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Strange Fiddle in the Attic
Bringing out the ring of Hardanger fiddle
by Karen Torkelson Solgård
Sympathetic strings are the linchpin to understanding right hand bow and left hand finger technique on Norwegian Hardanger fiddle. Most listeners are curious and intrigued about the strange wall of sound and complex rhythms coming from an instrument that looks like a highly decorated violin. People wonder how it is they had never heard of this instrument before. It sounds like a bagpipe but looks like a violin. What are these extra pegs attached to strings never touched by the bow? How do they make a sound? Do they need to be tuned?
The left hand rarely moves from first position, typically the left wrist rests on the shoulder of the fiddle, palm upward. A Hardanger fiddler doesn't use a shoulder rest, but simply cradles the fiddle against the neck or chest. The bow travels in quick light motions, mostly using only the upper half, and the right hand tilts more toward the index finger than for violin playing.
In the previous article I described Hardanger fiddle setup with sympathetic strings that run under the fingerboard. However, it isn't enough to equip a regular fiddle with sympathetic understrings and tune them up. Hardanger fiddle strings are lighter gauge than violin strings (and have other unique characteristics I won't detail here). The fiddler needs to adapt the playing technique of the four bowed strings to set strings in motion that aren't touched by the bow, but vibrate in harmony with the notes played.
In America, skilled violinists who start playing Hardanger fiddle can achieve early success playing the simplest of Norwegian Hardanger fiddle tunes. Past that, even they struggle with the challenge of bringing out the magical ring of the sympathetic understrings, the main feature of Hardanger fiddle that makes it so special. Subtle differences in bow speed and pressure, bow hold and fiddle posture elude many musicians making the transition to Hardanger fiddle technique. They are surprised and frustrated by such frequent tuning of all eight or nine strings, essentially every three minutes (after each tune). Then, there's the challenge of learning fiddle tunes aurally, call and response, from a Norwegian master who can't seem to slow down or simplify enough.
When making the transition from violin to Hardanger fiddle, at first it may not be so obvious how much everything revolves around these sympathetic strings. Hardanger fiddle strings may be tuned in various combinations of chords to evoke different moods, with at least 20 different tunings. For most of the repertoire, the top strings are in regular tuning (E, A, D, A, with G tuned up one step. In regular tuning, the understrings are tuned (top down) A, F#, E, D, and sometimes a fifth string tuned to C# or B.
Unlike violin, a Hardanger fiddler almost always bows on two strings at once. Simple tunes may accompany the melody string with a neighboring open string as a drone. The more top strings bowed at a time, the more the understrings are set in motion bringing out the chord in that particular tuning. Tunes may use double stops (similar to a Bach Partita or Suite) and at significant cadences the bow will roll a chord across three or all four bowed strings.
The biggest challenge to make the transition from violin to Hardanger fiddle is to lighten up the bow stroke. A lighter stroke brings out the ring, rather than kill the shimmering chord. Musicians trained on violin are used to thicker strings at a higher tension than the setup of Hardanger fiddle. Violin repertoire demands a large variety of bow strokes and techniques such as martelé, spiccato, stacatto, etc., and extreme variations in loud and soft. Hardanger fiddle doesn't use this large palette. Instead, the ideal is to create a constant wash of sound, set the understrings in motion and keep them ringing.
The shimmer of the sympathetic string is enhanced further by the use of light fluttering ornamentation. Hardanger fiddlers rarely use vibrato, but instead use extensive trills. For instance, trills are not only executed between neighboring half- or whole-steps, but from the open string to second, third or sometimes even fourth finger. These shimmering ornaments may excite the dancers to be lighter and quicker on their feet or compel a sleepy late-night listener to perk up and pay attention. The Hardanger fiddler's left hand position makes quick ornaments easier to execute. Unlike a violinist who secures the instrument under the chin with the left hand free to change positions, the Hardanger fiddler cradles the fiddle between her neck or shoulder and the crook of the wrist, palm facing upward. This makes quick action of fluttering fingers much easier.
The third way fiddlers bring out the ring of sympathetic strings is by use of the natural scale, rather than the tempered scale our Western ears have accepted as correct. The closest comparison I can think of in Western classical music to a natural scale is the melodic minor, where the sixth and seventh steps are raised when ascending, but lowered when the melody descends. With Hardanger fiddle, especially in older tunes, certain pitches may have three possible placements, called quarter tones by Norwegian musicologists. This makes the instrument sound even more exotic and strange than we might expect from European music. Quarter tones are more easily achieved than it might sound; a fiddler just learns the melody the way the master teaches it and imitates the "height" of the notes without arduous analysis.
Hardanger fiddle has been around for centuries. The earliest existing example dates from the 1650s in a district of Norway known as Hardanger, hence the instrument's name. The early fiddles had only two, and then three, sympathetic strings. Interestingly, regular fiddles played in other parts of Norway and in Swedish folk music also may sometimes have a couple of sympathetic strings. The dance forms and music between these traditions have some similarities as well. Much like the monochromatic changes the spoken dialects make as you move from valley to valley, neighboring musicians shared tunes and the most popular ones have variants across the distances as well. The differences between these neighboring traditions have been emphasized in recent years rather than the similarities. Actually, the musical styles between regular fiddle and Hardanger fiddle are not that different from one another. Especially where Hardanger fiddle playing and regular fiddle playing co-exist and meet, much music and styling is shared and transferred.
About the Author
Karen Solgård's Hardanger fiddle performances include centuries-old tunes from rural Norway, more recent "old-time" music popular in Norwegian American communities, and her own compositions and arrangements. She also sings, tells stories and invites audience participation. http://mnfolkarts.org/karen_tork/karen_tork.html CDs available are "Norse Fiddle at Home" and "Norse Fiddle at the Wedding" http://cdbaby.com/all/karensolgard, as well at a book of music transcriptions "Norse Fiddle at the Wedding" for violin or Hardanger fiddle, available directly from the author firstname.lastname@example.org.