Annbjørg Lien - Folk Music Has No Borders

Interview by Jon Davis

The hardanger fiddle is sometimes called Norway’s national instrument. I don’t know if that designation is official or not, but certainly, of all the instruments played in Norwegian folk music, the hardanger is special. Accordions, flutes, guitars, and violins all exist elsewhere in the world, but the hardanger is exclusively Norwegian. It differs from the standard European violin in a number of small but significant ways: it’s a little smaller; the fingerboard is less curved; it can be tuned differently for different pieces; and it’s fancifully decorated, with carved headpieces and elaborate designs all over. The flatter neck facilitates (and necessitates) playing multiple strings almost constantly. But the most significant difference is the sympathetic strings. They are strung underneath the fingerboard and tuned to notes prominent in the piece being played, so they pick up the vibrations and resonate, giving the wooden instrument a kind of built-in natural reverb. Heard up close, the hardanger has a rich sound, full of tiny details, and, like a fractal pattern in the visual realm, the closer you listen, the more you hear.

In the Twentieth Century, the hardanger declined in popularity as the folk tradition faded, carried on by a small, devoted minority. While other nations experienced folk revivals (in the 60s in the US and Britain, through the 70s and 80s for Ireland and Scotland), Norwegians seemed unaware of their own rich history. Only in the last decade or so has Norwegian folk music started to develop a real “scene” with festivals, clubs, and CD releases. Annbjørg Lien, one of the prime exponents of the hardanger revival, describes it as a sort of national inferiority complex: “Norway is kind of a young country. We got independence in 1905 from Sweden, and I think we need some time to dare to believe that our own music is good enough.

Annbjørg was a child prodigy of a sort. Having learned hardanger from her father, she started playing concerts in her teens and quickly rose to national prominence on her chosen instrument. From 1983 to 1989 she recorded four albums released in Norway. Her appearance on Henry Kaiser and David Lindley’s Sweet Sunny North (Shanachie 64057) compilation in 1994 led to two of her solo albums being released in the US: 1994’s Felefeber – Fiddle Fever (Shanachie 64060) subtitled Norwegian Fiddle Music is a fairly traditional sounding CD, solo hardanger with acoustic backing from guitar and a few other instruments; Prisme (1996, Shanachie 64082) presents more of a departure from the traditional, with the hardanger in an electric/acoustic band setting, playing complex arrangements. Her style has continued to evolve on Baba Yaga, distributed in the US on NorthSide (NSD6044). It features several of the musicians from the Prisme sessions, and introduces diverse influences from around the world. She has also recorded three albums with her “other” band, Bukkene Bruse, an acoustic quartet who were official representatives of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. Their most recent album is The Stone Chair (NorthSide NSD6032). She came to Seattle as part of the “Nordic Night 2000” concert tour featuring two other NorthSide groups, Finland’s JPP, and Väsen from Sweden. She also made a solo appearance at Borders Books and Music, where she presented some traditional tunes and took a little time to explain the stories behind them.

I talked with Annbjørg at the lounge of her hotel. She sipped a cup of tea and expressed amazement at the story playing endlessly on the bar’s big screen TV: the Elian Gonzales saga, then at the height of the press’s frenzy. I tried to explain the bizarre politics behind the situation as well as I understood them, but in the end we both admitted the whole thing basically made no sense. So I turned on the recorder and we talked about music instead.

Tell me something about your background and how you got into playing the hardanger fiddle.

I grew up in a family that was very interested in folk music. Both my mom and dad my dad played the hardanger. But the area where I grew up, in a small town in west coast of Norway, there was no strong folk tradition. The only reason that it was very natural for me was because I’d heard the music and I was familiar with the music and my dad played. When I was about six years old he started to teach young children in my home place, so it was kind of natural for me to go into that. At the same time, I started to learn classical violin at the local music school there, so I had those two worlds parallel until I was maybe sixteen. I found it very difficult to combine them–they became more and more different–and I wanted to dive more deeper into it. It was difficult to combine them; they became two different worlds. So I stopped the classical and dived into the folk music, and I’ve been there since.

When you’re talking about the differences between the two you’re talking about technique or–

Everything. I felt like the technique was a big difference. It was [the] same instrument, kind of similar emotion, and the fantasy world of it. The classical scene was fantastic music, but I didn’t like that everything was so decided already. You play what they tell you to play; it’s all written down. Of course you’re able to do it in your way, but it’s like a really small way of doing it your way. So I wanted to have a more freer music style–to work with music in your way, and in a way that I could make it more personal myself, and use my imagination and have a free soul in it. And I love the fairy tales. The first thing I loved with folk music was all the stories behind every tune. All the dramatic stories, all the nice stories, all the beautiful stories, all the science fiction stories. And I was amazed. This is music, you know, this is what I want to work with, so I think it was more magic.

You mentioned you heard folk music when you were young. What other kinds of music do you remember?

I was a normal teenager. I was listening to the pop music that was out. I listened to the radio, I went out with other teenage people. I remember it was all about good music, not what type of music it was. So my collection of CDs has always been a very wide range of styles. For me it was like a good tune was all, or a personality, or something that was really catchy for me. As a kid, that didn’t have to be a catchy tune like a commercial pop tune, but it could be like energy or an expression. I would just go “Wow!” It could be different things. It was a wide range of styles of music.

It always seemed to me that when you have traditional tunes that have hung around for a long time without being written down, unless they were catchy and memorable or say something they wouldn’t have lasted that long.


When you have a fiddler wandering from town to town, people aren’t going to remember his songs unless they’ve been good.

And also it could be a tune that just became good because he had something on his heart, so it’s not only that the tune is good, it’s also different ways of playing the tune. A good tune can be a crap tune if it’s played with no message or no feeling to it. The energy of the old hardanger tunes has always been fascinating because they have had so many colors and big contrasts in energy. And there’s not been like a typical tune. It hasn’t been like an A and a B part, like the typical fiddle tunes that we know, that you can remember. You know, how did the B part go? And these old hardanger tunes, it’s more like small, small themes, and then you do variations on the themes. You always go to new themes–it’s like a travel, like an atmosphere more than actually a tune that you can remember. You can have small kind of rhythmical things or some riffs or certain harmonic things, but it’s not like the typical easy to remember tunes. So the thing that attracted me was all the things around it, like the story–why the tune was as it was. Because it’s learned directly from the fiddle player, and it’s also part of that fiddle player, part of his life. And it’s the energy in the music. [With different teachers you] get a different start on it before you make it your own. And they’re changing all the time–it’s a very living tradition. And it’s also from your inside, like from the same fiddle player the same tune could be different from time to time depending on their inspiration. There’s a lot of improvisation on these small bricks in the tune.

So for each tune you have a set of themes you do. Is it fairly free what order you do them in and how many times you do them?

Yeah, and you go to another and to a relative of another theme, and then go back to the first theme. And do [another] one if you feel like it. It’s kind of a leading, it’s kind of a trip. Because of that you do that, and because you go there–“no, I want to go a little bit back because I just want to be here for a while”–and that changes. It’s so different from day to day, and that’s the really inspiring thing about the tradition.

It’s amazing that tradition hasn’t got locked down. A lot of times when something’s been around a while it gets sort of set in its ways. You know, “This is how it’s done.” When you decided to take up the traditional fiddle was it difficult among your friends and the other kids? Did they say, “That’s so old-fashioned”?

Oh yes, absolutely. Nobody had ever seen a fiddle case on the street before. I didn’t feel unpopular, I was just strange, I think, because I did all these strange things that nobody else did. But also I did the things that they did–I did sport, I went out partying on the weekend, I was together with other teenagers. I was not sitting in my room playing fiddle. I did it like when I came home from the sport, so it was in between. I didn’t have any off time, it was filled up with music. And I started very early to travel, as well. I was able to have concerts when I was very young, so I was fourteen when I first traveled alone to Italy from Norway. I got a lot of responsibility at an early age. I would never dare to do that to my children! My parents were just like they really trusted me. Every time somebody called up for a concert, they said “You have to do this yourself. Go and take the call.” It was special because there was no real tradition in the area, but it was not a problem. I think I’ve got a kind of fighting spirit because of it, which was good for me. A kind of a folky underdog! It was not a problem–I don’t think my childhood was a nightmare because of hardanger fiddle. It’s so beautiful now to see so many young people going around with a fiddle case on the street, and they’re proud of it. So many people playing fiddle back home now.

That leads into what my next question was–

I’m ahead of you.

We talked about the musical situation in Norway in the past, and I wanted to know what it’s like now. Is there a lot of public awareness of your music and other musicians like you? Are you likely to hear it on the radio?

Yes, we are already played on the radio and on the TV. It’s a part of the scene now. People come to my concerts, and a lot of others who are playing as well now. It’s not that many that do kind of cross-over things. It’s starting to come, like bands doing arranged folk music. In the folk music tradition back home, there’s never been like modern band that’s been influenced by folk music. The folk music scene has always been kept as a secret in a way, and now it starts to go out and you can hear a folky riff or something in a rock band. It starts to inspire the general music scene, and I think it’s because Norway is kind of a young country.

There’s been a tremendous rise in the popularity of folk music around the world lately, especially Irish music, with Riverdance playing Broadway and all. Has that influenced Norwegian folk music?

Irish folk music is so popular and always has been popular in Norway. But we never have ever looked on our own music–but now the man on the street can kind of talk about folk music and reach folk music. There’s a club where you can go listen to it. A normal person with no connection to folk knows a lot about musicians playing folk music, can go buy a CD, can hear it on the radio and be proud of it. So there’s a lot of things that’s changing, and a lot of young people starting to play both traditional and arranged.

Isn’t the hardanger traditionally played solo?

Yes. It’s so rich in its own sound, so it’s very important to be aware of what you do with the instrument when you go and place it in a band. You make another instrument in a way, because something goes away, but then again I feel it gives the instrument so much as well. I had this fantastic experience when we were on the last album, Baba Yaga. We had the Moog synthesizer, the analog one, and I never worked musically together with a Moog synthesizer before, and that was the hardanger fiddle in the synthesizer world, totally! Made of wood, you have to tune it, you have to take care of it, you have to talk to it! And the energy in the sound is exactly the same as the hardanger.

There are lots of details with twiddling the knobs…

Yeah, and the note is so alive, because you kind of change it. It’s a three-dimensional sound, and that’s also what I feel the hardanger is, kind of moving in every direction. So that was a real knockout for me. It’s like, “What is this?” It’s really the closest I’ve been to any instrument.
That’s certainly one of the things that stood out for me when I first got the album. In the credits, the Moog synthesizer was listed–I thought, “Oh, that could be interesting.”

Or not! You never know.

By twenty or thirty seconds into the first song, I knew it worked. And when I heard “Wackidoo” I was fascinated. That’s still my favorite one. It has that break toward the end where it does the organ thing and then the synthesizer comes in.

You know “Wackidoo” is kind of a tribute song to the prog days of Emerson Lake and Palmer.

That’s the first thing I thought. “Oh, that’s a Keith Emerson part!” Because it’s kind of like a little bit of Bach…

The producer, Bjørn Ole Rasch–who’s also the arranger and plays keyboards and also has written some of the tunes together with me–he has been inspired by Keith Emerson since he was twelve, and he teaches at the conservatory back home. He uses a lot of Emerson stuff with his students. So it was a little bit of hello to the prog, a little bit humoristic. It’s fantastic to do that tune.

Is the American release of Baba Yaga different than the original Norwegian version?

I haven’t seen it yet.

(Producing NorthSide CD and pointing out the sticker on the cover) Here it says you are “Norway’s leading Wizard Woman.”

OK. So what does that mean?

I was going to ask you if you knew! Here in the credits, it says, “For NorthSide graphic remix by Drew Miller.”

Yes, it’s just the graphics, like the layout of it, but I think the tracks are the same. It should be–they didn’t change that.

Towards the end of “Ája” there is a drone vocal part that is very striking. How did that come about? Because it’s not present on the rest of the album and it’s quite an unusual sound.

It is a guy, a gorgeous singer from Sámi country in the north of Norway who does it, called Ailo Gaup. Bjørn Ole–the producer–and me were writing some music for a play up in Sámi country, and we had written some type of ambient music for just being in the background of the period of the play, to just be an atmospherical thing. And then we wanted him to come in the studio and sing a drone for that play, to make a drone and just stay there and move a little bit but just go in there and do what he wanted to do, you know. And he just came into the studio and he was just starting to sing, he was sweating, his eyes were gone, he was standing like this, and I died! I just collapsed! What is this? It was the strongest thing I ever imagined. Never ever heard it, and it was–just to be there in the same room, the aura was everywhere. It was really strong. [And we thought] OK, this is fabulous, but we can’t just leave it there. This is too strong. So we took the tape with us to Oslo when we recorded this album, and put the track on, used the track and improvised on the track, used his voice, picked out the spot of the voice that we wanted–from there to there in a really long drone that had been recorded–so we took it from there to there and placed it into the computer or the mixing table, and just recorded on it, improvised in the studio. And it was just that energy–and that have you [noticed] his breathing? You have to breathe together with him! It’s so… that was one thing I really just had to have in there.

It is an extraordinary sound, and it’s so well recorded that every little breath comes through.

It was very close up. And the reason also why I wanted to keep it on was that it’s important to the whole. This record is more like a concept album. The Baba Yaga creature, and her fairy tales and her stories–her energy–were perfect for all the pieces that we had. We needed a big room that could take all these contrasts, because this tune wouldn’t be alive any more because of that tune. The contrast which is here would just make both tunes alive. It was all so together and so wide so I needed like a definition of that room, and Baba Yaga was just perfect, so this drone singing was also perfect.

I understand that in the past the Sámi culture has been somewhat suppressed in Norway. Is it unusual to be working with a Sámi singer? Are you making a political statement? [Note: The Sámi, also known as Laplanders, live across the northern part of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia.]

No, I’m just a simple musician. I just love what they do, I love their music, I love their energy, I love their relationship towards music. For me it was just–I know I have a lot of fans up there and I know their music and I’ve had the possibility to be close up to them, and I find a lot of similarities. So for me it was very natural to combine them.

You’ve worked with Bjørn Ole on quite a lot of things. How does your collaboration with him work? Do you come up with a fiddle part and he thinks of something to go with it? Or how do you work that?

It depends. Most of the time it’s a kind of–we work very outspread. Both of us [go] from melody to sounds to arrangements, where to go, what type of expression do we want on each tune. It’s a very close relationship, but still I’m maybe more on the melody, the themes, and he’s more on the programming. I know nothing about programming, but for me it’s difficult to just let things go. I want to be in the process from the very start to the very end. I have to hear everything. So the preproduction was just him and me sitting down. He had a lot of these sample CDs, different sounds, different samples, different moods, different colors, just to make some sketches. We just put the CDs on: “Good. No good. Crap. Fantastic. Great. Gorgeous!” And then you have this box, and you put all these things in the box, and then you go to the next CD, or we just sit down and jam and find out, maybe with some words to work on, like “Where do we want to go with this tune?” Or just to sit and jam and suddenly something’s there. That was great. So I feel it’s a very seldom kind of thing, I mean, I feel I work very easy with him, because we have kind of the same tastes. Still, I’m more folky than him, but both of us are open-minded. He has listened to a lot of folk music from the Fairport times, and he is a proggie, you know, so we have both have one foot there and one foot there, in like different worlds of music. So it’s no borders. But it helps that we have kind of same taste. We react immediately on the same things, and if we’re not, we highly discuss and discuss, and it’s fantastic. We know in the end we’re like, if we don’t agree, OK, let’s test it, let’s hear it. And then we always end up with the same thing. But many times our discussion is just fabulous, because then other things can come in. So I find it very interesting and very strong to work with him. He’s so open-minded. He also worked on the Prisme album, the last one, and he’s part of another folk group Bukkene Bruse.

I haven’t heard that yet.

That’s more traditional type of band with a fantastic singer.

You’ve traveled a lot with your music, to Bhutan and Mozambique. How has that effected your music?

I think I’ve learned a lot by going to such places. I think the most important thing is that I’ve come further on the road of becoming a free person, to dare to do what I want to do. When you go to Mozambique, they dance and they sing and they just have a fantastic time in music, and they never analyze it, and they never think about what is right what is wrong, like a performance kind of thing. It’s all in there–it’s a part of their life. And then you go home and you think, “What are we doing here? We just go around and we talk about the small details of problems!” And I felt like a stone statue when I was down there–they move so naturally to music. I was really knocked out. I was just, “Oh, we have so much to learn in music!”

And I see in the credits to “Inoque” on Baba Yaga that you recorded the children while you were there. That whole tune has a very African sound to it.

We recorded that ourselves when we were down there. It was amazing, and I think everybody should have such a trip once a year. It would make the world a better place!

Earlier you mentioned that Irish music has always been pretty popular in Norway and many reviewers, myself among them, have noted similarities between Nordic folk music and Celtic music.

Because of the coast towards the Shetland Islands and Scotland… I think no matter where you go, if you go to China or anywhere, folk music is inspired by nature. Folk music is a part of their lives, it’s been very close together always, and the folk music has been composed because of water, stone, weather, life, love, pain–the same things that you find everywhere in the world, and that’s why I think folk music is so similar, and not just influenced by Ireland.

Lately there have been a lot of people combining Celtic and African music–Afro Celt Sound System, Capercaillie and so on.

I think that’s beautiful, because there’s really no borders. We’re just folk musicians no matter where we come from.

Here in America, we have NorthSide releasing a lot of music from Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark, and in a lot of record stores, they all go into a bin labeled Scandinavia. So for us, the music tends to blur together into one thing–Nordic Music. Is there a lot of contact between Norwegian, Swedish, and Finnish musicians?

Oh yeah, and I think all our music is quite similar because the basic inspiration and energy is the countryside. There’s a lot of strong personalities in there, so I think the personalities are making more of a difference than the actual tradition, because the tradition is quite similar. I mean in Norway, we have both hardanger fiddle and a normal fiddle tradition, and the normal fiddle tradition in Norway is very similar to the Swedish one. So the hardanger is a little bit different, but it’s such a small area, and we’re still wondering where it came from…

I’ve done a little research, and there is a lot of discussion about the origin of the hardanger–how long has it been around?

The oldest fiddle they’ve found is from 1650, around there. It’s definitely influenced from the European violin.

And there’s also the nyckelharpa too. That’s more on the Swedish side.

Yes, that’s a Swedish instrument.

But you do play it.

Yes, I do.

Is that a little unusual, for a hardanger player to play nyckelharpa?

Yes. I don’t know anyone else who does it, but I love the combination because it has different feeling. There are a few moments on Baba Yaga where the nyckelharpa is pretty much by itself and you can hear the keys clacking. It’s got that distinctive sound. By combining rock with the traditional music, are you making a conscious effort to bring the tradition to a wider audience, or just playing what you want? I do what I like! I just really want to do this, and the Baba Yaga music is from this. And I think also going toward rock and roll instead of going towards jazz is easier and has less compromise, because you can easily be really locked as a jazz musician with all these notes in the chords. In rock and roll you can have a lot of open chords which give the air, give everything more life. And also the rhythmical things, the different way of thinking, is very close. And also the energy, a lot of the same type of energy.

The band you’re touring with right now, is that the same people on Baba Yaga?

We have Bjørn Ole Rasch on keyboards, Roger Tallroth on guitars. We have another percussion player this time, a guy called Per Hillestad, who is joining us on this trip. And Hans Fredrik Jacobsen on flute, and me. So we’re five altogether. The additional players and the string quartet are not joining us.

I heard you might also be coming out on stage with JPP or Väsen.

Maybe. We’ll see. We’ve done this concert once before together with JPP and Väsen in New York, and it was a fantastic night. Then we just had some jamming at the end, just everybody on stage, and had a good time. So I think that will change from place to place. For tomorrow, I think the guys will be coming tonight or maybe tomorrow morning on a twenty hour flight, so it really depends on how awake they are! But it certainly is fun to play together.

Roger of your band is in Väsen, right?

On this tour we have you from Norway, Väsen from Sweden, and JPP from Finland. When you’re back home do often get to play with groups from Sweden and Finland?

No. I mean you can see it on festivals, but it’s more like one night with each band. It’s more like a concert a gig with one of the bands. So back home it’s more like it is everywhere. It’s just like all three bands are touring on their own. But we have a lot of contact–I mean we know each other very well and we always meet on festivals and play all night, but it’s not the most normal way of having concerts back home.

Do you have anything specific planned in the future? Are you doing the next album with the band or as a solo album?

Planning! When you finish one album, you start to think, OK, what are you going to do next? But I don’t like to plan ahead.

Well, you’ve certainly got enough to keep you busy for a while before you have to think about the next album.

Yeah, this year will be a lot of touring, and the whole goal is to have concerts, to play for people. The CD is just a symbol of where you are that year, and there’s no reason why you can’t tour [without one].

It’s almost a cliché these days about musicians getting burned out from constant touring and recording.

That’s true in a way. It depends on what kind of tours you play. With a new place every day, of course it would be like that. I mean the music keeps you alive, you know, and when you’re traveling and having fun on stage, it’s not how it looks like in the city, it’s what’s happening inside that room.

Like today, you don’t have a show and you can just relax and see the place. It’s not just arrive, do the show, back on the bus to another town.

I don’t think I could do that. I think it’s definitely a limit of maximum a month, then go back home, then go in a month again.

Do you think this group of musicians, this band, is going to be brought together again, or is it just for this album and this tour? Obviously you’ve worked with some of them before in other situations…

They’re active people, and I’m just so proud that I can bring them with me, because they’re excellent musicians. Most of them played on the last album as well, so we have been playing together for a long time. I seem to have a family relationship with people. I get along with them very well–the social part is OK. It can destroy so much of the joy in music if the social part doesn’t work. So they will definitely be a part of my future.

You’ve worked as a guest musician, for example with the Chieftains’ album. Are there any other people that have asked you to guest on their albums or that you would like to work with?

At the moment I have so much to tell by myself, and I have a long life of doing things, so it’s just a matter of focus, I think. So at the moment I feel comfortable to just kind of focus on the things I want to tell now by myself, and then if something comes up, you always just–I mean it’s an honor to be asked to join the Chieftains’ album. They have a gorgeous [sound] and are so grounded, and so just into having fun with music. So that was really fun to be a part of. Some things you really find interesting to be a part of and some things you don’t, you know. It doesn’t mean you don’t think they’re good or clever, [but] you don’t feel that you have something to say together with them. So if I should have some wish to join somebody, it doesn’t have to be a folk musician, it could be some other type of artist or music or musician. As long as it’s a good idea and there’s a reason why I’m doing it.

As it turned out, Annbjørg didn’t come out on stage with any of the other groups at the concert, but that was about the only disappointment in a night of extraordinary music (the other was the sound–while crystal clear and ideal for the acoustic parts, the louder moments of Annbjørg’s music lacked the punch and depth of the CD, especially in the low end). Annbjørg’s band played first, covering most of Baba Yaga along with a few other tunes, including some solo hardanger for a quiet interlude. I think some of the audience, there for the more traditional music of JPP, were a little put off by Per’s drum kit and Bjørn Ole’s electronics, but Annbjørg’s sensitive playing and charming demeanor won many admirers, and sales of her CDs in the lobby were brisk.

For more information:

Annbjorg’s official web site

Shanachie web site

NorthSide web site

Hardanger Fiddle Association of America