Some days before Christmas, we had an interesting talk with pianist and composer Ingfrid Breie Nyhus, who’s regarded as one of the foremost pianists in Norway at the moment. An eclectic sample of the cross-breeding of classical music, improvisation, folk and contemporary music she’s trying to melt together in her personal search is Slåttepiano II, a release that was pushed on LabLabel‘s catalog by the end of September. Let’s browse into it by the words of Ingfrid.
Chain D.L.K.: Hi Ingfrid! How are you doing on these weird days?
Ingfrid Breie Nyhus: Hi there, right now preparing for Christmas and booking my third corona vaccine dose…
Chain D.L.K.: I was really attracted by the sound of your last release “Slåttepiano II”, but before talking about it, let’s try to extensively introduce you and your art to our readers. I read you grew in a family of folk musicians. Can you tell us something about your first approach to music, some nice memories, or some funny anecdotes about this lucky circumstance?
Ingfrid Breie Nyhus: I grew up with a father who was both working as a folk musician in terms of preserving his musical heritage from the Røros area, as well as having a band for folk dance music that was extremely popular, especially those years when I was a child. Therefore, we were at a lot of folk dance festivals, and since my mother loves to dance, the whole family went to all these festivals. In addition to that, my father also worked in the radio featuring folk music, so we also traveled with the radio bus to large folk music happenings. Maybe what affected me the most, was his personal devotion and love for playing. When I woke up as a child, he was already downstairs playing and practicing on his fiddle. Both folk music, but also some baroque music (he used to be a classical viola player as well). Today he is 89, turning 90, he still practices every day, and it still sounds great.
Chain D.L.K.: I read something about your impressive academic training as a pianist, as well as your astonishing first official awards. How do you remember those years? What’re the more important lessons out of scores, books, and classrooms that somehow boosted your growth as a musician, composer, and woman?
Ingfrid Breie Nyhus: Well, the classical training and the years I spent devoted to the classical piano feel distant now, but they were really important years to me as a musician and pianist. I am so happy that I was a youth at a time when mobile phones and social media didn’t exist because I spent my whole days from morning to evening in the practicing room at the academy – for years – and there were no distractions, just sinking into the world of the piano and researching all kinds of details, timbres, and variants of interpretation. I was not a classical prodigy, as I wasn’t into practicing as a child, but rather just playing around with the instrument. But when I practiced that much in the years of study, things went well. I met teachers from many classical piano schools; Russian, French, German, Finnish – and I learned so much about different angles to playing the piano. But there was too little room for creativity and curiosity, in my opinion, in the classical world. So it came to a turning point where I realized I had to stop playing from these old scores in the way other people thought it should be done – and start searching into my own musical taste, affinities and frameworks instead. When I seriously realized that I had to do this shift, there were two weeks left for my debut concert, which was also to be broadcast live on national radio. This was in 2009. Not easy to go through with that concert, but I did it, knowing that it was not my debut, but my final classical recital.
Chain D.L.K.: “Tre Nyhus” can be somehow considered your debut, that you co-signed with your sister and your father, didn’t you? Advantages and disadvantages of working on that album with family members?
Ingfrid Breie Nyhus: That album was made in 2004/2005, when I was still a student. Me, my father and my sister have always played together as we do on that album, on family occasions. And we thought that it could be nice to record it. The tunes are from Røros or folk tunes my father made, and the arrangements on the piano were made by me, they came out of play. Looking back at it now, yes, you could say it is kind of a debut of me going into folk music on the piano. Though I wouldn’t have done it the same way today… And, surely, it’s difficult to work really creatively with material that feels so close, and where my father and sister are masters of the tradition.
Chain D.L.K.: Besides “Slåttepiano”, how did you integrate traditions in your music? Do you feel that there’s something forgotten in the traditions you try to bring by younger generations of musicians, that you think it’s really indispensable to keep for their personal and artistic growth?
Ingfrid Breie Nyhus: A big point for me in the Slåttepiano project, is revitalizing the old tradition of “ombygging” – that means ‘re-building’. Many fiddlers worked in this way in earlier times, but not many today. That means to use the building blocks of the tunes, to create your own version. I think it is a sad thing that this way of traditional reliving is not so present anymore. I think actually there is a parallel in classical music. Musicians used to improvise, compose, make paraphrases of music before – both playing and creating were integrated into musicianship. Today, classical musicians are too specialized in reproducing, in my opinion. That makes for a more boring world of classical music if you ask me…
Chain D.L.K.: So can you tell us something about Slåtte tradition, its historical meaning, and the reason for reprising it in present days?
Ingfrid Breie Nyhus: The ‘slått’ tradition in Norway is instrumental music, mostly played on Hardanger fiddle or regular fiddle. The word originally means “hit” or “pluck”, as the tunes were played on harp-like instruments in older times. The slått music has traditionally been music for dance, for rituals, and for listening. It is rich and timeless music.
Chain D.L.K.: Are there any proper scores or any composer who brought this tradition on a score? Is there any specific feature of this music form that can be considered a distinguishing element?
Ingfrid Breie Nyhus: This is music that is not meant for writing. It exists in bodies and ears. With this comes that the music has an openness to variability from person to person, from performance to performance, from variant to variant. In the last 100 years, researchers have tried to develop notation methods for slått music, but as there is so much variability, one needs to look at several notations and use them only as additional information to listening, in my opinion. There is not a ‘one’ main version of a slått, but just this multitude. The most typical feature of slått music is the sound and tonality of the Hardanger fiddle, I would say. It is the tonal features of different tuning of the Hardanger fiddle that lay the ground for my Slåttepiano sound. Additionally, rhythmic features such as slow continuous grooves and asymmetrical rhythms.
Chain D.L.K.: Any word about the awesome place where you recorded ” Slttepiano II”? Did Sofienberg Church play a role in the recording?
Ingfrid Breie Nyhus: I really like the instrument that stands in this church, a Steinway from 1893. I recorded both albums on that piano, in that church. Older instruments like that tend to have more personality than the more modern Steinways, which to me are too ‘perfect’. When I meet an instrument that has its own rarities, that is something I need to work with, and the music must meet what the instrument wants to and will not do. On the best occasions, the piano opens up great and magical timbral and musical possibilities when opening the right doors. The 1893 Steinway in Sofienberg church is like that.
Chain D.L.K.: Besides ritual music, is there any form in Norwegian or Nordic tradition whose main aim was the reaching of a trance state? If so, what are the needs that this search was trying to satisfy in your opinion?
Ingfrid Breie Nyhus: In southern Norwegian culture, the powers of the other side have been ever-present. The creatures of the underworld and their forces were a part of everyday life until not so long ago. This is also an important part of the music. The music is very often derived from either such a creature or from forces in nature. The texts and stories connected to the music are typically about these creatures. Some music was thought of as containing such forces itself. The “rammeslåtter”, which is the basis in Slåttepiano II, was music to be aware of, as it might take hold of the fiddler. It was said that they had to cut off the strings to get the fiddler to stop when he got on the “rammeslått”. It was not a goal to get into trance, but rather magical forces to protect oneself from – at least after Christianity came strongly into these valleys. People could be quite afraid of getting into the hands of the devil through the Hardanger fiddle. How one thought about trance states before Christianity, is not good to know. I would think it was thought of as both connected to black magic and also to cleansing and healing powers – but I’m only guessing.
Chain D.L.K.: Any word on the instrument(s) you used for the release of “Slåttepiano II”? Speaking in general, do you care in this aspect personally or did you find support from some erudite folk instrumentalist?
Ingfrid Breie Nyhus: Playing slått music on a grand piano is a big contradiction. The grand piano is a continental instrument grown out of bourgeois culture, far away from Norwegian farmer life. So, the idea of this combination is quite strange. To me, this strange combination of two very different traditions and sound worlds opens up a large creative room.
Chain D.L.K.: The main parts of this release are the triptych titled “Rammepiano”. I read “Ramm” means “strong”. Which kind of strength are you evoking by this title?
Ingfrid Breie Nyhus: “Strong” in this context is to me about the power that these motifs, tonalities, and rhythms contain. Working with them over time, trying to mold this music on the piano into “Rammepiano”, was in a way exhausting, because it actually took hold of me – close to the ways it is described in terms of trance. It is stubborn motifs, not wanting to let you go. And the timbral and tonal elements have strong emotional power, as I experience it.
Chain D.L.K.: A word on the cover artwork/photos… what’s its connection with the musical content?
Ingfrid Breie Nyhus: I worked with a great duo on the artwork, made up of the designer Aslak Gurholt (Yokoland) and the photographer Ivar Kvaal. They wanted to make this as a photo story to be uncovered as opening the LP, with no concrete relation to the music, other than something that could reflect the secretive, dark, meditative, abstract. We took some photos in the forest outside Oslo, some in a bat cave, too, but the ones we ended on were taken outside. On the inside of the LP cover lies very cool blue vinyl.
Chain D.L.K.: Any work in progress?
Ingfrid Breie Nyhus: I just released a Christmas EP, “Klsterkoraler”, that is based on concert recordings from last Christmas together with percussionist Terje Isungset. Here I use organ, celesta, cembalo and piano strings, and thick brush, on top of the folkish piano improvisations, so this is more maximalist compared to the Slttepiano albums.