Norwegian Fiddling

 Judith Gennett has more than a few words to say on Chris Goertzen’s Fiddling For Norway 

“Imagine yourself in Norway.” Ethnomusicologist and fiddler Chris Goertzen found himself in Norway in 1988 teaching Latin and American music courses. While there, he learned a lot about the idiosyncratic world of Norwegian “normal” fiddling. The term refers to the common violin, as opposed to the Hardanger, often regarded as the “national instrument of Norway.” But the Hardanger, which contains sympathetic strings for a richer sound, is really only the “national instrument” of the southern part of Norway, most notably the area around Telemark. “Normal” fiddling is more common in areas north of a line that cuts northwesterly through Oppland, far south of Trondheim.  During the late 19th century, the fiddle was declared the bride of Satan and its use declined. Only a few decades later, the concept of national music was jumpstarted, with fiddle contests the main vehicle for the revival. Characteristically the Hardanger has been thought a superior instrument, as well as “more Norwegian,” and has received more status in the contests and in the national mind.

As an introduction, Goertzen talks about the unique characteristics of Norway. Until recently, Norway has been a poor country with no substantial nobility and populations isolated by the rugged landscape; people have been taught to be modest and non-competitive.  Thus it seems an odd quirk that the fiddle contests would play such an important role. Historically, the Hardanger has had the upper hand in these contests. So has “folkemusikk,” the old style dance music — for instance pols or halling — over the later European dance music or “gammaldans” — for instance reinlander and schottishe. Normal fiddles have been “…perceived as an accomplice in the attack by the accordion and gammaldans on the Hardanger fiddle and folkemusikk.” The supremecy of the Hardanger and of contests themselves has in turn led to the concept of “art and listening” music being superior to dance music, which is quite an irony. But still, for the most part, normal fiddles have remained in the hands of ordinary people and not professionals.

The first section of the book is a thorough examination of the contests and of the fiddle clubs that exist in many communities and fuel the competition. It’s good work, and there is always something interesting. On the other hand, it took a ,strong>long</stromg> time for me to read this book, though I did keep on going! Earlier in my life I thought perhaps I would put together an multivariate analysis of Scottish folk bands and submit it to “The Journal of Irreproducible Results.”  Reading this book, I felt I had met a kindred soul and would see perhaps a diagram entitled “Cluster Analysis of Norwegian Fiddlers By Location.” Goertzen did actually do a table of tunes played by contestants, but that’s as far as he went numerically.  The best parts are actually the human travelogues, such as a trip to the isolated village of Jostedal for the annual Sogn og Fjordane country contest. Another high point is the examination of people in the fiddle clubs at Vaga and Glamos. Unfortunately there is no good map of Norway in the book, so it is the fortunate reader who has driven through these areas and has a good idea of the terrain and distances.

The second section describes what Norwegian fiddling is; it is an extremely valuable resource for anyone attempting to understand — or review — Norwegian music. As expected, reading through the information is like trying to get to Hammerfest in winter, but it is worth it. Genres, styles, and localities are covered, with references to 127 transcribed tunes of wide variety found at the end of the text.  The tunes are provided to illustrate points, but they also function as a resource for musicians. Finally, Goertzen discusses how Norwegian fiddle music is changing, perhaps with less emphasis on the contest, perhaps with both more literal preservation of old tunes and more leeway for expression.

I pulled “Old Lucifer” from his case. Could a Celtic kitchen fiddle player use the example pieces as a tunebook? My answer, only if she can see well. Like many people, I prop music books up on a facing chair. The notes were basically too small for me to read, and were further confused by double stop and grace notes. I found I could see better by standing next to where I had the book opened on the music rack of an old pump organ, but this seemed an extreme measure, like the silver racks the “art music” people use.

As Goertzen points out, Norwegian fiddlers usually de facto drone or double stop tunes. As in many countries this is a form of self-accompaniment, but there are also harmonic effects. Most of the example tunes do in fact contain these double stops, with a drone note as a strike instead of an oval. Though many of the tunes in the back of the book are in standard GDAE tuning, many others are retuned ADAE, with that extra A used for the “drone”; but you’ll often see a double stop on other strings as well. Because these are example tunes, there are a few more unusual retunings. Don’t want to retune? Don’t retune. But you’ll miss the fantastically low base notes on a couple examples.

The tunes in the “Celtic keys” and without the drones/double stops were fairly easy. The 9/8 time of the springleiks is not as menacing as the double stops, which I rarely play and have to think really hard about…and which in this case present increased visibility problems. Grace notes and mordents (ornaments) are very common and should be no problem for a Scottish fiddler. Slurs are also indicated, as are the occasional renegade downbow and pizzicato. One of the points of including tunes is to show alternative transcribed versions on some of the tunes, and these are handy to pick the easiest or most fun version, though they can prove distracting.

I would have given some favorites, but it wasn’t fun to play the tunes at any length because of the type size. You may ask yourself, “Why use this as a tune book, when Goertzen’s purpose for including them is as examples?” For one thing, many people interested in fiddling latch onto playing new tunes like an alcoholic nearing a bar will order a beer or six. Most people only read a book on Norwegian fiddle contests once, unless they’re trying to pass prelims, but they will return to a tune book over and over.

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