MIC’s Womex-profile series continues with influential and innovative guitarist and producer Knut Reiersrud.
Doing an artistic profile on Norwegian musician Knut Reiersrud is a truly welcoming task, for his is a far- and deep-reaching musical endeavour.
Reiersrud’s music is distinguished by mesmerizing guitar playing, extraordinary diversity and not least by a rare understanding of the cultural background and greater context from which distinct musical expressions spring forth. This understanding is always brought into his artistic activities, as well as into his musical expression itself. Therefore, his project as a whole transcends familiar artistic limitations and constitutes a uniquely rich contribution.
Reiersrud’s chief interest and musical identity is, and has always been, the blues. At the age of 18 he impressed his hero Buddy Guy so much that he was instantly invited to Chicago. While there, he was initiated into the essence of the music he had loved for years by some of his favourite performers; a rare experience for a young guitar player from remote Norway.
From that point on, Reiersrud has been a fully-fledged blues man. But he soon also established an approach as a constant explorer of all styles and genres he encountered. Notorious for his insatiable curiosity and desire to learn, he has become an almost unrivalled force of diversity in Norwegian music. From the blues and its related American genres, he has widened his scope to include a spectrum of traditional musical expressions, entailing mastery of numerous instruments. He has engaged in Norwegian folk music by exploring the unique sonority and enchantment of traditional string instruments such as the Hardanger fiddle. And a substantial part of his activity has been devoted to church music, through his acclaimed collaboration with Norwegian organist Iver Kleive.
Reiersrud has a unique ability to unearth deep, shared traits of different traditions and genres, and his music often fuses seemingly disparate expressions – leaving the listener marvelling at how well they work together and how the notes from his guitar seem to be floating between traditions and cultures, carrying one into the other. In this trademark manner, most of his records include some such cultural and geographical interplay. Adding to his own records and the projects he is personally involved in, he is also among the most sought-after studio guitarists in the market, thanks again to his ability to animate each and every note.
However, unlike many other musical explorers and diverse artists, Reiersrud’s interests go beyond the purely musical to music’s greater context: The historical, socio-cultural aspects, as well as the existential foundations that underlie different musical genres and styles. Thus, he is, in his own words, first and foremost an interpreter and conveyor of folk culture – someone whose goal it is to sustain and further the archaic expression that is both blues and folk music in general.
This approach to music and to being a musician has resulted in the accumulation of vast knowledge regarding the history and development of certain genres, making Reiersrud an authority frequently drawn upon by NRK (the Norwegian state broadcasting network), where he has co-hosted several different radio programs on blues, folk and world music.
When asked about the nature of this wider interest – this desire to always go beyond music itself – he refers to a side of his personality different from the artist and performer, saying, “Part of me is tuned much more to the intellectual side of what I do, to the history and constitution of aspects of culture. This makes me a cultural historian – someone who wants to know, understand and exhibit the history of musical forms that are neither “artistic” (as in created) nor commercial, but rather which constitute a common voice of many. These forms are most often labelled folk music.”
“This differentiation is very interesting, because whereas in most western countries, folk music is indeed far removed from best-selling pop music, while in the Middle East, etc., they are the same,” Reiersrud adds. “And then we have countries such as Ireland where the distinction is unclear because the two categories often merge. But in general, one can say that in the common market, folk music is not pop music, and the cross-cultural phenomenon of folk music is thus labelled world music.”
But what about the blues? Reiersrud’s says, “Original blues is thus, by now, a species of world music, even though it is the predecessor of much of today’s pop. But I don’t think the term ‘world music’ captures my approach to this music, or my expression, because I am interested in the archaic aspects of folk music more than the popular potential.
Asked to elaborate, Reiersrud explains, “The blues is originally a species of the ballad: A subjective and poetic expression – almost a meditation. In the old days this entailed unfailing fidelity to the principle of describing only individual fates. The dictum of the blues was always to ‘tell it like it is.’ It was never supposed to be explanatory, speculative, philosophical or political in any way. True blues does not demand change or seek to invoke social engagement. It is not a social phenomenon. Rather it is fundamentally subjective and poetic, and therefore, in our day, archaic. Modern day expressions that are the descendants of the blues, such as hip-hop, are a lot more extrovert, socially focused and aggressive. A demand for action and change has taken the place of subjective lament and personal comforting.”
The blues does not ring true like it used to, ponders Reiersrud: “What was once an accurate expression of human experiences is all but too unobtrusive to be heard at all these days. Now that the heartland of blues has been struck by a natural disaster, it will be very interesting to see if this becomes manifest in the expressions that this area is home to, I mean in a way that is actually recognizable on the music scene – at least in America. The last major flood in the Mississippi delta was in 1927. From that event we have a plethora of classic blues songs. This time around there will surely be plenty of music made that voices the anger and frustration the situation has caused; songs with social and political content. But I doubt that we will see many subjective songs about individual fates, because such expressions have become obsolete.”
Discussing this difference between the subjective and archaic dimension of certain genres and music with social/political content, Reiersrud shares some thoughts regarding a recent project he has been deeply involved in: A record entitled Lullabies from the Axis of Evil which was conceived by Norwegian producer Erik Hillestad as a reaction to U.S. President G.W. Bush’s coining of the phrase “Axis of Evil.” Hillestad travelled to the countries of the “axis,” as well as a number of the other so-called “rogue states” and had mothers sing a lullaby typical of their culture onto his portable DAT recorder. Back in Norway, Reiersrud arranged music to match the singing. This was then recorded and blended with the original takes as well as with English-language translations of the songs performed by well-known western artists. The result was that the mothers seemed to be singing with the music, thus creating a very special atmosphere for which the record has earned much praise.
“Lullabies is a very special record in many ways, not least the way it was recorded and produced, which I think is pretty unprecedented,” says Reiersrud. “But what I find most interesting about it is the immense power these songs have over something so utterly removed from their subject matter. They are the epitome of what I have been calling ‘archaic musical expressions’ because they are so completely alien to any contemporary agenda of any kind. They are the most universal yet most private songs that exist, belonging to the innermost of situations: A mother lulling her child to sleep.”
Reiersrud further explains: “This absolute difference to anything political or even social has proven extremely efficient in making people; i.e., listeners, question politics’ disregard for individuals, and question a phrase such as the ‘axis of evil.’ Lullabies from these countries make such a phrase and such an understanding absurd in a way that no utterance with a political content ever could. I feel that the record is a powerful example of the deep affinity we all have to these subjective, poetic expressions that so often are overlooked and deemed without significance in the real world.”
Reiersrud’s next projects include the follow-up to Lullabies, and work on Norwegian bard Jonas Fjeld’s upcoming album. But knowing the musical and cultural force that is Knut Reiersrud, these will be just the beginning.