skills and tools to aid my (musical) development, that I will bring with me in my future work as a musician and artist. Questioning myself and my musical praxis, and musical conventions in general, in order to create space for development; An interest in creating and using different types of musical experiments, often without knowing where they will lead, but just diving into them with an open and curious mind; using theoretical ideas as a basis for practical music making; connecting body with mind and opening myself to the power that lies in experiences.

Especially the mind/body connection and its relation to fiddle playing, music making and artistry, is something I want to explore further. Doing yoga, physical exercising and body improvisation are some methods I will try to involve more in my daily life, in order to aid this.

In the end, I have gathered a lot more confidence as an artist and a musician. If anything, I leave this degree with a feeling that the exploration will (or at least can) go on forever. There are no limits

Helsinki, Voss, Stockholm, Malmö 2012/13
Sven Midgren

fear and freedom – body and soul

Autumn 2012, when we were studying in Helsinki with the NoFo-programme, we spent a week with the Kandiakatemia in the Sibelius Academy’s fantastic countryside facilities in Kallio-Kuninkala (commonly referred to as Kunkkula). Kandiakatemia is best described as a one week course in free improvisation for the bachelor students at the folk department.

One of the main things I experienced during that week, is how physical preparation and warm up, can affect mental abilities and create artistic (mental) freedom. Every day that week started with a good long warm up of the entire body, often with yoga-influenced exercises that put a strong focus on breathing. And this really did something to me. At the end of the week my whole being was affected. I don’t know which is the chicken and which is the egg but my breathing was deep, slow and strong and I felt calm and at peace with myself. And that particular physical state of being had a strong impact on my ability to play the violin.

At the opposite end: I was sitting in Voss, practicing. I had slipped on the ice the day before and landed on my left wrist so I had a bad ache and couldn’t move my hand or fingers as freely as normal. However I was trying to use that as an advantage, practicing to play without pushing the string all the way down on the fingerboard. After a while I felt my breathing was really strained and my whole body felt tense and uneasy. And that made it impossible to play well. I tried to relax and focus on the bow and the sound I was making, putting my whole attention at the sound and just trying to get my body and movements to adjust intuitively to aid a good tone from the fiddle. However it didn’t work.

I don’t know why I felt like I did at that point, something was stressing me and that made my body tense. The main point is just to describe two different physical states and how strongly they affect the fiddle-playing. And how strongly the general state of the body, and how free both body and mind is, is connected to breathing. This has led me to the idea that I should start practicing yoga, to be able to control that better, and easier find a good physical-mental state of being whenever I need it.

Inspiration

During the autumn 2012 (while studying in Helsinki) I began thinking more about what inspiration is. I started to talk about it with friends, and it turned out that there were a lot of different ways of describing it and relating to it. I don’t know how much wiser I got from these conversations but at least they were really interesting, and at least I got some sort of idea about what I think inspiration is, and where I get it.

For me, inspiration is a thought that spurs me into creativity or into action. Inspiration is an idea that leads forward, suggests new ways of seeing things or suggests a possible development. Inspiration is open ended, never finished. It’s more about asking questions than delivering answers. Inspiration is pointing in a direction saying, ‘go there and have a look, you might find something interesting’ (instead of saying ‘go there and you will find this’). Inspiration is an open door or a window, not a signpost or a map.

I often find inspiration in stories, broadly defined. It can be a traditional story, like what is presented to us in books and other types of fiction, or stories from real life. Riddley Walker is a good example of the former, as is Moon Palace by Paul Auster, which contains some interesting thoughts on the quality of wide open spaces (which can easily be seen as a parallel to silence) as well as an interesting experiment about getting to know a work of art. Real life ‘stories’ that have inspired me during my NoFo studies is for instance the performance artist Marina Abramović and her work The Artist is Present, where she sits down in a chair, just silently looking into the eyes of whoever sits down in front of her. I’ve also been greatly inspired by hearing about singers today learning thousands of runo-meter lines, to somehow enter into the world of that music/poetry/language and see how it affects them. To me, the idea of doing experiments with yourself, like consously confusing your mind and memory by overloading it, or exploring your endurance, presense and openness in ways like Abramović, is an extremely powerful idea; an idea that shows that it’s mainly our curiosity, imagination, determination and our will to let go of conventions and things that doesn’t matter, that sets the limit for what we can do, as artists and as humans.

The idea of curiosity has radical implications also when it coems to practicing. The idea of practicing is normally that a set of exercises is going to develop a set of skills and that is the aim of practicing. But with an open and curious mind, there doesn’t have to be a known goal with the practicing. It’s possible to just do things, over and over again, and then see what happens, what the outcome is. This is something I learned from Jonny Soling at Malungs Folkhögskola, who spoke fondly about it. If you do an exercise for a period of time, something will happen. You don’t necessarily know what, but you know that.

Other stories doesn’t have to be as drastic. The Polish fiddler Jan Gaca, who at 80 yers of age is still playing for weddings and dances, and has become a super star of the present folk revival in Poland, is a source of inspiration by himself, serving as an example of energy, presence and rough skill. Or the German weaver and musician Küster, who lived in Skåne in 19th C. and started each day with drinking a ‘kaffegök’ (coffee mixed with alcohol) and then composing two tunes. This persistant composing, the continuous search for the perfect tune, shows the power of endurance. For me, these are great images to have at the back of my head, while I go about, evolving my own music.

My Musical Background

I will make a brief account for my musical background, with special attention to some key events and periods that have shaped me as a person and as a musician.

I grew up in a folk music environment in Skåne (southern Sweden), and from early age my parents put me in the children’s section of their folk dance team. I started playing the fiddle at the age of five and about a year later I attended my first folk music summer camp. Throughout my school years I was playing classical music with my teacher in the music school and folk music in summer courses and from time to time I would also have a folk music teacher ‘on the side’, or participate in different kinds of folk music groups for youths. I was also playing in orchestras and singing in choirs, something which has taught me a lot about making music in a large group, ensemble discipline etc. When I reached my teens I also started playing the guitar and for some years I was singing and playing in different pop bands and projects.

In the summers I was always going to music courses and camps and when I was 15 I started going to folk music festivals together with my friends from these camps. In the folk music environment I was able to be someone I liked to be and folk music became a strong part of my identity. Some years later I went to the Ethno camp in Falun, a folk music camp for youths with participants from all over the world, and this was a really life changing experience. Between 2001 and 20011 I have visited 8 Ethnos in 3 different countries (Sweden, Belgium and Slovenia) and it has really had a huge impact in my (musical) life. Getting to know people in other countries and learning about different types of music has given a lot of perspectives on ‘my own’ music and the musical experiences I’ve made at the different Ethno-camps are an important reason behind me choosing to become a musician.

When I graduated from school I went to Newcastle (UK) to study British folk music for a year (another thing Ethno is to blame for) and then moved back t o Sweden to study engineering physics. After about a year and a half I needed a break in the engineering studies and instead got involved in a project to create a year of folk music in my region. This gave me a lot of contacts and engagement in the local folk music community, and I began to think that this was a context where my knowledge and skills were of use and could make a difference and a contribution. Around this time I also got involved with the band Chokladfabriken, and we started to perform at various folk music events in Sweden and Denmark (the band stopped playing in 2012). One thing led to another and eventually I decided to become a violin teacher instead of an engineer. In 2007/08 I spent a year at Malungs Folkhögskola and then went on to the Music Academy in Malmö.

During my second year at the academy in Malmö I began to feel a bit shut off from the rest of the world and started questioning if what I was doing in the practice room actually meant anything in ‘the real world’. Also I felt that the teacher’s education didn’t really allow much time for musical development. I decided to prioritise any opportunity to get out and play, something which resulted in, among other things, a week at a mazurka festival in Poland and a collaboration project in Denmark. I also started playing with the fiddler Reine Steen, one of the foremost tradition bearers in Skåne today, in his eponymous trio, creating a musical platform for him, together with a double bass player.

In my third year in Malmö I spent one semester as an exchange student in Newcastle, coming back to the folk degree there, 6 years after I was there the first time. After three years of studying to become a fiddle teacher, I changed path and joined the Nordic Master in Folk Music, focusing on performance rather than pedagogics, something which has greatly changed my perspectives on music in general and my own musicianship in particular.

The Beginning

A bit more than half-way through my master studies I realised something had happened. Something had changed in how I looked at folk music, what I thought it meant to be a folk musician and how I saw myself as a (folk) musician. At the same time I discovered that, without feeling that I made any technical progress when it came to playing the violin, I still developed a lot in my playing. A development that had more to do with what I did with my ability, rather than with increasing my ability. I realised that what had happened was a development in my mind. I allowed myself to do things that I hadn’t allowed myself to do before, even if I had the technical ability and the musical ideas. Somehow I had opened up some of my mental barriers.

Before I started studying at music academy, folk music for me was strongly connected with social events. It was music that belonged in a social context, and the social context provided its meaning. For me, doing (playing, listening to, dancing to etc.) folk music was a social act, something I did together with friends. Also as a performer, I strongly acknowledged the power of the context, and took pride in considering myself as a tool for a greater purpose, to provide the music that was right for that occasion, be that a dance evening, a wedding or a funeral.

 In the third semester of the NoFo-studies came a turning point. That’s when I really started to be comfortable with the label Artist (for myself) and Art (for my music) and that created a great feeling of freedom: If what I’m doing is art, and I am an artist, then I can do whatever I like. I don’t have to feel constrained by the idea of tradition and ‘traditional playing’. Not that I dismiss the idea of tradition and traditional playing as a source of artistic knowledge, inspiration and material, but rather than seeing it as goal I started using it as a spring board, a point of departure. In the end, this left me with a completely new feeling of freedom in my playing. For me, the shift from Function to Art was what I needed to free myself from some of my inner limitations.

Dead Traditions?

(Originally posted here, November 27, 2012)

I’m reading parts of a Ph.D dissertation about the Folk Music Department in the Sibelius Academy and I stumble on this quote:
“The most fundamental ideological point of departure for creating contemporary folk music is that folk music should be a living tradition.”
(It’s on p. 190 in the linked document, for anyone interested…)

I wonder: Is not the being alive part something which is of essence for a tradition? Can it be a tradition if it’s not alive (and thus moving, changing, developing etc.). If it’s dead, is it not then just an artifact, an object to admire (or dislike) but not something you can use? I wonder only because it seems like it’s often required within folk music to state that what we do is part of a living tradition. There are no dead traditions. There are only dead objects.

If it’s tradition it’s alive and kicking. If it’s alive and kicking it’s probably part of a tradition (i.e. part of a chain of thoughts, ideas and actions that humanity is resting on). If it’s dead, we would best bury it. It probably stinks.

/Sven

Notes on traveling

(Originally posted here, October 22, 2012)

I’m in a friend’s house in Estonia and was just served a cup of tea. And somehow the taste of it opened up a link to so many parallel’s in my life. All the other times I’ve been in friends houses and been served a cup of tea. Especially it reminded me of England, where I’ve been going a lot during parts of my life. Going there, visiting people I know or people I know-but-don’t-really-know, getting a bed, a cup of tea, some music, friendship. Always the cup of tea.

The thing is, it really works. The tea makes me feel comfortable, at home, even if I would be surrounded by complete strangers. There is something about getting a warm drink and somewhere to sleep which I think opens up the trust in me.

I really like traveling and meeting people, but I don’t really like being a tourist. For me it’s completely different if you go somewhere and stay in a hotel, eat at restaurants and go to museums or if you stay in someone’s house, share their dinner and go for a walk in the park with them. And it’s far more inspiring, challenging, opening, instructive to meet people like that. People who have a life which is not about serving strangers. Even if it’s sometimes hard to talk with people when you hardly have any language in common, it’s still a way to learn, meet and understand.

After a fantastic, inspiring, great week at Womex it’s nice to be in Estonia. I’m here to teach at the Estonian SügisEtno (a folk music course for youths) and do a couple of concerts together with Johanna-Adele Jüssi releasing her solo debut album. I’m really looking forward to a week that is actually filled with real live music and music making, as opposed to Womex which is a week that kind of circles around music but mainly without actually touching it. Womex is so much more about business, marketing, networking, talking, drinking and maybe listening and it’s all nice and great but it’s nothing like feeling the vibrations of the fiddle.

Music and its contrary?

(Originally posted here, 11 October 2012)

More and more I believe that if you want to understand something, you also need to explore the opposite of whatever it is you want to understand. And since music is about sounds, I think it’s important to explore the silence. In many ways, silence is a very rare thing in our world. And somehow also something that many people find provocative. But to me silence is necessary, not only because I need to rest my ears after hours of (loud) music making, but to be able to understand what the sounds we produce actually do with us. What difference they make in the sonic landscape.

I will probably come back to this at a later time. In general, this semester has produced lots of new thoughts, pushed my mind in new directions, and I’m only gradually finding out where I am or where I’m going. Sometimes it’s good with thoughts from people who’s been in the game a bit longer:

(Thanks to Suvi for directing me to this video)