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 world of Swedish folk music – a very short, one sided, and rough description

This description does in no way give a complete picture of the Swedish folk music scene. It focuses on the amateur community and the main point is just to briefly show how the art/function-dichotomy is at work within this community (together with a lot of other Romantic ideas about music).

The Swedish folk music scene is very much a music scene with a strong culture of participating. A lot of the people involved in the scene are more concerned with playing themselves (or with dancing) than with listening to other people playing in a traditional concert setting. And when it comes to concerts, there is a great recognition of solo players who represent a body of traditional, regional, material. The ideal, for amateurs and professionals alike, is to play tunes from your own home region: there is still a very strong idea about the connection between geographical origin and musical style.

 If you can state the geographical ‘origin’ of a tune, that supposedly says all you need to know about the tune. And if you then play tunes from ‘your own’ area, you will, almost automagically, play them more or less in the right way, whereas if you play tunes from some other area you’re bound to fail. This idea gets stronger in some certain ‘high status’ areas like parts of Dalarna and Hälsingland, where you ‘should’ preferably have lived in the village for generations, to be able to play the tunes in the right way.

Another of these mystical (romantic) ideas is that the music is something you must have ‘in the blood’. And you either have it or you don’t. Even among some groups of musicians, there is little recognition of the power of practicing.

Of course these ideas are duly questioned, and most people would not agree with what I just described, but parts, and left overs, of this thinking keeps popping up everywhere and all the time, both within and outside the folk scene when talking about folk music.

In the amateur millieu there is also a great deal of scepticism towards musicians who educate themselves. Even among people who could be considered more liberal, and more open towards the educated folk musicians, their openness is often built on certain criteria. It demands that the educated musician doesn’t move to far away from what could be considered ‘real’ folk music. The music must follow recognisable patterns (e.g. 32-bar tunes with AABB-forms) and shouldn’t deviate too much from familiar tonality and harmonisation.

In general, as an educated folk musician, in the folk community, you are often acknowledged by your ability to follow in line with tradition, rather than by your ability to evolve it. If you move too far away, people might say ‘it’s good, but it’s not folk music’.* All this very much reflects the function/art dichotomy.

This whole scepticism is also often based on the idea that folk music is not something which can be taught, and especially not in the dry, sterile safeness of a music academy, but it is something which has to be lived and experienced. (For a great example of this way of thinking, read here. That blogpost also shows that this discussion seems to occur in every country where you allow the folk music to enter the educational institutions.)
Of course it is very different between different parts of the folk music world, how much these ideas are at work, and how strongly they are part of the communitys understanding of folk music and of themselves. And I have a huge respect and for the amateur community and the ideas present there; they are very much a part of my background, where I come from. Especially the power and relevance of experience is something I can hold as perfectly valid, and also an area where I used to see (academic) education as being quite problematic. However, my experiences at the Sibelius Academy, and in general what Ive learned throughout my NoFo studies, have made me realise that it is perfectly possible to learn a lot through experiencing also within the frames of education.

Of course, the experiences you can get within the frames of an Academy, and the experiences you can get outside it, are sometimes quite different. In the end the best way to learn a lot is to take part in both.

*This is very much based on my own experiences in my own local folk music community, but also on conversation with fellow students and how they are responded to in their own home communities.

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.

The Education

During my time in musical education, I have continuously been presented to ideas of more ‘artistic’ nature, ideas that in different ways concerned (folk) music as an expression of Art. Also some of my own thinking and development has taken that road as well. The idea to produce Art has been exciting and appealing, but also felt a bit dangerous. And either way, I was fairly certain that I wasn’t an artist and I certainly wasn’t allowed to do art. I wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t crazy enough, I didn’t have good enough ideas.

As I was making my way through the NoFo degree I gradually started to get used to the idea that folk music could be a form of art, and a folk musician was then and artist. The idea probably started growing already when I began to study music at the academy in Malmö in 2008 and it definitely grew stronger when I changed from studying to be a fiddle teacher, to be studying to be a performer (which is what I did when I began my NoFo studies). The real shift however took place during the semester we spent in Helsinki at the Sibelius Academy (SibA).

I think there are several reasons why it was in Helsinki and at the SibA I began to think of myself as an artist. One of the reasons I think simply has to do with timing. It took some time for me to really start to believe in myself as an artist and as a performing musician; in the third semester of the NoFo studies, the idea that I could become a freelance musician, and that it actually would be possible to make a living playing music, began to sink in. But it is definitely not just a matter of time. The folk music department at the Sibelius Academy is a very special institution and it provides a very special environment for personal and artistic development. It is an institution where the idea of folk music being art, and folk musicians, student and teachers alike, being artists, is very strong. And since that idea is present everywhere in that institution, in all activities that take place there, it is natural that that is the place where the idea of myself being an artist would start to grow on me.

So in a way the whole process of ‘becoming an artist’ could be seen as just adapting myself to a new community and its values. The folk music department at SibA was the first institution during the NoFo studies where I really had a sense of belonging, and then it’s natural that I also adapt the values of that institution, just as I had been doing before, only in a really different environment.

The Community

My local community of folk musicians consists largely of amateurs, a lot of them with a great knowledge about folk music but not very skilled instrumentalists. In that environment there is a great appreciation for good tunes and you get acknowledged if you spread new tunes (preferably from the right origin, and not too difficult ones) play good harmonies and good for dancing. Playing ‘artistic’ or soloistic, or choosing a repertoire that reaches beyond the average level of difficulty does not get you an acknowledgement. To be part of the group musically, you have to align yourself with the common idea of how the tunes should be played, and, especially in my core group of folk music friends, there is a strong leader whom to follow. It is folk music as a group experience.

And in that millieu folk music is very much a functional music. It has a (social) purpose and that is why you play it. It is played in a social context, together with friends as a way of socializing, and it is played for dancing. That is really the only reasons to play folk music.
If it is played on stage it should still be concidered dance music and if it is arranged in a way that wouldn’t work for dancing that clearly puts its value as folk music at stake. There is definitely a risk of getting the music labeled as not folk music. The same goes for contemporary composed tunes: they might be brought into the repertoire, but only if they fit into the patterns of what is concidered traditional, if it goes along with the groups idea about what folk music is (and fits within the technical limitations of the group). In the end however, it is not about the danceability of the music, but rather a matter of belonging. The music should be accessible for everyone and everyone should be able to participate.

For me this environment and these people meant a lot. It gave me a context and a sense of belonging, it provided clear values and easy-to-follow ‘rules’ for playing. I got appreciation for my skills and I could easily contribute to the community by bringin in new tunes, or just by being a ‘strong’ musician, for the others to lean on. So I made the values of the group my own, and that influenced and affected a lot of my practicing and development. Of course I had some ideas of my own, and sometimes wanted to take music in somewhat different directions, but I found it hard to allow myself to do that, and even harder would it have been to present those ideas to the group. From time to time I often found myself thinking “what would NN think about this?” or even “I would like to do this, but they would never approve of it”. To be honest though, I think I also had a tendency to project my own fears and inner judges on that group of people, and thus place them outside myself.

If community for me represents music as function, then education represents music as art.

Tranotra

Together with my classmates at the NoFo proramme, I formed the band Tranotra which has been my main forum for ensemble playing and group work throughout these two years.

The group concists of
Benjamin Bøgelund Bech (DK): clarinet and bass clarinet
Olaug Furusæter (NO): fiddle
Markus Räsänen (SWE/FI): free-bass accordeon
Sven Midgren (SWE): fiddle & viola

Some of the things we have done together can be read about here. There is also some musical examples here and here.

It has been very interesting to work so closely together with one group for such a long time. We have had the possibility to do a lot of experimenting and trying out different musical ideas. Almost all the work with arranging has been done together, and we have been able to let the process take a long time, allowing the ideas to grow slowly. I think all this time together in the rehearsal room, is actually our main quality and the main explanation to why we sound as we do, and how we have been able to create music on the level where we have done it. In our case, I would probably say that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. But in the end it has also been quite limiting, to only work with one group for such a long time. Working with the same people (and people you didn’t chose yourself) all the time means compromising with the same people all the time, and there is a limit as to how many different ideas you get the possibility to work with.

During NoFo I feel that I’ve got so much inspiration, and ideas going off in all different directions, but within Tranotra there is only a small section of all these ideas and all this inspiration that has had a forum to develop in. All the other ideas has had to be put on hold and kept for the future. Of course in a way, you always have to chose and prioritize between what ideas to work with and develop, but previously I’ve had several different groups and forums to develop different kinds of ideas in, so this situation was quite different.

In the end I think it has been worth it, and I have learned a lot from it. I think we have managed to create some really good and interesting music which I am actually quite proud of.

About the Nordic Master programme

The Nordic Master in Folk Music is a unique collaborative study programme, where four different institutions join forces to create something very special. Students from the different institutions move around together as one group, spending one semester in each of Royal Academy of Music, Stockholm (SE), SMKS, Odense (DK), and Sibelius Academy, Helsinki (FI). The last semester includes a six week intensive study period at the Ole Bull Academy in Voss (NO) and for the rest of that semester the students are studying at their respective home institution.

This situation offers both advantages and difficulties. On the surface level, the obvious thing you get as a student is the possibility to study and compare the different folk music cultures and traditions in the different countries. But furthermore you also get to experience the different approaches to, and cultures of, teaching folk music in an academic environment.
Since the students from the different schools move around together, acting as one ‘class’, that group is both your social safety-net and your ball-and-chain. You’re incredibly exposed to the other members of the group, and their aims, wills and ambitions as well as their habits and behaviour.
In my case, I was fairly lucky since our group worked quite well, both socially and musically.