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)

Notes on improvising dance

(Originally posted here, 3 October 2012)

Dance as if it was a traditional dance, like if the movements have existed in hundreds of years, followed people in sorrow and joy, success and and failure. A part of a greater, ancient ritual.

Later addition: this goes for music as well. 
But remember to keep the movements and the notes young, fresh and new. Every note is played for the first and only time, and deserves attention and love in accordance with that.

Heikki Laitinen

During my NoFo-studies, no other person has managed to present so many interesting, inspiring and thought provoking ideas in so little time, as Heikki Laitinen did in our ca 90 minutes seminar in Helsinki.
For me, Heikki is more than just a real person. He has become an icon, a bearer of some key concepts or ideas that I find inspiring and interesting. And to be honest, some of the ideas that I ascribe to him, actually doesn’t origin from that seminar, and were actually not presented by him at all, but by other people (sometimes, but definitely not always, refering to him). I am less concerned with the living person Heikki Laitinen, even if I find it incredibly inspiring to know that he exists and to know that these ideas actually can become real music: for me it is the Idea of Heikki, the Heikki that exists in my head, that is important.

I don’t really care what ideas came from him, and what came from other people, and what comes from myself. Heikki Laitinen represents a state of mind, a vision, and an approach to music making and folk music. For me, he is the free-thinker, the one that spurs development; inspiration and development incorporated. It might sound very much like old-fashioned adoring of a (old, white, male) genius but I don’t think of it that way. As I said, Heikki Laitinen in this way is not a person, but an idea. The idea of possibility, inspiration and questioning of conventions. And the inspiration lies as much in what I know that other people (like Kristiina Ilmonen, Kimmo Pohjonen, Trepaanit and others) has done with these ideas, as it does in the ideas themselves.

Riddley Walker

The idea of how knowledge is transmitted in an oral, memory-based cultures showed up in the novel ‘Riddley Walker’ by Russel Hoban. The novel is set in a distant post-apocalyptic future where the stories from our present-day world, and all scientific knowledge we have today, has been transformed (mutilated one could say) in the oral transmission through the years. Even more interesting, Hoban explores the development of language through time. The whole book is written in a pretend future dialect of English, extrapolated from present day Kentish. What he has done with language in his book, is directly applicable to music and how we treat (and could treat) the material found in old manuscript books. And the method (i.e. the way of thinking) could be applied heading (aiming) both backward and forward in time. We could listen to recordings, and try to imagine the development that has led to the result, and then try to think backwards to figure out what the music might have sounded like some 100 or 200 or 400 years ago. But we could also (as Heikki Laitinen would have suggested, and like Hoban does) direct the imagination forward, into the future, and try to figure out what the music will sound like in 100 or 400 years.

Music-self integration

(This text is partly built on a reflection over Free Play and In I Musiken, written autumn 2011 for the FFK-course @ KMH with Sven Åberg.)

Experience is a key in creating a strong music-self integration. I have no knowledge of the psychological or cognitive factors involved in this, and the term is completely my own (though I would be surprised if no-one else has had similar thoughts) and I don’t make any claims that this has got any scientific value. It is, however, slightly based on reflections done after reading Free Play and Into the Music (In i musiken).

Autum 2011, early in the NoFo education I wrote this text for a course we did in Stockholm with Sven Åberg. (Translated spring 2013.)

I’ll try to do a small summary of my own development over the last years, with special regards to music and consciousness.

When I decided to go down the path of professional music making, it was mainly because I experienced that the Music gave me experiences I couldn’t get anywhere else. It was not about a feeling that ‘music is everything to me’ or ‘I have to express myself through music in order to survive’, but at the times when I was making music, especially with others, I could get a feeling of content, peace and satisfaction. Sometimes I would enter the world of music completetly, forgetting everything about time and space, sometimes it was just a comfortable feeling of connection and a strong sense of context.

Since I started studying music, these moments have actually become less frequent. There is more focus on the craft, on developing technique, style, expression etc. And the moments when music really captures me has become less common, and they never occur within the frames of education, but always outside it.

I have been interested in, and spent a lot of energy on acquiring various musics, styles etc, and much less energy on (consciously) developing my general relationship with music and my instrument.

But I have also started thinking a lot more. When I now have re-read the both books (Free Play and Into the Music) I realise that some of the thoughts they contain is stuff that has been present in a latent mode, below the surface, since I read them last time (which was before I started studying at Music Academy). They contain many thoughts that has helped me along the way, above all with getting a grip on the education as a whole (since I often experience music education to be very fragmented).

I experience that there is a long way to go before I reach ‘nirvana’ through music, but over the last years, I have been thinking more and more about how my musicianship affects other sides of life, and how it would be possible to use some sort of ‘spiritual’ development, to also become a better musician.

I’m on my way back to a state of being where music actually gives me transcending experiences, even if it’s a slow process.

At the same time: Does one have to have experienced nirvana to be a full-fledged musician? Is it first then, that music becomes divine? And does the music has to be divine? Always? Everywhere? Could it not just get to be some simple dance music sometimes? Or something which is in the background when you’re eating dinner or washing up?

Now, about a year and a half later, a lot of these thoughts are still relevent, but I have also moved on a bit. To begin with, it is no longer true that I haven’t had any transcending or capturing moments of music making within the frames of education. I would still say that there is something in the imperative of the education, that doesn’t help towards creating a good environment for music making. Something which, most of the time, limits the engagement of most people, limits how much of themselves they actually put into the music making. But during NoFo I have experienced capturing and transcending moments of music making, also within the frame of education.

But more importantly, I have been thinking more about, and also experiencing some aspects of, the connections between the music and the self, the ‘inner’ aspects of music making. And I am even more convinced now, that there is something to gain from developing the ‘spiritual’ side of myself, to develop as a musician. A strong, open and relaxed mind, confident and in contact with itself and in contact with the body, is a good start for making music. For me, there is actually a strong link here to the power of experience, which for me is an idea that in the end is about how body and mind gets connected. And since music making, in the end, is a physical activity (since it involves, and depends on, movement of the body, at least when playing the violin) that aims to express somtehing that begins in the mind, I feel it really helps to have a good mind/body connection.

Music/self, mind/body, feelings/movements. It seems to me like a perspective that is based on the whole, rather than splitting things up into pieces, is beneficial.

The two books, Free Play and Into the Music, has been very influential for me. I’ve read them at least twice each, at different stages in my musical development and education, and I always read them differently, relate to them in different ways. Apart from inspiring me to a lot of the thoughts presented in this text, they have also been very influential in leading me to the belief that ideas, however abstract and far fetched (in relation to music), have direct impact on how you make music, and what kind of music you are making.

I väntan på Krilon

The story behind the tune.

Some time before I started my studies at NoFo I read a trilogy of novels by the Swedish author Eyvind Johnsson, called ‘the Krilon trilogy’. The were written and published 1941-1943 and in short, they form an allegory about the small (good) man’s fight against the evil in the world. Krilon is fighting a sort of war on his own, against evil powers who turn his friends against him. And he never loses his faith in man, and he never stops believing in the power of words and the power of being human towards each other. I got really inspired by the books, and the main character, Krilon, became some sort of hero for me.

 The composing

After a while I thought I wanted to compose a tune in honour of Krilon, and I gradually worked out an idea for what kind of tune it should be. I had the image of Krilon being a quite short and sturdy, with a good heart and a gentle mind, though a bit stubborn. In the end I thought I would capture that in the shape of a schottis in g minor.

This idea was growing ans slowly developing in my head for quite some time, and then one day in Helsinki I sat down to compose it. Since I had this quite strong idea about what I was aiming for, I thought it would be quite easy, and to begin with it was. To reflect the stubbornness of Krilon I wanted an ostinato to go underneath the tune and that came to my mind quite fast.

Krilon ostinato

I recorded the ostinato on my Zoom H2, created a loop of it and started to play on top of it.Out came a tune, but not at all the tune I was aiming for.

When I realised what had happened, the tune got its name quite naturally: Waiting for Krilon (Swe: I väntan på Krilon).*

More story

After composing the tune, I tried to describe what is in it:

“Krilon represents the good in mankind. Not because he is without faults or in any way perfect, but because he is always striving and believing. He believes in the good in humans; he helps them being good just by believing in them. He is the one that forgives us when we do wrong and who guides us to road we really want to walk. And it’s not about religion, about any god or salvation. It is plain damn human compassion. Krilon is the friend who is there when we need him.

And so we are waiting for him. It is a waiting full of hope, but also a waiting filled with reflection, thoughts about our faults and failures, but filled with hope, trust and belief in ourselves.

Krilon is the honesty, openness and trust we need in our lives. The tenderness, sensitivity and firmness.”

This has developed over time, as we have been playing it live and I have been telling parts of the story to the audience. I am still searching for the best way to describe the story behind the tune, the story of Krilon, and why he is such an inspiration, but for each concert I think I’m getting a bit closer.

Playing the tune

The tune is interesting, since I think it’s the first time that I’ve composed a tune that is so obviously a tune for listening. And it provided a good challenge for me, since I really had to work with other aspects of music than I was used to. First of all, I got to play lead throughout the whole first half of the arrangement, and most of the time being the only one playing the melody. This in itself was quite new to me, since I tend to play a lot of harmonies, second voices and accompaniment otherwise. Gradually, I also began to understand that this type of tune, which doesn’t build on a dance groove, but rather on long melodic phrases, demands a completely different approach to playing it. Had it been a year earlier, I think I wouldn’t have dared to play the tune, thinking my playing wasn’t good enough for this kind of tunes, but now I thought it to be a good challenge.

Still, having played it now for about half a year, I still feel I am very much in the beginning of understanding how to do it justice and I still feel there are a lot of things I need to develop and work with. Tone is probably the main thing, since I am not too happy with my tone on the fiddle, especially not in the higher registers. Intonation is another aspect which I also need to work a lot with.

However, this kind of tunes does not only provide demands and challenges, but also possibilities. Having the constant, steady, ostinato going underneath, the beat of Time as we like to think of it, there is a lot of freedom to really shape and stretch the phrases, dynamically as well with the timing. When it works, I get the feeling of floating, being carried by the others in the band.

Video from a performance during the Nordtrad Conference in Vilnius, april 2013

*Those familiar with 20th C literature will easily understand where I got the inspiration for the title.

Krokodiltårar

Krokodiltårar (Crocodile Tears) is a tune composed by Mats Edén, featured on the Groupa CD Månskratt.
This is one of the first tunes we arranged with the group. We learned the tune from fiddler Mats Edén in one of our ensemble lessons in Stockholm, during the first semester of NoFo. The bass-riff which is being played by the bass clarinet and the accordeon is featured on the original recording with Groupa too. Somehow I got the idea to contrast it with something a bit messy and annoying in the treble register so I invented the pentatonic loops that are featured in the ‘epilogue’. Originally it was only intended to be some sort of interlude, but in the end it became more or less a part of its own.

To create the ostinato I used pentatonic material, which is an easy way to make sure that there will be no clashes, whichever notes get played at the same time. I also used the idea of overlaying different rhythms to create an effect of multitude and a bit of chaos. Both these methods I actually learned from Mats while I was studying at the Music Academy in Malmö.

Krokodiltårar Ostinato

As soon as we started playing it to an audience, and made a recording available on the Internet, people started making references to Steve Reich (and esp. his Music for 18 Musicians) which is a bit funny since none of us in the band had listened to any of his music. For me, the inspiration came from the English group Spiro and their tune The White Heart, which I had heard on a compilation of contemporary English folk music. However this constant comments about Steve Reich made me check out his music, and I did find it quite inspiring.

The Solo

Here are two versions of the solo, one recorded spring 2012, while we were studying in Odense, and one recorded in february 2013, after the semester in Helsinki. Unfortunately I don’t have access to a version of the later solo without the effects, but in a way that doesn’t matter: the effects only enhance the overall idea of the solo.
I would say that the difference between the two solos is quite big. The Odense version is very concerned about playing notes that fit,trying to play in tune and not really taking any risks. The CD version is a lot more powerful, risk taking and concentrated. There are a lot of the same ideas and patterns present in both the versions, but they are performed in quite different ways.
For me, this is a clear result of the development that happened during the semester in Helsinki and more concretely, an effect of the playing.

Bonus: the Stories

This is probably one of the tunes we have played the most live and there has developed two quite different stories about it. One is the ‘real’ story of how and why the tune was composed: Mats Edén used to have a fiddle called Krokodilen (the Crocodile) (since it had so many ‘teeth’ i.e. tuning pegs. Mats was a pioneer in Sweden using fiddles with sympathetic strings) and it got run over by a train. Luckily Mats also plays the melodeon so he could compose this tune as a lament for the lost fiddle.

The other story began developing when we were doing a set of concerts for children and needed some funny stories to tell them. The original joke goes:
– Why should you not be in the jungle between 2 and 3 in the afternoon?
– ?
– Because then the elephants are practicing parachuting.

– So, do you know why the crocodiles are so flat?
– ?
– Because they were in the jungle between 2 and 3 in the afternoon.

The kids thought it quite funny (even if they always protested against the idea of parachuting elephants) and somehow we began to tell the story in our other concerts as well, and gradually it has evolved into a real fable where Benjamin tells about how the crocodiles used to be in the shape of a pig (there are even fossils found in Denmark) but then unfortunately they began hanging out in the Danish jungle in the afternoons…