Tradition

Prelude

In the autumn 2012 I wrote:

Searching through old manuscripts, there is plenty of evidence that music and musicians have always travelled and moved around. As I’ve been travelling in Europe, meeting musicians and music from different traditions, I’ve found a lot of inspiration seeing how many similarities there are between different cultures. I try to steal the best ideas from every person and tradition I meet, and incorporate that in my music. That’s my way of extending the meaning of tradition.

 I thought it would be good to add some lines to this thesis about my thoughts about tradition. It is difficult, since it’s a complex concept and it is a word which is being used extremely much within the folk music world, but with so many different meanings and definitions

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When I was studying at Malungs Folkhögskola with Jonny Soling, I asked him about his thoughts on tradition. What is it and how should we relate to it? The thing I remember most clearly from his answer is that “tradition is often being used as a hammer to beat someone else’s head”. There are so many things present in this short answer.

 Tradition is, within the world of folk music, a word of power and status. To have (know, be) the tradition is to have status and power. When people tell someone else that ‘that’s not tradition/al/’, that is saying ‘I know more than you do’, ‘I know how it should be’ and ‘I have the authority to tell you what is right’ all in one sentence.

Still, it often seems like there is no common definition of what tradition is, what we mean when we say tradition, what we include and what we exclude.

 For me, the most problematic aspect I think, is that we often tend to use the word traditional when we really mean historical or historically informed (as in Historcially Informed Praxis, the idea behind the modern day playing of what is called ‘early music’). But tradition to me is not something that exists in the past. Tradition is something that exists today and is moving forward. Tradition is moving, living, evolving culture. I like to think of tradition as a verb in present tense (heading for the future), rather than a (historical, fixed, defined) noun.

Another way of expressing it is a quote I also found somewhere in my notes:

“Tradition is keeping the fire burning, not worshipping the ashes”. (Google kindly informed me that it supposedly comes from Gustav Mahler.)

 I try to use the notion of tradition as a source of inspiration. As such it is easy to connect it with the idea of archaic music: if music is memory based, what does that do with tradition? And what inspiration can we find through thinking the music 1000 years back in history? And what if we think about the music 100 or 1000 years into the future? What ideas do we get from that? But tradition can be inspiring in so many ways. When I think of the music of Skåne, I get inspiration to ‘new’ ways of interpreting tunes, when I search for a more traditional (in the sense of historical) way of playing them. If the dancing and playing of some sertain tune type, like kadrilj or engelska hadn’t died out more or less completely before it was being revived in the 20th C. what would the music have sounded like today then? And what would the dancing have looked like?

 In the end, I don’t have a good definition of tradition. It is a word I think about a lot, it is an idea I am constantly relating when I am doing folk music, it is an important part of some of the ideas I have presented in this thesis. Even so, I am constantly revising what I think of it, how I use it, what I think about it and how important it is to me.

Skåne

The idea of Skåne is probably one of the concepts I’ve been using the longest time in my music making. In its simplest, original, form it is just about playing the tunes from the area of Skåne, which is something I’ve been doing throughout my musical life.. The idea has developed and grown more complex through time though. Some ten years ago I started searching through manuscripts and music books myself, to find ‘new’ (i.e. old tunes that are not in use within the folk scene at the moment) tunes I began to realise the problems that occur when you are to create an interpretation of a tune, based on a written source. The idea got even more complex when began questioning the contemporary (20th/21st C.) style of playing these tunes.

When looking through available transcriptions of older players (a lot of them made in the 1880’s) and texts describing their style, it is obvious that there was extensive use of microtonality and a lot of rhythmical variations and details that transcend the (imaginary) evenness of the regular quavers or semi-quavers you find in written music. However this has been very little explored and used by contemporary players of that repertoire. Rather, the main style is quite straight, and in my opinion there is not really any of the key players who make (or have made) conscious use of microtonality. (This doesn’t mean that then necessarily play with even-tempered intonation, but that’s a different question.) And so I’ve made it a task of mine to try to bring those elements back in use when playing the tunes from Skåne, which is the tunes that I’ve grown up with, and consider to be my repertoire.*

I haven’t done any proper research into they question, but I believe a lot of the explanation is to be found by looking into the fact that some of the key players in the first folk music revival, in the first half of the 20th C. came from a background in classical music, and either way had adopted the musical ideals of the classical world. Another part of it may be that Skåne is a region where the older layers of repertoire (e.g. polskas) had gone out of playing, before the majority of field recordings were made. Thus today’s playing of polskas (which, in Skåne just like in the rest of Sweden, is considered to be the tune type with the highest status, the most ‘genuine’ tune type within folk music) is based more on what is found in manuscripts, rather than repertoire learned from recordings, and in most of the manuscripts there is no information about rhythmical or intonational details.

On a greater level, the idea of Skåne is one concerned with identity, tradition, the history of Swedish folk music and the mystical/mythical connection between geography and style (discussed here). By playing the tunes from the region where I was born and still live, I fulfill many of the stereotypes of Swedish folk music, which I sometimes find a bit problematic, as many of them build on ideas I don’t believe in, or want to question.

On the other hand, it makes it easy to explore and get inspired by some of the ideas contained within these stereotypes. Like the connection between landscape and musical expression. I don’t really think this connection exists in an ‘objective’ sense, but the idea can be used for inspiration. What happens if I let my playing reflect the landscape around me? What does it mean for the music?

By fulfilling the stereotype (playing the tunes from my own region), and at the same time questioning the praxis for how it is being carried out (in this case by playing around with intonation and rhythmical details), I can get the best out of two worlds. I maintain my musical integrity and can still get accepted by the community. This is not an outspoken or thought-through strategy of mine but I think the image is not too far from the truth anyway.

*Sometimes this results in comments from the local folk music community about anti-social playing style, or that microtonality (‘quarter tones’) is something that doesn’t belong in the music of southern Sweden. When it comes to the ‘historical correctness’ of using microtones in southern repertoire, I could prove the critics wrong by quoting for instance the transcriptions of Lorens Brolin, Ola Lans and Jöns Andersson Ryberg (all found in Svenska Låtar Skåne, together with descriptions of their use of varying intonation/tonality). The critique about anti-social playing style is a bit different. It becomes a matter of individual vs. community and performing culture vs. participating culture. An example of the function/art-dichotomy at work.

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.

Function vs. Art – in Context

 When I started to realise that my mind was shifting from thinking about folk music as Function towards thinking of folk music as Art, I believed this dichotomy was something I had built up myself and that it was something that existed only in my own head. Of course I could see signs of it also in my background, in comments from people around me etc. but my general idea was still that it existed mainly in my head. In a way, that was a good thought, because it meant that it would be easier to get rid of. I only had to make up my business with my self, I wouldn’t have to also take care of the outer world. However, I gradually realised that I am far from the first one to recognise this dichotomy (or Duality as I prefer to call it in the end): the conflict between Art Music and Functional Music.

The division between music as function and music as art is very much a division between folk/popular music and what we normally call ‘classical’ music. It is even so included in our language that another common term to refer to the latter is precisely ‘art music’. This division has not always been there though. Carl Dalhaus (1970) puts it in a historical context in his book Analysis and Value Judgment, explaining that before ca 1800 all music was ‘functional music’, music that was justified because of its genre. Music (and all other art forms as well) was recognised for its ability to fulfil the criteria (stereotypes) of whatever genre it was in: its ability to be functional. Then came the Romantic ideas of the Genius, the Artist and the Work and music would now be judged for its uniqueness and originality rather than anything else. Roughly at the same time came the idea of ‘folk music’, the genuine music of the people, and this served as a direct counterpart to the idea of art music. While art music belonged to the higher classes in society and expressed the idea of a composer-genius (and perhaps also the soloist-genius), folk music was the possession of the poor and expressed the soul of the People. Its value was in its anonymous, collective history, with unknown (and mystical/mythical) origins.

When I realised that the tension between function and art was something I had learned from the world around me, rather than something I had made up myself, I was actuallt quite relieved. It made it easier to understand myself, and it became easier to think about, and discuss, the development and change I was going through.

In many ways, the function/art dichotomy, and its folk music/art music parallel, is very present in today’s Swedish folk music scene, as are a lot of the other romantic ideas from the 19th C about folk music. For me personally, one of the most important and interesting aspects of these ideas is how they have affected the thinking of the amateur community, which makes up the largest part of the world of Swedish folk music, and which forms a strong part of my own background in folk music.