My attraction to music from Scandinavia began many years ago when a fellow DJ at our local community radio station (WMPG, Portland, Maine) brought back a cassette of an early incarnation of Groupa from a trip to Sweden. It hit me in a way hard to explain. It was one of those times when the music just sits right – no matter what, no matter when. Before that tape actually wore out, Northside Records started up and suddenly there was music available from all over the region. I was truly a happy camper. To date, not too many of these musicians have been able to incorporate Maine into their tours, but recently Väsen performed in Brunswick, Maine, and I have transcended “happy camper” to some higher level of satisfaction. Their music just sits right with me, no matter what, no matter when.
For this trip, Väsen was traveling as a trio rather than the quartet that appears on their most recent recordings. Andre Ferrari, percussionist, was unable to come this time, but the original members (who formed the group in 1989) decided to tour anyway. Mikael Marin on viola, Roger Tallroth on 12 string guitar and Olov Johansson on nyckelharpa gave the audience a rich, soulful evening of music.
These three musicians have obviously been playing together for a long time. They have that unspoken musical understanding that allows them to move through the music seemingly with little effort while at the same time expressing huge amounts of emotion. And their sense of humor put the audience at ease immediately – they are very funny fellows, especially when it comes to explaining to Americans the Swedish obsession with polskas (not polkas, those are different). In fact, the running joke for the evening was that almost everything from Sweden is a polska. That might actually be true but those Nordic types certainly know how to vary the accents in that 3/4 (usually) time signature! It’s also always a pleasure to watch performers having a great time doing what they do. Väsen’s material draws heavily on the musical traditions of their homeland, whether playing original or traditional pieces, but they are never afraid to incorporate their own ideas to spice up the arrangements, especially when it comes to Roger Tallroth’s guitar playing.
I have to credit Tallroth for a superb job as rhythm master. He provided an incredible support structure for Marin and Johansson by being the entire rhythm section, moving without a hitch to being the bass player, then percussionist, then back to rhythm guitar and periodically picking up single note lines in harmony with the melody or the melody itself. He could have easily overdone it while trying to compensate for the percussionist’s absence but all of his choices were very tasteful, nothing was overbearing or out of place.
Olov Johansson plays the nyckelharpa. It is a keyed fiddle where the left hand works the keys that change the notes and the right hand uses a bow to sound the strings. The nyckelharpa has been around for about 700 years, much older than the standard violin. Johansson employs two instruments; one that looked older and closer to the traditional models and a newer, larger one with a slightly different setup of the sympathetic strings and a warmer timbre. Johansson knows these instruments well and when to choose between the two. More often than not he is the melody man. He leads the trio with confidence, like the captain of a ship. In those moments where one of the others took the lead his capabilities as an accompanist were equally strong.
Mikael Marin was the “quiet one” when it came to speaking; he let Johansson and Tallroth take turns with the snappy patter to the audience. That certainly didn’t diminish his musical role on the viola. What he didn’t say in words he made up for in facial expressions. Most of the time he provided that middle ground between the nyckelharpa and the guitar, moving ably between supplying harmony to the melody or a rhythmic support. There was only once when he actually moved to the front and did a very short “solo” late in the second set. I would have liked to have heard more of that during the evening as the timbre of the viola and his sense of melody was just enough of a change to be a very satisfying surprise.
I am hard pressed to pick favorites from this performance because it was all great, but I’ll point to some especially satisfying moments: Johansson introduced a waltz played early in the first set that was created during evenings of trying to get his daughter to sleep – something every parent understands. It started out with a music box sound on the guitar then the viola came in with a motif that sounded like a gentle train running by with the nyckelhapa melody floating on top. At one point all three musicians were swaying enough to make the whole room rock. What a great way to fall asleep! But I didn’t …
Shortly after that a piece written for a theatrical production was played. Perhaps I keyed on this one because, as a theatrical sound designer and composer myself, I immediately listened in a different way. It had a different sound both harmonically and in its texture – a pleasant tangent from the polskas surrounding it.
During the encore, which was a 16 beat per measure polska, Marin referenced the Beatles with a phrase from “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” then there was a great transition/decay into some blues and rock to end the piece. I always love stuff like that! The evening ended with “Josephine’s Waltz,” which is just too beautiful for words.
These special moments don’t diminish the other tunes in the least. There were fast ones, slow ones, minor keys, major keys, jokes, and wide range of dynamics that pointed to the skill of these players. You could say I’m gushing. You’re right!
(Kresge Auditorium, Bowdoin College)