Few people can entitle themselves “folk singer” in the telephone directory, and even fewer can call themselves “kvedar” because they would soon feel the cold breath of cultural history and earlier forms of cultural expression blowing down their necks.
The special Norwegian tradition of kveding is gaining new life, and master classes are held at the Ole Bull Academy’s Kvedar School in the mountain town of Voss in southern central Norway. The master classes are led by Sondre Bratland, who teaches four pupils at a time. It has been a long, although not necessarily painful road. The recipient of a lifetime government stipend, he is now able to work full time at what has always been more than a treasured hobby.
A kvedar is a person who sings unaccompanied Norwegian folk songs. The kvedar sings in equal temperament, i.e. in no major or minor keys. Kveding is distinguished from classical singing by a flatter tone with no vibrato, and by singing on the consonants as well as the vowels. Rich ornamentation is often used.
Bratland swears by ancient tradition and his belief in the art of personal transference, which lives on in both the folk fiddling and folk singing tradition. The pupil seeks out the master who is most suitable for his or her voice or style of playing and the traditions are passed on down the generations.
Sondre Bratland was born sixty years ago in Vinje, which in poet Aasmund Olavsson Vinje’s view is a village that could easily have filled half the world with poets. In Bratland’s youth, kveding was the most popular art form in this mountain village in the interior of Telemark, the biggest county in eastern Norway which stretches from the coastal skerries to the snow-decked mountains.
Bratland’s mother was a kvedar, and he virtually learned the tradition at his mother’s breast. It is important to remember that in that part of the country being able to kvede brought high status – even higher if you had learned the whole of Draumkvedet. This Norwegian visionary poem in ballad form probably originated at the end of the Middle Ages and was written down in western Telemark in the mid-19th century. The religious content reflects the Roman Catholic faith, but it has been impossible to discover whether the poem was written by a layman or a priest.
In his youth, like all other Norwegian teenagers, the budding master kvedar listened to 50s europop on Radio Luxembourg, and it was this kind of music he first performed. He moved to Oslo to train as a teacher, and it was during these years he heard Ragnar Vigdal in “Folk Music Half-Hour”, a radio programme much abused by urbanites at the time. Vigdal came from Luster in Sogn. His style of kveding struck a chord in Bratland’s soul and when the newly-trained teacher moved back to Vinje in 1969 he contacted Vigdal, who became his master for the next twelve years.
The songs Vigdal sang, or kvedet, were very similar to any you might hear in Jewish synagogues or other cultures. Traditional music is universal! To many people’s surprise, there are also numerous similarities between Norwegian folk songs and German chorales.
It became very clear how international folk music really is when Bratland started working with Jigme Drukpa from Bhutan, the country that lies squeezed between two of the most powerful nations in the world, India and China. With Hardanger fiddler Annbjørg Lien (LtN 1/98) they toured both in Norway and from east to west in Bhutan with great success, and Lien’s fiddle and Drukpa’s dranyen were surprisingly compatible. Strangely enough, Bratland’s and Drukpa’s voices also sounded very good together: they were said to fit hand in glove. Bratland may be right in observing that vocal values are international. Just think of babies who can understand whether their mother and father are sad, angry or happy just by their tone of voice.
In his work as a master kvedar, Bratland finds a great deal of security and strength in the fact that he has shaken hands with his predecessors, has sat at their feet and heard them sing their songs. He always carries a DAT recorder with him because he never knows whom he might meet and it is exciting to find new sounds. He translates a number of texts from English and composes music to poems; at the moment he is working hard on Olav H. Hauge. Ulvik Municipality in Hardanger, where Hauge was born, has asked him to write music to the poetry of its famous son – a very demanding task.
Until 1997, all Bratland’s work on folk songs and music and his collection of old cradle songs had to be done in his spare time because he was head of the Music and Folk Art Department at Telemark College Institute of Folk Culture. However, when the government gave him a lifetime stipend, an honour awarded solely on the basis of recommendation, he finally had the freedom and independence to concentrate on his own interests. He is in a privileged situation and very much concerned to utilise it in the best possible way. In addition to his work at the Ole Bull Academy, he leads seminars at the Institute of Folk Culture and is strongly involved in the effort to establish a Nordic folk music network.
He performs frequently, mostly in churches and often with organist Iver Kleive, who plays Max Reger and Bach as gladly as he plays Norwegian folk music. They have sung and played in more than six hundred churches but Bratland has one or two favourites because of their exceptional acoustics. One of them is the old Trondenes Church outside Harstad in Nordland county, north Norway, and another Dale Church in Luster in Sogn, western Norway. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem also holds a very special place in his heart, because that is where Bratland and selected musicians were permitted to record Rosa Frå Betlehem (The Rose from Bethlehem), his best-known CD, which confirmed his position in the Norwegian popular consciousness as something more than a folk musician who was into kveding.
Since the church is his arena all year round, he is not one of those Norwegian musicians who flood the churches in the last few weeks before Christmas when the cream can be skimmed from the market and the churches are a good place to do it. A new CD is being planned which will feature either the poems of Olav H. Hauge or Draumkvedet. He has recorded eight solo albums so far. When Bratland performs his songs, the main focus is on improvisation and variation – that comes from the kvedar tradition. He often produces his own versions by using folk music techniques, i.e. colouring a note with additional notes and ornaments. That is how he seeks the unpredictable.
Church performances, theatre, tours at home and abroad, collecting old material – Sondre Bratland finds time for and enthuses about all these things. Recently, he has also developed an interest in the renaissance of pilgrimage in Europe. Many people find it necessary and interesting to seek out their own thoughts by recognising that, deep inside, man is always alone but remains part of an overall context. This is equally true of kvedar and artist Sondre Bratland.