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

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 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.

Group vs. Individual

The NoFo Master’s programme is in many ways different from other master’s programmes. It is very much based on the group rather than the individual. This has influenced not only curriculum and the course of studies, but also my way of thinking of it. I have had a tendency not to think about myself, my needs and whants, but rather, what does the group need or whant, and even more, what is possible within this group.

This impact can also be seen in my writing. After having written for a while I realised I had a tendency to write we and us instead of me and I, even if my outspoken aim with this text is to try to capture my development and my ideas. And even more, I actually found it difficult to write me sometimes, especially when it came to describing input from teachers and teaching. Probably this has to do that I often didn’t really feel that the teaching was directed towards me as an individual, but rather towards me as part of a group and even more to the group as a whole.


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.