Magic in the space of silent knowledge

Annbjørg Lien earns a doctorate in Hardanger fiddle tunes

Annbjørg Lien

Photo: Stian Herdal
Until now, there has been little theory on how to play the Hardanger fiddle. Now that she is more conscious of her art, it is easier to transfer the knowledge to others, says Annbjørg Lien.

Siw Ellen Jakobsen

The folk musician has earned the university’s highest degree. But there was a limit to how much of her dissertation could be put into words. One of the chapters, therefore, was delivered as a new solo album in spring 2019.

She had been on her way for over 30 years, doing what she loved most in the world: being on stage playing folk music.

But during the last four years, Annbjørg Lien’s Hardanger fiddle has been rather quiet, at least in public—but that doesn’t at all mean that she’s set it aside.

Recently, she completed a doctoral degree, which for her means that the Hardanger fiddle is more at home in her music than ever before. “I needed to pause a little at mid-life, get a refill with new knowledge, feel wonder again, and get a bigger perspective on what I’ve been doing,” she says.

A performative doctorate

Lien didn’t have an academic background in music before this, but a somewhat unusual arrangement for performing artists at the University of Agder made it possible for her to earn the university’s highest degree.

“This has been an important opportunity to research performance more deeply,” she says. Today, a large proportion of folk music education is delivered through music theory, archival recordings, and notes, although closely following a master artist and learning orally is still highly valued. To be sure, today one can earn a master’s degree in folk music at the Norwegian Academy of Music (Norges musikkhøgskole), the University of Southeast Norway’s Department of Traditional Art and Folk Music at Raulandsakademiet, and the Ole Bull Academy.

But when Lien began to play seriously, it wasn’t possible to take the academic route in music. She was educated in the old way and learned directly from the masters.

She’s thankful for that.

For her, it is incredibly important today to build a bridge between performing arts and academics through theory. But she also hopes that it’s still possible to return to a more oral tradition of music education.

It began in her basement in Sula

Lien learned to play Hardanger fiddle at home already as a 5-year-old in Sula, outside of Ålesund, miles from any folk music scene.

Her father tuned into Folkemusikktimen (the Folk Music Hour) on NRK Radio every week and learned to play Hardanger fiddle from Sigbjørn Bernhoft Osa as an adult. Little by little, he built up a small folk scene among the young people in the village. They met every Tuesday in the Liens’ basement to play music.

That would be the start of a fantastic musical career for his daughter, who has always loved the sound of this special fiddle.

Living with a master

In the 1990s, she moved in from time to time with one of her role models, fiddler Hauk Buen.

“To be able to be close to the soul of an artist and his whole creative being over time is valuable and enlightening. I got to know feelings, thoughts, and creativity, in addition to learning technique,” says Lien.

“Why is it so important for an artist to be familiar with their feelings?” I ask.

“You can be technically skilled, but the art will die if there isn’t also a burning flame in it.  You’re entirely dependent on that if you’re going to move both yourself and other people,” she says.

A chapter of her dissertation is a CD

The creative act can be a more private process, and often, an artist prefers not to put to words that experience to share it with others. But it is, nevertheless, important to share how one works, especially thinking of the next generation of musicians. And Lien is sure there’s more and more of them.

Up until now, there has been very little theory for Hardanger fiddlers. By becoming conscious of what she’s doing while she plays, it also becomes easier to extend that knowledge to others.

“It is useful to articulate why I put the third finger on the second string, together with the second finger on the third string. Why isn’t it the first finger that’s put together with the third finger right there? If too little is verbalized, it can be quite fuzzy in a pedagogical context,” she explains.

But the folk musician also believes that there is still a limit to how much you can put in words. Therefore, the last chapter before the conclusion of her dissertation is a CD.

“At one point, I needed to stop using words. Otherwise, the mystery of the art form would have lost its power,” she says. “I believe it is in that space of silent knowledge that much of this magic pulses.”

A deep dive into the folk catalog

Through her doctorate, Annbjørg Lien has, among other things, built a theory of how to play the Hardanger fiddle.

She has dived deep into what it is that characterizes the “slått,” as traditional Hardanger folk tunes are called. Her theme is how one can use the particular stylistic characteristics of the Hardanger fiddle as a tool in composing new music.

“Those characteristics, or ‘support beams,’ are the reason you recognize a Hardanger fiddle tune, even though it has changed through the fingers of various fiddlers over many generations,” she says.

She has tried first and foremost to describe textually how a slått is “fingered,” that is, how the musician places the fingers on the fiddle, not how it sounds.

“When you sit and learn from a master,” she continues, “you observe primarily the fingers, the bow, and the foot-stomp. Therefore, this folk-musical finger-perspective is tremendously interesting to introduce as an academic language.”

A lot of “Traveler” blood in the playing

Lien based her study on traditional music from Setesdal.

“The analysis is based on slåtter played by master Hardanger fiddler Andres Rysstad, an artist I’ve listened to a lot and admired.”

She took part in her first fiddling competition when she was 15. At that time, she was well received by the local artists Kirsten Bråten Berg, Hallvard and Torleiv Bjørgum, and Gunnar Stubseid, who she has also worked with since.

When she returned of late to do her ethnographic work, she realized that people in these valleys who love the old ways and are proud of their traditions share their knowledge generously.

A lot of exciting discoveries came of that work.

“Many believe that Setesdal has been closed off from the wider world, but on the contrary, there has been a lot of transfer. Many ‘Travelers’ moved through the valley, for example. They were skillful fiddlers and often shared folk tunes with the local players. Therefore, there could well be a lot of ‘Traveler’ blood in the music,” Lien suggests. [Lien uses the term tater, referring to the Norwegian Romanisæl Travelers, a branch of the nomadic Romani people who have resided in Scandinavia for half a millennium.]

Part of the world’s cultural heritage

Setesdal is a region with strong artists, both past and present. Of the residents of Bygland, Valle, and Bykle, 1% are performing fiddlers, 5% practice kveding [a special form of Norwegian folk song], and 15% are dancers, wrote NRK in 2017.

Recently, Setesdal’s traditions in stev-singing, dancing, and folk music were placed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, wrote NRK more recently in December 2019.

Lien is very optimistic about the future of Norwegian folk music and the Hardanger fiddle, not only in Norway, but also internationally.

“Folk music is growing rapidly nationally and internationally,” she says. “We have lagged a little behind here in Norway. What’s been more common in other countries over time is that folk music functions as a lifestyle, where musicians, for example, play the fiddle in the pub and other social gatherings. This runs pretty deep in our veins as well, and we’re finally becoming mature enough to be proud of our own.”

Now it’s just as common for a child in the city to learn the Hardanger fiddle as it is for a child in Setesdal, she tells.

At full speed out in the world

And the Hardanger fiddle is finally, genuinely getting its turn out in the world.

“The top fiddle players from many parts of the world are traveling to Norway to buy Hardanger fiddles and want to learn this music,” Lien notes. “They have great admiration for both the instrument and the fiddle tunes. Today, you can even find a Hardanger fiddle club in Tokyo.”

“What is it that is so special about the Hardanger fiddle,” I ask.

“It is an orchestra in itself,” she says. “It has resonance-strings that resonate with multi-string play. Thus, it generates a rich and spacious sound. In addition, the rhythm in the music is both complex and hypnotizing. So it is the form of the tunes, then, that can be perceived more like an Indian raga improvisation than just some other European music.”

Moreover, she says, the fiddle is also fretless—that is, the fingers can be placed freely and variously in response to the performer’s needs and desires.

New solo album

In spring of 2020, Lien will release a solo album of eight new tunes—the result of her doctorate—with the record label Grappa.

“Has the academic life made you a different kind of artist?” I ask.

“As an artist, you often live in your own mental universe and focus mostly on your own image,” she answers. “As an academic, you must constantly take in the various ideas and perspectives of your field. Openness to diversity is one of the most important things I’ve gotten to experience in this research work.”

Even though the artistic signature she has developed these last 30 years has certainly settled in, this doctoral project has generated a new kind of consciousness. It has resulted in other kinds of compositions than her earlier work.

“The research work has gotten me moving again, artistically,” says Lien.

The Hardanger fiddle on its home turf

In her experience, the stylistic characteristics of the Hardanger fiddle now more clearly shine through in the new compositions, albeit in a modern setting.

“Before, there had been more of a compromise. Now, the band more closely follows the compositional characteristics of the Hardanger fiddle. It’s back on its home turf.”

Lien doesn’t know where the next excursion in her life will take her.

“There are many ways to use this new knowledge I’ve taken on. It can be used both in teaching and on stage playing for people,” she says. But now she has also gotten a heart for academia and she is already thinking about the scholarly articles she can write that she didn’t have space for in her dissertation.

“It is now that life begins,” says the 48-year-old.


This article originally appeared in Norwegian on on Dec. 29, 2019, and has been translated by Andy Meyer.

This article originally appeared in the February 21, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

Norwegian American Logo

The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.