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Music Notation & High Art in the Swedish Folk Genre

Part One

by Benjamin Teitelbaum

During this past year in Sweden, I came into contact with a growing trend in tune transcription. While typical notation of Swedish folk tunes leaves out or abbreviates ornamentation, asymmetrical rhythms, and microintervals (blue notes), a new trend seeks to illustrate every musical element of a performance in notation. The emergence of this practice coincides with a separate modern movement: the growth of folk music education in Sweden's state music conservatories. Folk music's acceptance and incorporation into such classically oriented institutions reflects a major shift in perceptions of high and low in Swedish music academia. This article examines folk music's push for inclusion in Swedish higher-level education and the new notational trend's role in the promotion of Swedish folk music as high art. The new practice allows for better communication between folk and classical music communities. Because we as folk musicians in the United States often encounter similar issues of status and communication, I see this study as relevant for our purposes.

The meaning of the phrases "high art" and "low art" is a subject of debate. There are those (including me) who think most distinctions of high art are built on arbitrary foundations, and therefore the concept is flawed. Still others may observe a distinction, broadly defining high art as dynamic traditions that take extended training to master and sophistication to appreciate. Western society commonly differentiates between high and low art for us. In both America and Sweden, a music's status in society dictates its educational and performance opportunities. For example, art music has traditionally held the keys to upper-level music education in the West, as well as performance in many of our cities' cherished concert venues. Were another music to aspire to the same privileges as art music, it would need to have the necessary status.

This tension confronted Swedish folk musicians in the 1960s and 70s. Energized by the blossoming folk revival, young fiddlers like Mats Edén and Sven Ahlbäck wanted to expand their research and performing opportunities. During that time, upper-level music education existed almost exclusively in the country's music conservatories (musikhögskolor). However, these schools regarded only Western classical music as sufficiently sophisticated for attention. The folk musicians needed to show that their music was also sophisticated in order to break this barrier.

The promotional endeavor followed two distinct paths. One sought to illustrate similarities, the other differences, between Swedish folk music and Western classical music. The first approach portrayed folk music as exhibiting the characteristics of Western classical music, suggesting that, with nothing substantial to separate folk music from what the academe saw as sophisticated, it deserved a place in conservatories. The second approach, highlighting key divergences between the genres, argued that the classical community had failed to fully understand folk music in the past. Accordingly, any judgment of status based on such misunderstanding would be highly suspect.

Both approaches required folk musicians to communicate the complexities of their art to the music academics in Sweden. Folk musicians faced a significant problem in terms of communication: how to express the complexities of an aurally based tradition to proponents of a notational based tradition?

Typical tune notation like that of most Svenska Låtar transcriptions (shown in figure 1) provides an outline, but not an exact representation, of how tunes are commonly performed. Were Swedish folk tunes to be performed exactly as they were written in such notations, the music might lose the very qualities that make the art form unique and significant to its practitioners. Similarly, those looking to understand the music based solely on such notations receive an impression of a genre far less complex and distinct than it truly is. To a classical musician, these notations may be indicative of technical and musical complexity similar to beginner violin pieces in their own genre-a body of works unlikely to be given performance attention in conservatory programs. This association is illustrated by common use of so-called folk tunes in children's beginning music books. Based on its basic notation, Swedish folk music would have little ability to argue for its status as a sophisticated and complex art.

Figure 1. From Svenska Låtar, Dalsland. Reprinted with permission from Svenskt Visarkiv.

The new notational practice emerged in the 1970s through the 1980s among the same folk musicians who led the charge into Swedish music academia. The practice mimics the transcriptions of Béla Bartók, and Norwegian hardanger fiddle player Sven Nyhus in its style. Folk musicians began notating rhythms, intonation, articulation, and ornaments with greater specificity-allowing a reader unfamiliar with the genre to recognize more musical elements of the actual performance. Contrasting the regularized notations, detailed transcriptions such as those by Sven Ahlbäck (in figure 2) might challenge the sight reading skills of even the most advanced classical performers and the analytical skills of the most capable music theoreticians. The music formerly perceived as undemanding now stretches most peoples' capacities in rhythm comprehension, intonation, physical technique, and structural understanding.

Figure 2. From Tonspråket i den Äldre Svensk Folkmusik, Sven Ahlbäck. The unconventional markings (the arrows and pointed sharp symbols) indicate microintervals. Reprinted with permission from Sven Ahlbäck.

About the Author

Benjamin Teitelbaum is an aspiring ethnomusicologist and performer of the nyckelharpa-a violin-related Swedish folk instrument. He earned the first bachelor's degree in nyckelharpa performance in North America from Bethany College. Teitelbaum also studied at nyckelharpa and Swedish folk music at the Eric Sahlström Institute and the Royal College of Music in Sweden. When not busy with his studies, Teitelbaum tours with his Swedish folk music trio Bjärv (>

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