Part I: Introduction to the Scandinavian culture and society
We meet Frode at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo where he teaches accordion to master level students. He kindly gave his availability to a conversation in which we will touch on topics ranging from historical facts, development of the instrument, aesthetics of the composers but also merely curiosities. It will also be a great opportunity for us to know better the artist Haltli, one of the most eclectic accordionists currently on the scenes, and to get in touch with his personal path of growth.
This series of articles also want to contribute to a project of discover of new original accordion music neglected because unknown.
FH: This is quite common, we use the term Europe when we speak about the continent. It’s a geographical and historical fact. For several hundreds of years (from 1319 until 1814 Ed.) Norway was a peripheral part of the Kingdom of Denmark. At that time we didn’t know each other and lived quite isolated except if we were going abroad to get an education. In this case the most common place to go would have been Copenhagen, also for linguistic reasons: Danish and Norwegian are still quite similar. But it was a peculiar situation: Norway and Denmark were geographically quite distant.
I also studied and worked quite a lot in Denmark, and the Danes differ substantially both from a geographical and a historical point of view: while most of Norway was still villages of hunters and fishermen until recent times, Denmark was already a more developed kingdom and Copenhagen a city. The Royal Court, the Kronborg castle, the Royal Opera, The Royal Danish Conservatory of Music, everything in Denmark has a much longer history than in Norway. We are now in the first state Music Academy of Norway and it’s only forty years old. It’s almost unbelievable!
The Norwegian history also differs deeply with the Swedish one: already in the XVII century Sweden arose as one of the European powers. Since before (Gustav I of Sweden 1496-1560 Ed.) the Swedish Court established strong relationships with the European Courts, especially the French. Sweden has also developed more early than Norway, I think that it has to do with culture, not only economy: Sweden reached more early the urban culture thanks to the numerous contacts they had; they also built up institutions much before Norway did. Of course also the Norwegian Vikings had many international contacts before this, but they were of a different kind…
LP: Finland is a little bit disconnected, is it because of the language?
FH: Yes. And actually strictly speaking it is not even Scandinavia. Scandinavia has two meanings, in English it includes all the Nordic countries: Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland. But when we (Scandinavians Ed.) talk about this we say that these are the Nordic countries. For us Scandinavia consist only of Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Historically Norway and Iceland have very strong connections; Iceland was settled by Norwegians around the IX and X century, in the Viking age. The inhabitants still speak a kind of Old Norwegian, which I cannot understand actually, but still, we feel kind of connected, even if we are so distant. Finland is perhaps geographically nearby but the Finnish language is not related to the other Nordic languages.
LP: Is Finland somehow closer to Russia?
FH: Finland is bordered by Russia. I think they would say that they are not strongly culturally connected: they have had some bad experiences; Finland has been in war against Russia. They were first invaded and they got some help from Germany (but they refused to attack Leningrad in help of the Germans, and in the last years of the Second World War they were battling against the Germans in the Nordic regions, beyond the Polar Circle. If you want to know more watch this documentary Ed.). There is still some resentment towards Russia. But anyway they are more close to Russia than we are. By the way: Norway has a border to Russia too, in the far North-Eastern part of Norway.
LP: The fact that Norway has a relatively short history compared to other countries (from China to Iran, Greece, Italy, France etc.) probably has repercussions on your society and on the approach to culture: less certainties and trust? Or maybe there’s more freedom to watch the future and experiment without the pressure of a cumbersome past, not to have preconceived artistical judgments or aesthetics to respect? Or maybe you have the feeling that the best has yet to come, an eagerness of making the history right now?
FH: These thoughts about the Scandinavian identity (what is periphery, what is central?) are something very important to me, I feel that our outsider position has been relevant in the development of the Norwegian music scene. About the present: when I studied in Denmark I missed a little bit the sense of curiosity in the music world there. Norwegians are very aware of not being a part of central Europe. The great development in the Norwegian music since maybe the 70s has something to do with this acknowledgment: we accept and admire the big cultures of Europe, but we want to try to create something else here.
We do of course have big respect for the European traditions but here you also have the possibility to respect less, to be respectless! You don’t have to consider the big institutions or the big traditions here. You can go in between the traditions or in a way you can pick what you like from the history or from the innovation and mix it. Here in Oslo it’s very common to have improvised music on the same stages as classical contemporary music. Whereas in Zurich, Switzerland where I also played, they told me that this would never happen there. They have improvised music on some scenes which is more jazz related and then there’s the classical, contemporary music in the classical scenes: the two worlds would never meet. At least this was the case just a few years ago.
LP: Also in the daily life, in the relations with the people, I feel you live in a very egalitarian society.
FH: The society is more egalitarian; for example you see this in women’s representation in politics (40% of women in the actual parliament Ed.). I think this is a clear sign of a more equal society, where all people in principle have equal chances of getting where they want. This is something truly Scandinavian: social democracy is a model that has worked since after the Second World War. Of course nowadays Norway is also getting more divided in classes because of the strong economy…
LP: Is it because of the oil?
FH: Yes, because of the oil that we found in the 70s and that totally changed our country. A lot of things are now changing, the economy is getting so good, of course some people will earn more than others; but in general I would say that social democracy is still a common factor. The social democratic thought, that everybody should have the basic rights is still a reality when it comes to health care, which is free for anyone, and when it comes to education.
LP: You can study for free in every school? Also at the University?
FH: Yes, we don’t pay anything. And also health care is free, that is quite unique. I got two children and I’m a freelance musician. In a lot of countries this would not be possible, we have good support for children the first years.
LP: From one point of view I would say that your progress, also in the society, is strictly connected with the particularly good economic situation. But you also have to administrate the wealth properly. There are many rich countries (also oil countries like Venezuela) where the social welfare is not as good. In Italy we have an immense quantity of cultural heritage and artworks that, If properly administrated, could create welfare, could … The money is an opportunity.
FH: Yes that’s true. But I would absolutely agree. In Norwegian music, for example, there has been an enormous progress the last twenty years or so. A lot of Norwegian musicians are touring in other countries for example.
I just saw in statistics that has been made: Germany is the biggest foreign country for Norwegian touring musicians. That’s very natural I think. But then the second biggest country for touring Norwegian musicians is Japan. This says something about how things have changed. I think that 30 years ago there was hardly any Norwegian musician in Japan. But now you see a big success of Norwegian music, from black metal to jazz. Do you know the jazz musician Jan Garbarek? He has been touring for 40 years nonstop; it’s the same for younger jazz musicians like Nils Petter Molvær, the trumpet player. And now you even see some Norwegian orchestras touring (the Bergen Symphony Orchestra i.e. Ed.).
This would not happen without the support from the government, absolutely: it’s an aspect that we should not forget. The cliché about the artist is that you have to suffer to create art. But an important part of the big international success of Norwegian music has absolutely been thanks to the support from the government.
And it’s very good that we have this democratic foundation because, as you say, there are a lot of oil states that are worse than us.
LP: Everything is more difficult to do here, to cultivate the land, to find raw materials and energy for the industry. You have to invest in the future now that you have this great fortune.
FH: Yes, we have great opportunities now, I hope we will manage to do the right investments in our future. Not only in art but also in science and education.
LP: Norway did a big investment with the new Oslo Opera House (completed in 2007 Ed.); they decided to build it from scratch , in a country with no big opera traditions: not a Rock Arena or a soccer stadium, but a opera house…
FH: It’s the biggest institution in the Norwegian cultural budget, but it’s only now that we have an Opera house that has been built for opera in Norway. It’s quite new: in Italy you have lots of opera houses, we can only dream of that.
It was a big thing for the music life here when the opera house was finished. It’s a wonderful hall; it’s the best concert hall, better than the Oslo concert hall where the Oslo Philharmonic is playing.
The orchestra tradition is quite recent in Norway: we have 5-6 professional orchestras with international standards. When Arne Nordheim started his career and composed more experimental music in the 60s and early 70s the orchestras were not used for this kind of music, more to ordinary European Classical music, romantic repertoire. So there has been a great development also in the orchestras.
The interview with Frode Haltli continues.
List of topics
Part I: Introduction to the Scandinavian culture and society
Part II: From the contemporary to the traditional music and back
Part III: Ellegaard and Nordheim, accordion meets Norway
Part IV: A personal experience, New Scandinavian music for accordion
Part V: Maja S. K. Ratkje – ‘Gagaku Variations’, Ich bin ein Japaner!
Part VI: Bent Sørensen – ‘Looking on Darkness’, researching a new sound
Part VII: Atli Ingolfsson – ‘Radioflakes’, new virtuosism
and much more. Stay tuned!
Frode Haltli (b. 1975, Norway) studied at the Norwegian State Academy of Music, then at the Royal Danish Music Conservatory in Copenhagen, graduating in 2000. In 2001 the Norwegian Concert Institute named him Young Soloist Of The Year, he was also placed second in the International Gaudeamus Interpreters Competition 1999 in the Netherlands.
Concerts throughout Europe, USA, Canada and Asia. Directing his career into explorations of new music, he became associated with like-minded musicians mainly in Europe where the development of adventurous forms has grown throughout recent years.
Haltli has established links with several composers, notably Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje who is one of several who have written especially for him; others include Bent Sørensen, Rolf Wallin, Atli Ingólfsson, Hans Abrahamsen, Jo Kondo and Sam Hayden.
He has also cooperated with several string quartets, among them the Arditti String Quartet.
His debut CD ‘Looking on Darkness’ was released on the prestigiuos German record label ECM in 2002.
In 2012 Haltli released ‘Arne Nordheim Complete Accordion Works’ (Simax Classics) to great critical acclaim.
He has played regularely with the trio POING, alongside saxophonist Rolf-Erik Nystrøm and double bass player Håkon Thelin. They have commissioned more than 60 works from composers all over the world and recorded several albums.
Since the release of the duo album “Yeraz” on ECM in 2008 Haltli has also toured regularly with saxophonist Trygve Seim.
Frode Haltli has developed several transcultural music projects, in India, China, Japan, North Korea, Egypt. He has also played music rooted in Norwegian traditional music, notably with RUSK in which he is teamed with singer Unni Løvlid and violinist Vegar Vårdal.
On his 2007 recording ’Passing Images’ (ECM), Haltli is joined by trumpeter Arve Henriksen, viola player Garth Knox, and vocalist Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje, for a selection of lyrical explorations of folk themes couched in the form of contemporary improvised music.
This theme and combination of old and new music is further delevoped in duo with Norwegian violinist Gjermund Larsen and in The Snowflake Trio with Irish flute player Nuala Kennedy and Norwegian fiddler Vegar Vårdal.
Frode Haltli teaches accordion at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo.
To know more about check http://frodehaltli.com/.