A high profile Womex showcase for one of Norwegian folk music’s finest ensembles this week: Majorstuen.
As the first Norwegian folk ensemble to be invited for an official showcase at Womex the six- strong fiddle powerhouse Majorstuen is honoured and excited at the prospects. We had a talk with one of the group’s four female fiddlers, Synnøve Bjørset, in advance of the event: about Majorstuen’s coming of age as a celebrated and trail blazing folk band, of the emancipating power of dogma and of future plans.
“We had to decline an offer for an off-Womex appearance last year,” relates Synnøve, “a tough decision, but for that reason it was even more exiting to be invited for an official showcase this year. There are innumerable acts competing for a slot, so it really is a great honour and a magnificent opportunity.”
MIC: Lots of artists and ensembles in the World music category, including several Norwegian names, have made it a defining trait to incorporate new elements and other genres into traditional expressions. In Majorstuen, on the other hand, you have stressed the importance of an unequivocal musical framework of acoustic fiddles, violas and cellos only. Is this something you have considered rethinking?
SB: Well, of course it is often very tempting to bring in a full band line-up and include new and different elements but we have made a decision to stand firm which I think is very important to both the music and the identity of the band. The framework is what makes us powerful because it challenges us in many ways. It is not only a matter of pushing musical and instrumental limits but also about how the band is perceived on stage. We put a lot of emphasis on the visual aspect and we try to make our concerts into an experience not for the ears alone but one of impressions and surprises of many kinds. In this respect the rule of never adding anything to the six acoustic instruments makes us stand forth as live individuals communicating directly with each other and the audience. But the most important aspect of sticking to this framework is of course the sound itself. We have worked hard to develop something uniquely ours, and it feels misconceived to depart from that now.
MIC: The element of surprise has often been highlighted as a distinctive trait of the band; that you are very different from what people normally expect from a traditional fiddle ensemble. Is it not difficult to maintain this with a strict formula and when people are getting familiar with the concept?
SB: We don’t really see it that way because the surprise and freshness of Majorstuen is not so much a matter of constellation and repertoire as the way it is played. We are instrumentalists and I think that our live personalities and the sort of “happening dynamic” we bring to the stage are an inexhaustible source of surprises and unexpected things. This dynamic and the direct relation to the audience is more important to us than experimentation with new sound or new elements. We always try to create a positive kind of tension and capture the audience’s attention fully, and we’re able to take this further when we operate within a set framework.
MIC: From the start the character and identity of the band depended on the six of you coming from different corners of the country and bringing with you distinct musical traditions. The merger of these, also with the urban setting of Oslo, was set forth as essential to the novelty and exiting freshness of Majorstuen. Are you still able to surprise and inspire each other after five years of working closely together?
SB: We have gone from being representatives of different traditions to being soloists with strong personal characteristics in our music. We have moved in different directions and we are all involved in many projects apart from Majorstuen. This means that we now function together more in the way of instructing and challenging each other instrumentally. It’s more about the actual instruments; techniques and possibilities, than genres and traditions.
MIC: So how does this work when you develop new tunes?
SB: In the beginning we worked very closely together throughout the process. One of us would present a melody or an idea, traditional or an own composition, and then we would spend a long time jamming until a mood or direction became apparent that we all liked. Lots of ideas were discarded. Now, each one of us can develop a tune further on our own before we present it. This is partially because we now live apart - in different corners of the country - but also because we have each other’s confidence and we all know pretty much what will work and what will not. But this doesn’t mean that every presented idea passes; we still work together on every tune and everyone is active in the process.
MIC: Having broken up from a collective existence in Oslo, and having played a lot abroad, are there significant new inspirations that make themselves heard?
SB: No, quite conversely I think that the years of experience and travelling have just made us more certain of the Norwegian essence of our music. We are less afraid to really delve into the idiosyncratic aspects of Norwegian folk music, and I think that we benefit greatly from the explicit and unwavering emphasis on our traditional sources.
MIC: Yet, your music also features plenty of rock-like riffs and allusions to moods and characteristics of other genres.
SB: Sure, some of us listen to a lot of rock and others to jazz. But to the extent that these influences make themselves heard it is not really a matter of conscious allusions. Sometimes it is a fun thing to do to “quote” characteristic passages or elements from other genres, but in general the influences make themselves present in a much more subconscious way. It is simply a matter of all of us having heard a lot of different music, and continuously absorbing new music too. Every one of us will necessarily bring in the sort of taste and orientation that is determined by our personalities. We are very uncomfortable with limitations in terms of influences at the same time as our own expression is defined by a rigid framework. It is an interesting kind of counterpoint.
MIC: So your latest record Juledrøm (Christmas dream), which features both singing and other instruments, was just a one-off thing; a kind of by-project not to be confused with Majorstuen proper?
SB: Well, what we did with Juledrøm certainly doesn’t indicate that we will be including vocals on our next Majorstuen record. It was a new and different way of working, which was very exiting -and the response has been tremendous- but it doesn’t affect our notion of Majorstuen as a pure fiddle ensemble. However, Juledrøm forms the basis of something we would like to repeat every year; a seasonal tradition of playing a few Christmas concerts.
MIC: What other plans are in place for the future? Have you scheduled a new Majorstuen album?
SB: Nothing is decided about a new record, but perhaps we will have one ready for release sometime next year. This time around we’ve decided to take our time and give ourselves a lot of leeway. I guess we want more tunes to choose from, so that we can be freer to discard some at the time of compiling the album.
In terms of touring we have a stint in Belgium coming up before Christmas, and then there’s the ‘Juledrøm’ concerts back home. But we would like to do more touring in Europe, preferably on a regular basis, and regarding this the Womex showcase might prove instrumental, that’s what we’re hoping anyway. Our goal is to find some new contacts and partners that can facilitate the whole touring business for us and help us reach broader in Europe. I also think we have potential in America, but that is a notoriously difficult market of course. We’ll see what happens. Anyway, we’re confident that Womex will be a push forward.
Majorstuen will play a daycase on Sat 27th of October at FIBES’ Al-Andalus at 1pm