Part of something bigger
Wardruna encapsulates the essence of Norse culture through sound
Wardruna. When those syllables are spoken, they form a song, which is apropos, as it is the name of a musical band whose haunting tunes, ancient instruments, and evocative videos, encapsulate the essence of Norway: the taste of its salty sea, the smell of its fecund forests, and the touch of its mountain mist.
The Norwegian group was to embark on a U.S. tour in 2020, coinciding with the release of their new album Kvitravn (White Raven). Several people contributed to this album, but Einar Selvik and Lindy-Fay Hella are the main people behind Wardruna. They created the group in 2003 with the vocalist and painter Kristian Eivind Espedal, better known as Gaahl. I was among the fans looking forward to hearing them, disappointed to learn the tour would be postponed due to COVID-19.
In the meantime, I had the great fortune to interview Einar Selvik, Wardruna’s main composer and songwriter. I hope his honest and insightful comments will satiate your appetite until you have the chance to experience them live on their rescheduled U.S. tour in the autumn of 2022.
Victoria Hofmo: I’ve heard your group’s name, Wardruna, translated into English, many different ways. How would you translate it, and why did you choose it?
Einar Selvik: Wardruna is a construct of two elements. “Ward” means a warden or a guardian. The oldest version of the word rune is connected to or means to create sound. In later traditions, the word can have multiple meanings: a written sign with a phonetic sound, esoteric wisdom, to whisper, a secret, a magical song, and it can refer to a symbol … It felt like a very suitable name: the warden or the guardian of the runes. It’s about giving voice to arcane wisdom, timeless ideas, and so on. It just had an instant resonance.
VH: How would you describe Wardruna’s style of music?
ES: It’s not about re-enacting the past or trying to copy music from any specific time period. We use instrumentation that goes back to the Stone Age, the Bronze Age Migration Period, Viking Era, medieval times, and even modern tools.
It’s also hard to pin these expressions to any specific time. It’s about taking some very old thought, ideas, and tools, and creating something that has a very contemporary expression. So, I would say it is a form of world music because it also plays on traditional elements. Perhaps not world music as the term was coined in the United Kingdom in the ’70s, but rather the old idea of “music moderne,” basically, that the thoughts and ideas behind the music are just as important as the music itself.
We created our own genre with elements from many different styles and also traditional, historical, Indigenous music—and not only from the North. It takes impulses from many places on this planet.
Something you see when you start studying and start digging into historical music and ethnomusicology is the quite clearly related tonalities, rhythms, and so on. If you go far enough back in time, you see how related various cultures from all over the world are in fact.
And our music demonstrates that as well. Our music does have Norse wrapping around it and is Norse at its core in both the music and the things we are singing about, but it is quite universal when you boil it down to its essence.
VH: Why were you drawn to this type of music?
ES: Well, I grew up with a lot of metal music in my home, as well as classical and traditional music. Since I was quite young, I have also been drawn to historically Indigenous music from around the world; it resonated with me.
The idea or vision of Wardruna came to me in my early teens. It was born out of a void. There was similar music in terms of these really old subjects or tools, but I felt that what existed was mostly borrowing small elements, whether lyrical content or an instrument here and there.
My vision was to go into it with both feet; to express these traditions and cultures on their own terms, while using relevant instruments, relevant language, poetic structures, and traditions, etc. We also use relevant sounds and recording under relevant conditions, whether it’s the place or state of mind or time of year. The themes themselves define the instrumental needs, the sounds I use, when I record, where I record.
VH: Can you speak about some of the traditional instruments you use?
ES: The instruments I use date back to many different time periods. Bone flutes and various percussion instruments date back to the early Stone Age. Blowing, wind instruments, like the giant bronze horns, date back to that age.
The interesting thing with these wind instruments—the lures, such as wood horns or birchbark lures—is that they are a living tradition; we never stopped using them. They mainly survived in farm life, where people would use them as means of communication over vast distances, out in the pastures, to call back the animals when it was time to milk them, out on ships, and so on, being used as signals in different settings. With certainty, the cow horns and goat horns date back to at least the 400s or 500s.
I make use of the lyre, which is an instrument that you see in many cultures around the globe: ancient Persia and Egypt, Greece, and all across Europe. As far as we know, it is the most common string instrument in the Viking period as well. Here in Scandinavia, we call them horsehair harp or lyre, because horsehair is what their strings are made of. That is an instrument I use quite a lot.
These are the main instruments. I also try to study quite a bit of the oldest forms of Scandinavian fiddle traditions, including the Hardanger fiddle, a violin with the resonant strings, and the nyckelharpa, the key fiddle.
VH: How do the sounds from the tagelharpa, kravik lyre, and other old instruments compare with those of modern instruments?
ES: I would say they have the same core, as the ancestors of certain instruments. The tagelharpa is definitely related to the later Hardanger fiddle or other fiddle traditions, especially from certain areas, like Setesdal. You have four strings, one for melody and others are drone-based, thus closely related to traditional music. [The Hardanger fiddle has eight or nine strings, four used for the melody; the others resonate under the four.]
In terms of the kravik lyre or lyre instruments, they’re basically a small harp that you can pluck or strum. Because they have an open tuning, you can mute certain strings and strum it by using your hand or a pick, so you can create different cords. It’s basically like a guitar without a fret. Of course, you won’t be able to create as many notes, but still, it’s very useful. As the name suggests, the lyre is connected to the poetic traditions of storytelling or accompanying singing. That’s what it does as well, effortlessly.
VH: How does one create the sound of ancient Norse music without any written or recorded documentation?
ES: Of course, a lot of people say that we can’t really know for sure what music sounded like in the Viking Age or in the Bronze Age, and so on, which is true to a certain degree, with no written scores or because the ones we have are from later.
On the other hand, there are a lot of clues there, but you need to have a very broad overview of the sources. I do what the scholars do, by first approaching it in an academic way. I look for what we know and how we know it.
Some of the instruments have limitations like the horns that have a completely locked harmonic scale. The bowed instruments, like the tagelharpa, are also very limited in what you can do with them. The goat horns have a living tradition. We have a find from Sweden dating back to around the year 400, which examines this instrument in question. It shows that the tuning hasn’t really changed that much and is still suited for playing the same kind of melodies we see in living traditions. Looking to other Indigenous cultures that use the same type of traditional instruments that have survived is a way of finding clues, for example, by using comparative research.
Then we have the oral tradition, the poetic tradition, and the song traditions, where we can definitely see rhythmical structures and so on within the poetry, through different meters, for instance those used in Old Norse poetry. If we go to what we believe to be the oldest traditions, you automatically know that there were certain song melodies that would be applied to these specific meters, which, by the way, is the same as older versions, older meters, such as Iceland’s rímur song tradition. It is what took over, a slightly more modern version of it. This is something we see in the oldest song traditions in Norway as well. You actually have specific song recipes that fit perfectly with these old meters as well.
Even though you can’t conclude with absolute certainty, there are all of these clues, very often fitting very well together. Then you put all these instruments together and apply the practical approach, being that I am a musician and performer.
It has never been a goal to try and re-create these older types of music. Of course, in certain projects I am working with, I am stricter about being true to the source. But in my work with Wardruna, it’s often about the here and now, creating new music. I often say you shouldn’t climb into trees that don’t have roots. By that I mean to have a solid ground before I go into the creative processes and apply my own interpretations.
VH: Can you speak about your use of non-traditional materials to make music, such as torches and elements from nature: rocks, water, and trees?
ES: The creative concept of Wardruna is about getting as close as possible or interpreting whatever it is on its own premises. That means the themes basically define the instrumental needs of where I record, when I record, and what state I’m in when I record. And, of course, one of the things I do is related to the sounds I use. For instance, when working with the rune representing the birch tree, I go into the forest, and I play on birch trees. I use the sound of the bark or the wind in the leaves and so on as a starting part in the songs. That is where the rest of the song grows out of.
It’s the same thing with the song “Kauna,” where I use the sound of torches ripping in the wind, as a rhythmical element. I play on stones and water, standing in the middle of a river, recording all the vocals when it makes sense.
So, it’s really about bringing the receiver of the music, the listener as close as possible to the time as I can. It can be many things. Of course, some of these things are more of a given. In some cases, it’s more abstract when you go into a state of mind or a state of health being warm or cold or tired.
For the song “Isa,” we took deep, deep-frozen ice, carving it out of a glacier. Basically, we created an ice xylophone and then sampled the sound.
The list goes on. It’s about creating added value. I am quite sure I could cheat a lot, chop off a table to get the same sound as a birch tree, but I strongly believe that added value is added value, and whether or not the listener receives it consciously or unconsciously, I am 100% sure they would know the difference some way or another.
VH: How does Norse mythology inform your music?
ES: Norse mythology, of course, is an important part of our music. It’s a nature-based tradition, and like any nature-based tradition, it’s shaped by its surroundings, resources, and the people living there. I think if you boil our music down to its essence, it’s really about the same things: our relationship to nature, to each other, and to something that is bigger than ourselves, whether or not it’s religious, spiritual, or philosophical. It really doesn’t matter; it can work with all of these perspectives.
We use these myths, not by reciting them but by going into them and discussing what they’re trying to tell us and how they still offer relevant wisdom to us today. At the same time, so many things from the past don’t apply anymore. My focus is, of course, on those that do, the ones that still resonate here and now.
VH: You composed the music for Season 2 of the popular Vikings series—congratulations! How was that process different from how you usually work?
ES: Well, thank you. Vikings has been a fun and interesting project to be part of. It began by licensing quite a bit of our music for Season 1, then I was asked by the producers to contribute to the actual score, working with the show’s main composer, Trevor Morris, on the soundtrack. But I also worked directly with the production on other musical input, like whenever an actor is singing in front of the camera. I would write the music, whether it was songs for funerals, drinking songs, or battle cries. I even appeared on camera to sing and perform twice.
So, it was a very fun project to be part of. In terms of the score, I had done a little bit of that kind of work before, but, of course, not on this scale, so it was a steep learning curve to jump into that project. I would say I learned a lot from it.
You have to express yourself in a different way and, of course, with brutal deadlines. You are also working with quite time-demanding instrumentation. These natural instruments have a will of their own and can be a little bit tricky to work with at times. They don’t always want to cooperate.
I had to think in a different tempo. You have to be very intuitive and trust your instinct to attack it in a slightly different way from the more patient approach I have when I work with the music of Wardruna.
VH: As a musical group, you are about the sounds, but can we speak about your visuals? The video accompanying your song “Raido” uses stunning, haunting images. Who came up with those optics?
ES: Well, thank you very much. It was something that was part of the vision from the beginning, but it was important to wait until we could do it properly on that scale.
The video for the song “Raido” was our first at that level. I had worked on something totally different with a Finnish photographer and director, Tuukka Kosk, a few years before, and I really had a good feeling about him. So, when the time came to do this, I really felt he was the right guy. Creating the script and visual plan for that video was a cooperation between me and him.
Videos have become an important part of our expression, as our music is very visual in its nature. So, amplifying it even more so with visuals is a great tool to empower the music and create new layers. They are something I have even begun thinking about when I’m creating these songs. I am a musical illiterate, in the sense that I don’t read scores or write scores. So, for me it’s more of an intuitive process. I see it and I hear it. The visual is a very central piece to my process of composing.
VH: What would you like American audiences to know about Wardruna?
ES: Judging from our audiences, it’s music for everyone. And that’s the thing I am so incredibly grateful for as well. Our audience is very diverse, whether it’s on U.S. soil or other places on this planet. We see people from all age groups and all different ethnicities. We have everything from metalheads to hipsters to people who enjoy classical music or jazz.
Part of the reason our music resonates today is this global yearning to connect to our surroundings again. There is a huge void there. We see this huge growing interest for older, animistic cultures, not only the Nordic one. I think it’s a global phenomenon. People are going back to their roots and to older versions of how we connect to our environment. There is a need for it, obviously.
I really dislike preaching or claiming truth. I think all of that is nonsense. But if our music does have one message, I would say especially on our latest album, it is giving voice or suggesting that it would be beneficial if we would all have a more animistic world view, in the sense of just the idea of viewing nature and our surroundings as something sacred again. That’s something we stopped doing a long, long, long time ago.
I definitely think that would be a very constructive way forward. It doesn’t have to be a spiritual or a religious thing at all. It’s an attitude. Just an acknowledgement that we are part of something bigger.
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 22, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.