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Recording and authenticity in contemporary Scandinavian folk music

 

Mats Johansson

Department of Musicology

University of Oslo



My name is Mats Johansson and I am a PhD-student in musicology at the University of Oslo. The title of my paper is ”Recording and authenticity in contemporary Scandinavian folk music”, and even if my presentation has been located in this context, where we are to talk about production techniques and technology, I feel that it’s a suitable title. The main reason for this is that considering the dialectical relationship between production techniques and musical style, to a large extent seem to imply also considering negotiations about authenticity. This relationship becomes a springboard for exploring if and how the conceptions of production and style are challenged and transformed in this particular context. By this I mean a context where production as a separate branch is a quite new phenomenon compared to other styles.

That not everyone is familiar with the particular style of Scandinavian folk music means I will provide you with some basic facts about this genre, with particular focus on those style specific aspects accounting for the music example I am going to play later on.
   Instrumental Scandinavian folk music is dominated by the fiddle, and in a historical perspective this is mainly a solo tradition. Most traditional dance music is in triple meter, and in many of these styles the basic rhythmic structure is asymmetric, with one of the three beats being significantly shorter than the others. In addition, there is elasticity in the treatment of the rhythmical units, which means that one beat can be stretched or contracted from its average position so to speak. Even at the measure level there can be variations, and regularity may not occur until on a higher level. Considered as a solo tradition it seems reasonable to look at the rhythmic variability as an expressive potential constituted by the fact that the need of synchronization with other instruments is absent.

The conceptualization of this music as a historical heritage, as something to preserve for future generations, is a central part of the dominating discourse. This calls for a concept of authenticity that above all is about being true to its origins, a concept that is highly relevant in style negotiations at all levels. From an outsiders perspective it could seem as if many of the contemporary folk music ensembles are the result of a compromise, where some basic style specific features are intact while others are not. From the musician’s perspective, however, the demand for freedom to experiment with new instruments, ensemble settings and so on, could rather be interpreted as a statement about style, in the sense that folk music is not about what instruments you are playing, it is about how you play and if the music grooves in the right way.

Within this context, where the conceptions of authenticity and style are constantly transformed, I think it is very exciting to work with some of the questions that are addressed at this conference. The musicians take active part in decision-making concerning the production, ensembles are faced with new challenges compared to solo players, one eventually get producers with knowledge and interest in this style etc. In a way, then, it is a two part challenge; how do the musicians transform some of the style features developed in a solo tradition to ensemble music, and how does one capture or represent some of the dynamic and flexible character of this music in a production.

To start with the first challenge, one could say that some of these style features actually appear for the first time through this transformation. When you are playing solo, variation is a central means for expression. This variability can effect time, for example in the way that metrical units vary in length. But that does not mean that time is the parameter consciously controlled by the musician. In many cases it seems more reasonable to look at time stretching of metrical units as a consequence of melodic variations. However, in an ensemble setting with both several melody instruments and rhythm section, one has to relate to the fact that this variability effects time. The alternative would be to accept a high degree of non-synchronization.
   In the reflections around this amongst some of the leading musicians and innovators within the style, the rhythm in the melody is a basic reference. This means that all instruments, including drums and other backing instruments, have to follow and relate to the melody and be flexible. This should obviously create some interesting challenges when it comes to recording and production.

A while ago I interviewed Eirik Hundvin, one of the most prominent recording engineers working with contemporary Scandinavian folk music, and among a lot of things I asked him about this and how he solves the challenge in a recording situation. I’m informed that he never uses clicks, and that almost all recordings he had made with folk music bands had been done live with all musicians playing at the same time. In general, he is taking the situation when people are playing together as a point of departure for his motivation of choices and strategies. And he describes this situation as characterized by a very organic way of handling the piece of music, and refers to tolerance for tempo adjustments and other irregular changes in the musical structure. From this position he argues that a predefined rhythmic grid, or any firm structure as an underlying condition for music making, is problematic in many situations, especially in connection with folk music recordings.

Another general point he’s making is about the relationship between the performance situation and the total sound you eventually hear when the production is finished, and he discusses this from two perspectives. First of all he talks about closeness to the performer, in terms of understanding out of what sonic conditions the musician is creating his or her music. He takes the fiddle as example, and the sensitivity for small details in the way the bow is used and so on, that presumably is quite extreme from the musician’s position in this case.
   He recognizes the fact that the listener is situated in a more observing position, and that the distance makes it hard to apprehend all these tiny nuances and details. At the same time he indicates that this distance usually is increased rather than limited in many productions, particularly by the use of delay effects. His own approach is to place the microphone very close, with the aim of exploring parts of the zone or soundscape where the fiddler is, and where, as he put it; a lot of noise is transformed into beautiful music. His ambition, then, is to some extent to project or represent the musician’s experience, and creative use of the immediate sounding surroundings, into the final production.  

The second perspective is primarily related to ensemble settings and can be formulated as closeness to the act of performing. Following up the first point this means a production that to some extent is representing the process of music making as it is experienced by the musicians playing together. In this connection he argues that air is a preferable medium to mix in, which in praxis means handling a delicate balance between close up microphones and room microphones.

Then there is the concept of perfection, which naturally becomes a part of any discourse on production. The producer I interviewed dismisses some of the traditional notions of perfection when working with folk music productions. (And in this connection I probably should mention that he has extensive experience with other styles as well) He describes studio work as a kind of service situation where his job is to see to it that the process of making music flows without disruptions, rather then creating a collage out of small pieces. In his own words, it is about consciously setting up a situation that is disposed for unforeseen things coming out, with the aim of capturing the moments when the musicians are working on intuition and everything fits together naturally.

This is a conceptualization of the very process of making music that clearly is mirrored in the discourse amongst many leading folk musicians. The idea that there is no perfection in the conventional sense to strive after is very explicit in the sense that a tune should not be played in the same way twice. Moreover, a kind of cut and paste approach would put the musical elements in a different context of meaning then the one from which they were created.
   To sum this up, the musician’s and the producer’s concepts of the way of achieving perfection seem in this case to be mutually confirming rather then conflicting. It seems to be about always having an anticipation of the unexpected, making the things you are working with extraordinary.

I am now going to point out that these views are not necessarily representative, and above all that my aim is not to explain to you some causal relationship or homology between style and production. If that were the case, I would ask questions like ‘what adjustments must be made to transform the traditional studio environment into a folk music friendly environment where the essence of the style could be represented in recorded form?’ Surely some situations could be interpreted as a kind of perfect match, where the producer, as it happens, appears to have ideas very compatible with how this essence is conceptualized by the musician. However, I do not think that kind of approach is going to add much to our understanding of the dialectical relationship between production and style.

Therefore I am providing a reading of this process as a construction of a discourse about style and authenticity. In this light recording and producing is looked upon as social and musical negotiations where central aspects of style are constructed, reinforced, highlighted and consolidated. This means also acknowledging that even the producer’s identity and role is in a state of flux, with a range of potential positions serving as reference points in a process of negotiating professional identity and concepts about the music making process in general. Viewed in this way the producers identity as a producer is produced so to speak, through this process of exploring a style and the possibilities for expression that certain choices bring about. I find this perspective especially interesting in this context, with reference to some of the discourses within traditional music, where production seems to be regarded as a necessary and purely technical step in the process of putting the music on tape. In other words; the process is viewed as a translation of the music into a new format.

I will exemplify this by referring to the mentioned rhythmical variability as an example of a central aspect of this style that needs to be translated so to speak. As stated earlier, this aspect could be seen as problematic at two levels. First, one has to solve the challenge in an ensemble setting, where one approach is to let the melody be the fundamental rhythmic reference. Then one has to solve the challenge in a recording and production setting. With reference to the interview, one solution could be to let the musicians play live, and to “mix in air” with microphone placement and so on, or more generally; to set up for and anticipate the moments where the perfect rhythmic flow is achieved.

All this could be understood in the way that the producer and the musicians have overcome a lot of technical challenges, and that these challenges in terms of preferred musical qualities are inherent in the music and in that way independent on the context where they are to be articulated or represented. However, this is conceived in a different light when acknowledging the fact that some of these qualities are far more pronounced in many productions than in comparable live settings or older recordings with this music. The mentioned “out-of-timeness” for example, tends in many cases to stand out as a quite distinct feature, rather than as an element concealed by being a function of the melodic variability in general.
   Recalling the aim of exploring if and how the conceptions of production and style are challenged and transformed in this particular context, one could hypothesize that this is more a process of transformation than that of translation.

To return to the actual music and to how this actually sounds, I am going to close this presentation by playing a tune with the Swedish folk music band Groupa. The album is engineered by the producer that I interviewed, and has been a central reference for many of the points made in that connection. Regarding the mentioned rhythmic variability I can tell you that according to my very brief analysis there are some major variations in the beat and measure lengths throughout the tune. In other words; there seem to be no firm rhythmical reference to hold on to.

One way of looking at this production is to conclude that there is no other way to do this than to let the musicians play live in the studio. The only alternative would perhaps be to add the percussion and piano tracks afterwards. However, cutting the percussionist and the pianist out from the process of performing together is also ignoring their role as a part of the interaction that happens to create this particular result in this particular moment. The anticipation of the unexpected, then, changes to be the anticipation of a predefined pattern that must be followed. And now we certainly have moved from a technical to a more ideological and style related level of interpretation.

My concluding remark would be that the concept of closeness to the performer and to the act of performing aims at a general conception of authenticity, in the sense of something real being presented through the production. The preferred transparency for small details in the performance is at the same time a statement about style, by the way it is pointing out the micro cosmos of small variations in rhythm and timbre as the zone where we are to focus our attention. In relation to traditional live settings, production thus can be seen as an empowered discourse on style and authenticity.
   I believe that a careful interpretation of this range of social and musical negotiations surrounding the conception of style and production can provide a compelling platform for critical reflection around the intricate relationships between performed, produced and experienced music.

Music example: Groupa - Polska