Fiddling across the seas
Rachel Nesvig transcends boundaries with the Hardanger fiddle
Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American
Only 34, Rachel Nesvig has long been a fixture in Seattle’s Norwegian-American community for her extraordinary talent as a Hardanger fiddler. It’s been a passion of hers since she was 16 years old, when she first took up the instrument. Since then, she has performed all over the Pacific Northwest, across North America, and in Europe—and there are no signs of stopping.
Like many folk fiddlers on this side of the Atlantic, Rachel trained in classical violin already as a child. With time, she earned her bachelor’s degree in music and Norwegian from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., in 2007, followed by a master’s degree in violin performance and K-12 teaching certificate from Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Wash., in 2011. Rachel completed additional studies in both classical and jazz violin at the Music Conservatory of the University of Stavanger, Norway.
Rachel has been deeply inspired by her Norwegian roots, reinforced by her childhood experience living in Stavanger, where her father served as pastor of the American church. Already then, the folk music of Norway made a lasting impression on her.
But it was at a house concert in Gig Harbor, Wash., that Rachel first felt the full impact of the Hardanger fiddle. Michigan folk musician Karin Loberg Code was playing, and Rachel remembers sitting on a pillow on a floor. She had never heard the Hardanger fiddle played as a solo instrument at such close range, and she was mesmerized. It wasn’t long before Rachel would start lessons and her parents would buy her a Hardanger fiddle of her own.
These days, Rachel makes her living as freelance musician, but she has learned that making money with the Hardanger fiddle can be a challenge. As a professional musician, she can accept a concert gig for $200 or play for a folk dance for $20. The choice can boil down to practical necessities.
But Rachel isn’t giving up. She continues to look for more ways to expand her horizons in the Hardanger fiddle world. She has begun to experiment with the looping pedal and adding electronics. Rachel took inspiration from a fiddler she found on Facebook, another American living in Geneva. Good fortune would have it that Rachel was able to see her perform while on vacation in Switzerland, an unexpected transatlantic experience.
Close contact with Norwegian musicians is important for Rachel and all serious Hardanger fiddlers, and she is well connected in Norway. Notably, she has worked with master fiddlers Leif Rygg and Anders Anderdal at the Ole Bull Academy in Voss. While studying at the University of Stavanger when she was only 20, she worked with Dag Hovde.
The young American musician also played at jam sessions with Spelmannslag Vivå while living in Stavanger. Rachel remembers it as “awesome but hard.” She was the single female player in an all-male ensemble of men in their 50s, and everyone spoke their dialect. She recalls that her “brain would hurt from all the tunes.”
But these days, Rachel is making her way across another sea, as she is working on a new project with Brandon Vance, another Northwest-based string player. Like Rachel, Brandon trained as a classical violinist but is also a “phenomenal Scottish fiddler.” Their current project, “Crossing the North Sea,” constitutes a blending of Nordic and Celtic musical traditions, and from what I have heard, the results are remarkable.
Rachel and Brandon work on their musical arrangements together, but when performing, they improvise in the folk music tradition. Their repertory, however, can be described as non-traditional: “We go against tradition, keeping tradition in mind,” says Rachel. The project is about “breaking barriers and putting a modern twist on things.”
One of their strongest influences has been the Nordic Fiddlers Bloc, a fiddle trio that blends the traditions of Norway, Sweden and the Shetland Islands. And much like the folk fusion group SVER, the duo “rockifies” the old familiar sounds. To do this, they make use of a variety of instruments: the Hardanger fiddle, the Scottish fiddle and mouth harp, and the bagpipes. They have even worked with an Indian tabla drum.
I have seen the duo perform in a formal concert hall and a more casual bookstore café, and this new music resonates well in both, as the two adapt to their environment and audience. Sometimes they perform in costumes, with Rachel in her Norwegian bunad and Brandon in his kilt.
Both Rachel and Brandon play in an array of classical orchestras and ensembles throughout the Northwest, so there are always enthusiastic friends and fans there to support them. “But playing folk music is different.” Rachel remarks. “Folk music relaxes people, while classical concerts are very strict.” There is quite a relaxed atmosphere at the “Crossing the North Sea” concerts, as they connect with audience. Storytelling is also a very important part of the experience.
The duo would like to go on tour, but they will need to find an agent first. In the meantime, if you don’t live in the Pacific Northwest, there is no need to despair: Rachel and Brandon are working on their first album together, to be released later on this year. Many of their recordings are already online on YouTube, so as you wait in anticipation for the album, you can enjoy the unique musical magic of “Crossing the North Sea.” Stay tuned for further updates.
See also “The American dream of Norway: Part 3” in The Norwegian American, July 12.
This article originally appeared in the February 21, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.