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.