Even if the topic is the Norwegian traditional region Telemark, it is really a national, or even international event, when two of Norway’s most prominent musicians collaborate on their first joint album project. Sigmund Groven and Knut Buen release the CD The sound of Telemark on September 25th, 2020.
But what exactly is the sound of Telemark? Few musicians, composers or artists are better qualified to answer that question than Sigmund Groven and Knut Buen. They are both native to Telemark and have a life long dedication to both local and national culture. Knut Buen is a musician, author, composer, lecturer, publisher and promotor, as well as a painter. He is perhaps most famous for being one of Norway’s finest performers of the hardanger fiddle. Knut Buen grew up surrounded by arts and culture and released his first album in 1972, when he was 24. Sigmund Groven is Norway’s most well known harmonica player. He has been an artist and ambassador for the harmonica through TV appearances, radio, records, numerous concerts and tours and over 250 guest appearances on various recordings. He is an honorary citizen of Texas, has a huge fan base in Asia and has been a soloist with professional symphony orchestras worldwide.
So when none other than Sigmund and Knut – this is one of those rare occasions where ‘non other than’ must be used – finally created a joint album, The sound of Telemark, they have earned the right to explain the project in detail. But first we have to find out why it took so long for a common project to materialize. Being from the same region, the same generation and working more or less within the same field, “Buen & Groven” should have been an established duo since forever, it seems.
Knut: We have actually worked together on various various projects and concerts throughout the years, but this is the first time we have done an entire album together. Things have to ease into place when it comes to [creative work].
Sigmund: I would say we have played with the idea before, but both of us have been busy with so many other things. Finally, now everything fell into place. The inspiration came when we were hired to play in the great machine hall at Vemork a couple of years ago. However, I did work with Knut on two albums in the 70s, as a producer for Det spelar og syng (1975) and Telemarksvingom (1977).
The hardanger fiddle and the harmonica; one is a very Norwegian instrument that makes Norwegians think of decorative painting and folk costumes, the other is a relatively new instrument associated with Bob Dylan and blues, as well as modern folk tunes such as Vårsøg, or indeed many of Sigmund’s own compositions that made the harmonica a true Norwegian instrument too. What do these two instruments have in common?
Knut: The hardanger fiddle has been actively used for only three hundred years. Norwegian folk music [for dancing, called slått] came about after the emergence of baroque music. The harmonica is perhaps equally old?
Sigmund: The harmonica was invented in Germany in the 1820s, and about 100 years later the chromatic harmonica was developed. That enabled the harmonica to be used in all types of music. Both the hardanger fiddle and the harmonica are very expressive instruments that convey our innermost feelings. The resonance strings of the fiddle makes it sonorically rich and it has a wide overtone spectrum. For us it was important to give eachother musical space for the performances and sounds to complement eacother.
What were your intentions when you decided to document the sound of Telemark on a record by the same name?
Sigmund: We believe it is important to preserve some of the musical heritage we both grew up with, in a form where our instruments together give the music new colours. The music of Telemark came from a strong sense of nature, and spans from meditative religious folk tunes to happy dance rhythms that celebrate life.
Knut about Sigmund:
Sigmund is a talented, musical and harmonic person who brings an extra quality to everything he does. Both aesthetics and ethics are built-in strengths in Sigmund. At the same time he is such a normal and friendly person. A person you enjoy working with. A similar background in arts and traditions adds to the feeling of the two of us being related.
What were your thoughts when selecting music for the album, and composing brand new music to go side by side with folk music that was up to several hundred years old?
Knut: It seems natural to include traditional dance music (slåttar) and folk tunes in this context where we’re trying to give a musical glimpse of Telemark. Our need and ability to create melodies is rooted in the national character of the past. The lyrics I wrote [for this album] are related to fairy tales, history and love of nature, and they went hand in hand with melodic music from the same sphere. Telemark’s musical past was more dominated by folk tunes than Telemark’s musical present is. We like to think that to use is to preserve. And in our days, folk music is seeing a renaissance.
Sigmund: We chose tunes by considering variety and topical width, in addition to music that would suit our instruments. The new songs came from Knut’s poetry with it’s strong and original poetic images and sincere themes. As far as I am concerned, when I read good lyrics that touch me, the melody more or less creates itself, it is already in the words, in a way.
Tell us about Anne Gravir Klykken, the voice on some of the tracks.
Knut: Anne Gravir Klykken got involved as our singer because she has an unusually pure voice, and she emerges herself in the words and the melodies she is performing. She is also a very nice person to work with.
Sigmund: Anne’s voice is as clear as a mountain stream in Telemark. She has a warmth in her way of singing that is touching. She also masters the particular old traditional style of singing, known as “kveding”, with all its ornaments, in a natural and unpretentious way, and she communicates words in that style in the most excellent way. And she is a lovely and easy collaborator!
In one of the songs, Markensguten, there is a part that sounds like the theme song from the Eurovision broadcasts. It has been said that the theme, composed by Marc-Antoine Charpentier over 300 years ago, was known in Kongsberg in Telemark in the 1800s.
Knut: Markensguten is a tune that Knut Dahle heard from a young boy at the Kongsberg fair. The similarity to the French composition was pointed out by our sound engineer but we don’t know if there are any specific connection between the two melodies.
Sigmund about Knut:
Knut is a versatile and giftet artist with a strong creative force. He spans from the very serious to lavish comedy. It is my great pleasure to know him and to get the opportunity to work with him on such a meaningful project. He is a fine poet and a splendid musician.
On the new record there are themes and references to phenomena beyond music itself; folk tales and superstition, such as the farm gnome that supposedly lived underground. How connected is Telemark’s traditional music with fairy tales and folklore?
Sigmund: There is a natural connection between those things, the folklore and folk tunes. All of this have been important for people through the centuries. During the building of the Norwegian national character in the 1800s the researchers found lots of interesting material in traditions that were still alive then in Telemark.
Knut: The Ash Lad is a hero for me. To believe in sources and original people you meet on the way of life is an education in itself. When speaking of the so-called underground beings, we’re in the field of parapsychological phenomena. There are many things moving around in the subconcious. Dreams, for example.
The album The sound of Telemark was recorded in the old machine hall at NIA (Norwegian Industrial Worker’s Museum), without any major studio additions or technical tricks. A kind of “unplugged” album in what was perhaps Norway’s biggest recording studio, at least for a few days. Why this method?
Sigmund: The entire idea for this record project arose in the actual machine hall when Knut and I played there for the 75th anniversary of the heavy water sabotage, and later for the 30th anniversary of the Norwegian Industrial Worker’s Museum. We noticed that the timbres of our two instruments were well suited for the hall, with it’s very special acoustics; a long and vibrant reverb. The recording went flawlessly. Alf Christian Hvidsteen, the recording engineer, spent a morning rigging microphones and other equipment. Knut and I spent two four-hour sessions on recording our instrumental pieces, and on the third day Anne joined us and recorded four songs, as well as one more together with Knut and me.
Knut: The recording, in what I call the Celebration Hall, was given a push of inspiration because the staff at the NIA/Vemork museum, our sound engineer, the record company and all the involved parties wanted the project to succeed. They poured sinshine and joy into our recording sessions.
The Vemork site is an important part of the Norwegian industrial history. With folk music and industry in the same place, on the same record, that’s an interesting combination. Maybe even a bit symbolic?
Sigmund: Yes, absolutely, this is a rendez-vous of the old rural traditions and modern times. To capture this in the actual recordings was a challenge, which is why we asked Alf Christian Hvidsteen to be in charge. He is one of our most experienced sound engineers for recordings in difficult situations, such as cathedrals or outdoor concerts. He solved any problems in the best way, and placed microphones to capture both the characteristics of our instruments as well as Anne’s voice and the atmosphere of the vast room. For us musicians, the acoustics of the room affects the way we play and how we shape the musical phrases; in such a location we can let the sounds rest and let them fade out in a different way than in a studio. At the same time, the acoustics is a challenge when it comes to playing together because of distance and reverb.
Knut: Telemark is a traditional, old farming region and an industrial region in the recent past. But all of that comes from natural resources. If you imagine that “essence” is an equal and astral part of the physical, then this music becomes a natural unit.
NIA, Vemork and Rjukan is part of UNESCO’s world heritage programme. On the record, the great world heritage meets the “small tunes” of Telemark. That’s also an interesting clash of cultures.
Sigmund: Music is a universal language without boundaries. Both Knut and I have experienced that throughout the years. A local dance melody or a wistful tune from Telemark communicates with listeners in all parts of hte world, be it on a grand concert stage in New York or in Asia. Music travels from heart to heart and conveys universal human emotions.
Few musicians have better reason so call themselves Telemark musicians than you two. To get back to the first question, will there be more work coming from the now established duo, Buen & Groven?
Knut: Sigmund and I already have new lyrics and melodies available for new productions and collaborations. We enjoy creating a new lane on The Ash Lad’s fantasy roads.
Sigmund: Yes, this project gave us a taste for more. We have several new songs that came from our work together this year, and we’re looking forward to whatever comes next. The most imminent next step is the album launch concert at the Norwegian Industrial Worker’s Museum at Vermork on September 30th.
Sigmund Groven on…
Delicacies from Telenmark: Mountain trout, either fried or simmered, with fish soup and soft flat bread (kling/lefse).
Music from Telemark: Let’s stay in the family! My uncle, Eivind Groven, created lots of beautiful music. There are two recent CDs with his music; two symphonies recorded by Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Peter Szilvay, and Eivind Groven Songs with Marianne Beate Kielland and Nils Anders Mortensen. And from the Buen family: The oldest brother Hauk Buen har many interesting recordings.