Music that Speaks
What inspired you to perform Nordic folk music as a string quartet?
It was actually something that started quite early for us. We took our first subtle steps about 15 years ago, when we began playing some traditional hymns and chorales in their original harmonies and voicings. We found they fit our instruments quite well, as the string quartet is basically arranged like a choir with four voices.
Then the quartet had a break between 2006 and 2007, and afterwards we were joined by a new cellist, Fredrik Sjölin. Fredrik grew up in Norway in a family steeped in folk music, so now we had a quartet where half of its members had a strong connection to this music.
From there it continued to evolve as we began to incorporate more and more refined arrangements into our concerts, first as encores, and later as part of our actual programs. Over time we built up a substantial repertoire, and so we thought hey, why not record this music, because it seemed like there was an interest and people were enjoying what they heard.
So we released our first all Nordic folk music album Woodworks through Decapo Records in 2014. And once it came out —even though we didn’t intend for this to be the case— we began to realize that it gave us something special to identify with, something that helped set us apart from other quartets that only played the more standard repertoire.
Throughout the years our arrangements have become more ambitious, but still always keeping in respect with the traditional melodies. They’re often very simple tunes, with just an A and a B part and not much harmonic structure, so there’s a lot of freedom to explore and take things in different directions on every song.
So that’s the short story of how it started. And after Woodworks, many people began asking us for the sheet music of our arrangements, so we decided to work with a publisher to make them available.
We’ve actually just started selling the sheet music from our second folk album Last Leaf ourselves through our website, and it’s been really incredible to follow the sales and see how many people from all over the world are playing these pieces. From the Middle East to Australia, North America to Europe, it’s great to see how this music is now having a life outside of Denmark and Scandinavia. This wasn’t a part of the plan either, but it just turned out there’s this huge interest, which we’re so happy about.
That’s really fantastic. And would you say that this music is also serving as a bridge to connect audiences to the classical repertoire who may not otherwise encounter it?
Yes I think you’re right, I think a lot of people are in fact coming to our performances to hear us play the folk music, but then they also get this window into the classical world, because we like to mix up the programs. We recently had a tour here in Europe and the first half of our performances were rather heavy with some Bach, Webern, and Schnittke, and then after the intermission we switched over to the folk tunes.
And it’s interesting to see how these different styles speak to different parts of people—when we start to play the folk songs sometimes people want to stand up and dance, and that’s a good thing because that’s what a lot of this music was originally intended for… so I think in a program it’s good to offer people something for their minds and their hearts, and maybe also their feet.
Digital and Printed Copies of Last Leaf (Click for more information)
Apart from the music you’re playing, is there any precedence in Scandinavia for performing folk tunes in a classical, concert-style setting?
Yes here in Scandinavia the story is that around 150 years ago in Norway the famous classical violinist Ole Bull —who was like the rockstar of that time— came across a traditional Nordic fiddler who went under the name ???. Ole Bull fell in love with him and his music, and so he brought him to the concert stage and had him play for thousands of people.
So that was one of the first attempts to present this music in the setting of a formal concert. However in Denmark this didn’t really happen until about 30 or 40 years ago, so overall it’s an even newer thing here historically.
However I also don’t think I’d call what we’re doing purely traditional or folk style music, in the sense that it’s somewhere in between these traditional songs and a kind of sound ideal we bring to them from our experiences playing classical music. Meaning we work quite a lot with dynamics and colors, and approach these songs as we would a classical piece; we ask what a tune wants to tell us, what the story is, and then we use a lot of the things we’ve learned as classically trained musicians in terms of how to produce sound, texture, emotions, and all of these kinds of elements to further refine and bring out different qualities in the music.
And are you sometimes looking to re-create the sounds of different folk instruments as well?
Yes and that’s one of the challenges of writing for string quartet, in the sense that we don’t have any chordal instruments. We only have a melody and a bass instrument, and then the second violin and viola that are typically filling out the harmonies; but we also try to challenge these defined roles and them mix up in our arrangements.
Many people actually ask us how we come up with our arrangements, and if we’re simply jamming on a tune and then suddenly something comes through, but for us I don’t think this would really work that well because everyone would be going in different directions, and it’d be difficult to come to any sort of agreement. So we find it’s much easier if one of us already approaches a song with a clear idea about the basic structure of the piece, and then as a group we sit down and work together to fine tune and make adjustments from there.
And on Last Leaf you’ve not only arranged works, but have written original material as well…
Yes we also feature some of our own songs, which are very inspired by the tradition of course. And from the experience of composing in this style I’ve found it’s actually quite difficult to write a good melody; it’s something completely different than working with an existing song that you’re just adding harmony and color to. I used to study the organ, and so I played a lot of chorales and hymns and developed quite a good understanding of harmony, but never had much experience with melody writing, so I find writing a good melody to be a really great challenge.
Speaking of which, the song you wrote on the album (Shine You No More) is actually derived from a much older work. What inspired you to create this piece?
Well even though a lot of people think it sounds something like Daft Punk, it was actually inspired by a work from the English composer John Dowland called ‘Flow My Tears’, originally written in 1596! I actually listen to his works quite a lot, and interestingly in the later half of his life he ended up living and working here in Denmark for the King. So I just came upon this chord progression that I liked and started experimenting a little with it and adding additional sections, and then it began to come together into this piece.
And I also see that you host your own annual concert series in Denmark?
Yes this is something we’ve done here in Copenhagen for many years now. Over time we’ve developed a good following, and it serves as a nice playground for us to experiment with new material and ideas.
Asbjørn the violist is the one who’s mostly putting together the programs, and he often arranges them in this way where he creates these types of musical collages, picking one movement from one work and another from a different one, but there’s always this line that connects them all together. It creates a completely different experience, which is a fun contrast to the more traditional concert formats we do.
You’ve also been working on a Beethoven cycle titled ‘Prism.’ What inspired this project?
The Prism project was an idea that was also conceived by Asbjørn. Since as a string quartet you really cannot avoid Beethoven, and we’ve been playing his music for so many years now, it’s always been on our minds to do a cycle of his quartets. Then the idea arose that maybe we should record some of them, and it seemed like we were connecting more to the late quartets —I think it’s actually much harder for us to play the earlier pieces— and so we decided to focus on his last five quartets.
In Beethoven’s later years when he wrote these works he was very inspired by Bach, and he used material and motifs from a lot of the fugues that Bach wrote. So we felt it made sense to feature some of Bach’s fugues alongside the quartets. And then this idea developed that Beethoven’s quartets are like a kind of Prism, that when you shine a beam of light through everything explodes into a myriad of colors and lines going in many different directions… and so many of the great composers after Beethoven were inspired to follow some of these lines, just as he did with Bach.
So there are five albums in total, with each pairing one of Beethoven’s late string quartets with a related Bach fugue, as well as a linked quartet from a later composer. We think it’s a nice way to do it, because it creates a sense of continuity when you listen to the album as a whole, where you’re able to see clear lines and connections between different times in music history. We still need to record the final album, but the entire cycle is planned to be released in 2020 in time for Beethoven’s 250th anniversary.
That’s very exciting, and I see you’re also performing these works now and throughout next year…
Yes we’re doing the Beethoven cycle in many venues across Europe and the US through mid 2020, and then we also have some interesting things in the works for the coming seasons, which I’m looking forward to very much. And I’m also looking forward to getting a bit of a break from Beethoven, to be honest! (laughs) You know people say you can always play Beethoven, and I agree, but he might just need to be put on the shelf for a couple of years after this cycle!
And aside from all the work you’re doing with the Quartet, you also perform with your own folk trio as well—what style of music does this group focus on?
Yes I’m part of a group called Dreamer’s Circus, and we perform mostly our own material. We do play some traditional tunes as well just to show where we are from, but our main focus is to take the Scandinavian tradition and bring it to another place that it hasn’t been before. So there’s this connection to the tradition, but the members of the group also draw inspiration from many different places.
Classical music is of course my main influence, and our keyboardist Nikolaj has a lot of experience playing jazz, and then Ale is the more traditional musician having grown up in a Swedish family playing mostly folk music.
So when we play our own music it’s another feeling… it gives us more freedom with the material, which is really liberating. It’s so nice, and for me it’s great to have both groups alongside each other, although it takes up a lot of days away from home! But it’s only a privilege, and I feel very lucky to play with both groups, I must say.
I think overall the work you’re doing serves as a great example to young classical musicians looking to find their own paths and voices today… is there anything you’d like to share that has helped you find your way as an artist?
Well I think as a group we just try to play music that speaks to us. Of course we’ve also learned to become much better at creating programs and projects, whereas before we were just basically playing a lot of standard repertoire; and we had to go through that, but times are changing, and I think many people today are looking for new ideas and approaches.
You see it here even on the institutional level—at the academy for instance there’s more focus on entrepreneurship and flexibility, instead of just following the idea that all you need to do is learn to play a Mozart concerto in tune and get an orchestra position, and then you’re home free… it’s a totally different world today.
So instead of following the routine of just playing three string quartets at a concert and going home, I think we’ve become better at creating something that’s more us, of telling our story and where we come from, and what matters to us. I feel that needs to be the starting point for all our creative processes, that we only play music we can really relate to and connect with… because otherwise I think people can smell it if you’re not being authentic, and if your heart isn’t truly in the music.