Bringing tradition into the future
At the Ole Bull Academy in Voss, Norway, musicians from all over the world come to study traditional Norwegian folk music.
The school was founded in 1976 by legendary fiddler Sigbjørn Bernhoft Osa from Voss. But the idea for such a school was already then over 100 years old and came from the fiddler and celebrity Ole Bull. Since its opening, the school has offered different study programs, and it is now formally a part of the University in Bergen, offering a bachelor’s degree in traditional music performance as well as a very exclusive master’s degree in collaboration with other Nordic countries. In addition, the school has week-long courses.
The principal, Jo Asgeir Lie, is very happy to see that more international students choose to come to the school.
“It’s very positive that we receive international students. We’ve had Japanese, Belgian, British, and Canadian students. A Japanese student told me she fell in love with hardingfele while playing Grieg, and therefore decided to come to Norway. These students challenge the way we teach, because they don’t have the basic knowledge of folk music culture that we sometimes take for granted. This helps to open up the culture and community and has resulted in more crossover collaborations and new explorations musically.”
I asked Lie why he thought international students wanted to learn about Norwegian folk music.
“I think it’s a little bit connected to the mythical idea of Nordic culture, as we’ve seen in one of Norway’s largest musical exports: black metal. Those bands have used a lot of traditional imagery, especially from the Viking era, but also traditional instruments. I think this has exposed the world to Norwegian traditional music and culture, and people are drawn to that. I met a student from Germany at the Folk Music Academy in Rauland. He was a dedicated black metal fan and therefore decided to learn about everything Norwegian: the language, music, and kveding (a traditional form of singing). The band Wardruna is big in the United States, and Eilif Gundersen, who plays horns and flutes, is one of the teachers here,” he said.
My next question was about Alexander Rybak, who won Eurovision playing a fiddle in 2009. I wonder if he had noticed any increase in interest then.
“Definitely!” he said. “The whole folk music community got more attention, and especially dancers, as Rybak had halling-dancers with him on stage. There is still a lot of demand for traditional dancers and not enough dancers to meet this demand.”
Famous folk stars
A lot of Norway’s most famous folk artists have been students at Ole Bull. Some, like Tuva Syvertsen in Valkyrien Allstars, have also become celebrities, successfully mixing folk music with pop or rock. Jo Asgeir names several well-known artists like Sigrid Moldestad, Erlend Apneseth, and Gjermund Larsen, all names worth checking out.
Jo Asgeir himself plays the accordion, and is a member of the group Kvarts, a well-known and acclaimed folk music band in Norway. He remembers starting out as an 8-year-old in “kulturskulen,” a public after-school program for the arts.
“I came to folk music through the back door. I started out playing classical accordion with a great teacher, Olav Ullestad. But as I got older, I also found joy in playing gammaldans, dancing music. I remember first doing my classical homework, and then playing gammaldans,” he said.
As a 16-year-old, he started performing at dance parties in Voss with other musicians. At 18, he became a member of Voss spelemannslag, playing traditional folk music. After high school, he did a year at the music school Toneheim Folk High School in Hamar, Norway, but says he did not intend to study music.
“There I met a professor at the Norwegian Academy of Music, Jon Faukstad, and he persuaded me to study further at his school. So I come from a mix of folk music, classical, and dance music. At the Norwegian Academy of Music, I also met professor Sven Nyhus, who was the head of the folk music program.”
Since he finished his studies, Jo Asgeir has been a performing musician alongside being principal at kulturskulen in Ål, and since 2011 he is the principal at Ole Bull.
“I like that we now see more of the students coming to us from diverse backgrounds. Earlier, almost everyone had family and background from the folk music community. Now we get more musicians with background from other genres, like classical and jazz,” he said.
Jo Asgeir has been in the United Sates and met with the folk music community among Norwegian Americans.
“It’s a very vital community over there, with a lot of interest in connecting with Norwegian folk musicians. It was great to experience how the music that emigrated 150 years ago still means so much for many people. I am really hoping, that we can organize more internationally-oriented courses when the world opens up again.”
“You get to choose your own teachers”
Laura Ellestad is a former student at the Ole Bull Academy. The now 37-year-old hardingfele player and academic was born and raised in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, but she didn’t connect much to her Norwegian heritage as a youngster. Now she is a lecturer at the Department of Traditional Arts and Traditional Music in Rauland, Norway, where she lives with her Norwegian husband and two young children.
“The very best thing about studying at Ole Bull must have been that you get to choose your own teachers. I told them which musicians I wanted to learn from, and they organized it. That is a very unique practice in a school.”
Laura’s great-grandparents emigrated from Valdres in Norway, but her family did not participate much in Norwegian culture until her father heard hardingfele as a part of the opening of the Olympic games in Lillehammer in 1994. A musician himself, he became very interested in the instrument, as well as Norwegian folk music.
Laura’s parents started going to Norwegian folk music events, and through one of these, they came in contact with Tore Bolstad, a well-known fiddler from Norway, who was visiting Calgary. They became friends, and Bolstad introduced Laura to the hardingfele. Laura grew up playing classical violin, but she’d never played folk music before she tried the Hardanger fiddle as a 21-year-old.
“I had a few lessons with Tore, and I really liked the instrument right away. It felt so right for me. I was drawn to it. A lot of people have asked me if this was a way for me to connect with my roots, but it wasn’t about that at the time. It was more about the musical language. Later, it has become about the connection, too,” says Laura.
A few years later, she came to the Ole Bull Academy through a scholarship from the Hardanger Fiddle Association of America. This special course was an intensive stay for an entire week, where she met many fiddle players and had lessons with them.
Two years later, she was accepted as a student for a full bachelor’s degree.
“I was surprised to get in—it’s not considered to be easy! It was a great time. The study is set up in a way that leaves the students with a lot of freedom. We only went to school one week every month. The rest of the time was for us to practice or perform.”
During the time at Ole Bull, Laura was living in Valdres and also played music for a theater in Oslo alongside her studies.
After studying at the Ole Bull Academy, Laura went on to a master’s and doctorate at the Norwegian Academy of Music, and she has written several articles and academic texts about emigran folk musicians on the American continent. With her husband, Magnus Wiik, she plays in the duo called the Ellestad Wiik Duo.
She strongly recommends an American student to apply at the Ole Bull Academy.
“At the Ole Bull Academy, I gained so much fundamental knowledge, not just about the music and arrangements, but also about folk music history, which I previously did not know much about. We were small groups, and I connected well with my classmates. Many of us are still good friends and work together.”
More info on the Ole Bull Academy in Voss:
- Founded in 1976 by Sigbjørn Bernhoft Osa
- Offers a bachelor’s degree in traditional music performance
- Offers a Nordic master’s degree in collaboration with schools in Århus, Helsinki and Stockholm (only every other year)
- Has a staff of 14 in addition to many visiting lecturers
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 4, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.