Janus was the Roman god of beginnings, transitions, and endings, and that’s just what was on Annbjørg Lien’s heart when she prepared this album. As she says in the liner notes of this package of lovely words, pictures and music, “Janus captures the act of simultaneously looking backward and forward, evoking doorways which can symbolise endings and new beginnings in a musical exploration process.”
Lien, a master of Norway’s Hardanger fiddle, has been playing and recording since she was quite young, and has become a well known ambassador for Norwegian traditional and tradition-based music. She completed her doctorate in Hardanger fiddle playing at the University of Agder in 2019, and in 2020 she became the project leader for UNESCO Setesdal, a tradition she has a special relationship with.
This album was inspired by her relationship with Setesdal, a valley in the Agder district of southern Norway that is known as the cradle of Norwegian folk traditions. She looks back at this inspiring tradition and forward as she undertakes to update the traditions through her own creative lens. Musically it’s a mix of traditional tunes, traditional style music with modern arrangements and instrumentation, and some singer-songwriter folk that leans toward Americana.
She’s joined by a wonderful and quite varied ensemble who are key to her goal of putting her own sonic stamp on this updated traditional music. You hear a good example of this right out of the gates on the opening track “Amazon,” which after a solo intro is supported by Roger Tallroth, late of Swedish folk group Väsen, on acoustic guitars and mandolin; Per Elias Drabløs on a droning electric bass, and the excellently weird deep tones of bass clarinet from Mathilde Grooss Viddal. There’s also some subtle percussion in there from either Knut Nesheil Kvifte or Jan Ingle Nilsen.
Lien shows off a Setesdal bowing technique with a song she wrote and dedicated to her new bow, which came decorated with purple silver string. Both the bow and the tune are named “Silver Prince,” and it’s a rousing tune indeed, with all the players named above joining in, in addition to Knut Reiersrud on resonator guitar and Bjørn Ole Rasch on keyboards, and some rousing folk-rock drumming – and of course plenty of fancy bowing. “Snaky” has a melody that’s snaky indeed, set to a tricky 7/8 meter and in a tuning that’s typical of traditional Setesdal tunes. This one still manages to sound quite traditional despite the fretless bass, drums and rather airy prog-like production, not to mention some atmospheric Mellotron.
“Strangled Stranger” sounds ominous, but its title refers to a “strangle grip” on the neck of the violin that is frequently used in Hardanger fiddle music, which means the fiddler places the first finger on two different strings at the same time, which does interesting things with the harmonies. It’s a technique apparently used by Hardanger fiddle master Andres Rysstad, who died in 1984, and who was a student of Knut Jonson Heddi, who was key in bringing the music into the modern era. This one is a kind of Celtic style reel and has lots of percussion and some nifty mandolin from Tallroth. “Unit 1,” the last tune, is the most traditional sounding track on the album, with a melody that repeats in tricky ways.
Lien also sings a couple of songs. “Clock Is Ticking” she sings in English. It’s got a real Americana vibe from resonator and harmonica, plus multi-tracked vocals and more of that Mellotron for a bit of a pop folk feel. “A Silver Spoon” she sings in Norwegian, its lyrics and music inspired by her musings about the lives of itinerant travelers – formerly known as gypsies. It’s a haunting song with some of the most evocative fiddling on the album, with very subtle accompaniment from the other players. The title alludes to the practice of one old traditional fiddler who would trade a silver spoon for traditional tunes from these travelers. Lien combined stanzas from several sources to capture the feeling of isolation and estrangement faced by such travelers; here’s a translation of one of them:
A fine bird I held in my hand
I sat and listened to the bird sing.
He sang about love, hope and faith
then a whirlwind came and took him out.
Overall, I tend to prefer arrangements that are slightly more traditional, speaking especially about the heavy use of the drum kit here – but at least it’s a real kit and not a machine. And I absolutely adore the atmosphere provided by the bass clarinet and, yes, the Mellotron. So I’m not complaining.
Annbjørg Lien has collaborated with musicians all over the world including fiddlers Natalie MacMaster, Liz Carroll, Catriona MacDonald in the band String Sisters, as well as with renowned American old-time fiddler Bruce Molsky. She has appeared on more than 100 recordings and been nominataed five times for the Norwegian Spellemannprisen. It’ll be no surprise when she receives yet more honors for Janus, which achieves her goal of unting past, future and present in charming fashion.