Strings and lines

Strings and lines


– Your concentration’s slipping because it’s been too long since the last time you ate. All that counts now is to secure your dinner, so you pull yourself together and focus on the only task at hand: catching an elusive trout from a cold Norwegian mountain lake. Quitting is not an option, or you won’t eat that evening – plain and simple.

– You’ve been at it for hours, yet you haven’t quite nailed the last section of the prelude. The mind drifts, your wrists ache, and the coffee machine is just down the hall, so you get up and wander off. For thirty-five guilt-ridden minutes or so, you’re a quitter (even though you’ll be back in the practice room soon enough).

I go mountain trekking for weeks on end, not because I think fishing increases my musical stamina, but because I feel the value of being in nature right down to my bones – and then some kind of transference occurs. I need that kind of reminder from time to time, where I live far away from music performance for a short time. I can greatly admire fantastic musicians who don’t need that kind of valve, but in certain ways I know I’m different – nothing to do with right or wrong –  and we always need to remember that individual personalities as well as traditions of behavior shape how we relate to work, art and life.

If you catch a fish, you reach something palpable and defined. Mission for the afternoon accomplished. If you reach for a good musical result, the culmination is invisible, abstract, and it can move around from one day to the next. You need to secure a level of execution that expresses a stabilized idea inside the abstraction of music, but you can’t define it too tightly – or else other people will be forced into your idea of a musical piece, and not be allowed to contribute with their own imagination. In order to reach a state of performance like that, you need identification points along the way – ‘there! I think I found something!’ – and hold on to those identification points as you progress onwards. You find them by engaging the challenge, by using your full range of instinct to find workarounds, and – not least- trusting your stamina.

And that´s what trout fishing has to do with maintaining the Arctic Guitar trio as an unchanged ensemble since the early 1990s. No matter how long we’ve been playing together, we’re still three individual people, and each member has his own perception of when identification points in the process will emerge. That’s not a problem, in part because we’ve dedicated our career to playing commissioned works by living composers, whose ideas and vision will always be the overarching premise of our work. So you adapt, you listen, you merge with the others, and you keep a common goal in sight. You also remain humble to the possibility that someone else’s will can be a positive influence on you. All of this connects you to the world.

Because we live in different places, we’re always hungry for growth when we meet. We don’t get tired of each other’s company and we don’t fall easily into conflict zones. Because the idea for us to play together came from someone else – Nordland Music Festival suggested we perform a piece by Norwegian composer Bodvar D. Moe – we didn’t have a mission statement from the outset. There was some agreement about what not to do, however; the idea of becoming a crossover ‘pops’ project for classical guitarists, with a repertoire of show tunes and classical ‘hits’, for example, gave all three of us the creeps. We agreed we had something quite specific to build on here, and a general outline for our mandate emerged: To expand the repertoire for guitar trios, to commission new music, and to stay within our field, because that’s what we do best – our upcoming album reflects these dogmas clearly. However, we didn’t want to commit ourselves to exclusively performing contemporary music, because we do like to connect with an audience on common ground every now and then. This explains the transcriptions we include in our repertoire: ‘Kjempeviseslåtten’ (Ballad of Revolt) by Harald Sæverud, all four ‘Norwegian Dances’ by Grieg, and several of the latter’s ‘Lyric Pieces’. We get asked what the difference is between this and playing guitar editions of ‘classical hits’ such as Vivaldi, and the answer lies within our interest in historical contexts surrounding the music. Being aware of societies, dances, technologies and cultural codes throughout history always helps unpack the music, while it’s not the same as academic observation and analysis. The famous Norwegian composers mentioned above got their primary source material from the Hardanger fiddle and other Scandinavian folk art. Our trio needs to find out whether or not we can actually contribute something to the music, since it’s quite familiar to a lot of audiences around the world. One clear example, which is also interesting from a purely artistic perspective, is our two recordings of ‘Kjempeviseslåtten’.  

We started out from the observation that although this is a very famous piano piece, Sæverud himself also created an orchestra version, which tells us that he didn’t regard anything as sacred or locked down; his music could function in several settings. Also, one needs to remember that his disgust and despair at the Nazi occupation of Norway was behind the whole character of the piece – I believe he is quoted somewhere as saying he “spat out a rhythm” when he saw German barracks from the pier in Lærdal, western Norway (the dedication reads ‘To the fighters on the home front, big and small’). This connects with our wish to contribute something new: Though the piano can produce a lot of thunder, the guitar reaches its ‘breaking point’ a lot sooner, and if we apply controlled pressure on our instruments we can perhaps express Sæverud’s patriotic desperation even better than the piano – with no offense intended towards the pianists of the world! We actually ended up recording it twice, because we weren’t happy with the first attempt, where we stopped the ascending dynamic curve in the middle of the most dramatic passage, and started over again from a quieter place, in order to preserve performative-technical headroom. With the benefit of hindsight, I think we all knew deep down this wasn’t really working, but we let it go. On the second version, we let the desperation be the premise for our whole interpretation instead, and investigated how much our strings, nails, wood structures and microphones could withstand. Sæverud’s dynamic directions towards the end of the score tells you all you need to know: molto frenetico con tutta forza.

—Spotify-lenke: “Ballad of Revolt” (2005-versjon)

On our upcoming record, we include a specially commissioned suite by another Norwegian composer, Sigmund Groven, whose music is also inspired by Norwegian folk art, but comes out with a milder musical temperament. I think the essential quality of his music is to be found precisely in this lack of high drama, something that actually became a slight challenge for our trio. Sometimes you need time through the work process in order to just let the music be what it is, and Groven’s music works best when you acknowledge the greatness in small things, so to speak. Then you go back and realize it’s the same thing with Sæverud; his piece works in a violent, sweaty performance because that’s what his music is – quite naturally, whereas Groven’s melodies breathe better if you just apply an everyday lilt to it. Any kind of music works best best if you just let it lead you along as you perform it. Improvising musicians talk about this all the time: ‘The improvisation just led me to hearing something I ought to play, and then I played it’.

Arctic Guitar Trio: Trond Davidsen, Jarl Strømdal, Arne Brattland.

Eirik Hegdal’s piece for us was conceived completely without our involvement, which is our usual policy anyway. The composer’s creativity and ideas should be uninterrupted by us, though we may suggest some minor adjustments in terms of exactly where “the stream flows” here and there. We were involved in shaping a tentative title, leading to him naming it “Ice and Echo”, which reflects the theme of the Arctic in our work. Eirik primarily plays reed instruments, so we inevitably found ourselves discussing the idiomatics of our chosen instrument: sometimes a composer’s limited knowledge of, say, a fretboard on a guitar can be a good thing and lead to new approaches – if you want something to express conflict, resistance, or other energies that butt heads, it can be a bonus to have something written in a manner that’s slightly less technically accessible. But sometimes you come across passages that simply aren’t playable, and that’s when you need to broaden your field of vision: Take the proverbial elevator all the way down, look outwards and try to establish the overarching idea from the composer; what’s underpinning this? Then you make your changes according to what serves the basic idea best. This is not the same as an academic approach, this is about maintaining your performer’s identity while looking around for contexts of different kinds. The very second you try to apply a comprehensive and objective model of understanding and explaining of art, as a performer, is when we all run into insurmountable problems. When I teach, I use models of explanation a lot in the technical realm – understanding anatomy and so forth – but only to facilitate the transition into the area of aesthetics as soon as possible. In the program notes for “Ice and Echo”, Eirik himself defines his musical ideas in a clear and musician-ly fashion: the dissonance between whole-tone intervals, phrases that are repeated quickly and unevenly, and so forth.

Arctic Guitar Trio: Trond Davidsen, Jarl Strømdal, Arne Brattland.

We wouldn’t be able to understand Early music the way we do today if it hadn’t been for the performers, the actual doers, who were willing to ‘take the elevator all the way down’ and look outwards. They had copies of old instruments made, they studied eyewitness accounts as well as scores, and they experimented. Through their practical-aesthetical work processes, they internalized and agreed upon outer boundaries for their way of performing. The music works organically inside these boundaries, and something feels strange if you step outside them. You develop an intuition for these outer boundaries, and for the endless possibilities of experimentation if you stay inside them. A defined example: When is the music no longer possible to dance to?

I’ve played solo works by Bertil Palmar-Johansen before, but this is the first time our trio has commissioned anything by him. We suggested quite a few changes across several meetings/rehearsals, and the result speaks for the value of actually trying out ideas with an ensemble to eke out what works and what doesn’t. One really cool experience when you work with someone this good is that you can get to a point in the music that really, really works, and then – oops! – it’s over. What you do then is to ask very carefully: “Can you write more of that little thing there, please?”. In some cases, the composer will indulge you, other times they’ll decline and say that what is there already is enough. In these cases, the composer always has the last word (within reason).

Arctic Guitar Trio: Trond Davidsen, Jarl Strømdal, Arne Brattland.

The chasm between performer and composer hasn’t always been totally clear-cut. At NTNU, we’ll be introducing a requirement for our classically-oriented instrumental students to perform a work of their own as part of their bachelor-degree recitals. But the Arctic Guitar Trio definitely belongs in a tradition of ensembles that commission and interpret original music. In our own small way we’re attempting to bridge the gap that opened up between these two groups in the eighteenth and nineteenth century: symphonies got bigger, so one had to specialize in order to get to the finish line (incidentally, our local symphony orchestra will be performing Mahler’s 6th a few days from now, one of the pinnacle works from this era). The technical challenges from the composers also caused virtuoso specialists, look at Tchaikovsky’s piano concerts, for example.

In a certain sense, you can understand our guitar trio’s longevity in the light of all the things we’ve discussed here: Three is more than one – you remain humble to the fact that other people’s knowledges, instincts and ideas can work better than you own. I try to let it inspire me as a teacher every day; let guitarists live inside the productivity of ensemble playing and the social-musical alertness it brings. You’ll remain open to ditching your own preconceptions and adopting someone else’s vantage point – and then make it your own: “This isn’t how I would approach it at all, but wow, it’s working”.

It’s just like catching trout. You have to think the same way it does if you want to catch it.