Disney’s “Frozen” music has Norwegian roots

Photo: Camilla Hay Jensen / Vuelie.com Frode Fjellheim, composer of “Vuelie.”

Photo: Camilla Hay Jensen / Vuelie.com  Frode Fjellheim, composer of “Vuelie.”

Melinda Bargreen
Everett, Wash.

“What wonderful music,” Disney fans are saying as they pour out of the theaters where the animated-film hit “Frozen” is playing.

“It sounds sort of tribal. Is it African?”

Wrong continent. The opening song in “Frozen” does indeed have a tribal sound, but it features a composer, conductor, and choir from Norway. The Disney production team, including score composer Christophe Beck, wanted to use Nordic music as the inspiration for the music in “Frozen.” Their trip to Norway in 2012 introduced them to the Trondheim-based women’s choir, Cantus, and to their 2011 recording, “Norwegian Voices.” The first track on that recording was “Eatnemen Vuelie” (“Song of the Earth”), composed by Trondheim musician Frode Fjellheim, who agreed to co-write with Beck a new choral piece inspired by that work especially for “Frozen.” The resulting piece, entitled “Vuelie” and performed by Cantus, sets the tone for the whole movie in the opening sequence. “Vuelie” is later reprised in a different form as the music for a crucial development (“The Great Thaw”) in “Frozen.”

Cantus, founded in 1986, consists of about 30 singers and is internationally renowned. The group, whose director is Tove Ramlo-Ystad, won the first Xinghai Prize International Choir Championships in Guangzhou, China, and is ranked No. 1 in their “Female Choirs” class (and 8th best overall in the “world’s best choir” designation) by the international “Interkultur” competition’s world rankings.

“Frozen” (which is loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen”), features “joiking” (“yoiking,” in English), a traditional Sami chant-like vocal tradition that Fjellheim learned in childhood. He has Sami roots, stemming from his background in Røros; his family members still work as traditional reindeer herders. Listeners sometimes liken the sounds of joik to the chanting of some Native American cultures.

A composer and synthesizer player who “uses his voice in a joik-inspired way” (according to his website, frodefjellheim.com), Fjellheim (born August 27, 1959 in Mosjøen, Norway) formed what was then known as the Frode Fjellheim JazzJoik Ensemble in 1992. He composes most of the music performed by his band, a quartet now known as Transjoik, and featuring drums, synthesizer, electronic loops, and bass guitar as well as the unique vocal sounds of “joiking.” Transjoik has come to international prominence through a 2003 win in the European final of the Liet International competition, held in the Netherlands and featuring representatives of 12 European minority cultures.

The “Frozen” soundtrack has done quite well as a commercial entity. The trade publication “Variety” reported strong sales for the soundtrack in the months following the November release of the film, including several weeks at the top of the U.S. album chart, and the movie “Frozen” grossed $318 million in eight weeks on domestic screens. Moviegoers and soundtrack buyers may think they’re partaking solely of Disney – but they’re getting a little Norwegian culture on the side.

Melinda Bargreen is a Seattle-based writer and composer whose career at The Seattle Times began in 1977. Her choral works include the “Norwegian Folksong Suite.” Melinda contributes to many publications and is the author of Seattle Opera’s forthcoming 50-year history book. She holds B.A. and M.A. degrees from the UW, and a doctorate in English from the University of California, Irvine.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 14, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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