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June 2007 · Bimonthly

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Music Notation & High Art in the Swedish Folk Genre

Part Two

by Benjamin Teitelbaum

Communicating through notation now becomes an effective tool for promoting Swedish folk music as high art. The more detailed notation is equally useful to the two promotional approaches described earlier (the portrayal of folk music as either similar to or different from Western art music). The technical demands of performance and attention to detail shown in the notations resemble much classical repertory. At the same time, notation of microintervals, ornamentation, and asymmetrical rhythms could be largely unfamiliar to classical musicians. What is displayed in the notation is a complex music requiring a sophisticated level of technical skill and understanding to master. With a notational practice more compatible with and comparable to Western art music (especially in Western art music of the past two centuries), scholars and musicians working in both traditions could now engage in a more encompassing, specific, and sophisticated dialogue.

It is hard to assess the extent of the new notational practice's influence on Swedish folk music's status. The path towards higher status was by no means a one way street-the notation would do little to change the minds of those who define sophisticated music simply as Western art music. Swedish music academia needed to be independently receptive towards folk music on some level. Nonetheless, the ability of folk musicians in Sweden to adapt in order to achieve certain goals can provide an example and inspiration to us in the United States. We may encounter educational and performance opportunities that are off-limits to our music. In such cases our restriction may be the result of misinformed preconceptions of folk music and folk musicians. Perhaps our ability to grow as musicians and bring Swedish folk music to new audiences depends on our success in helping others understand more precisely and comprehensively what the music truly is.

I will conclude with some questions for further thought. Given that our primary method for learning tunes is aural transmission, should our use of notation seek to imitate that process, and if so, what type of notation would best fit that purpose? Were the detailed notations to be used as a learning tool, one might also ask if, by outlining every aspect of a performance, do we strip the player of her ability to execute perhaps the most sophisticated aspect of Swedish folk music, personal interpretation? Parallels abound between the increasing status of folk music in Sweden and the increasing status of jazz in the United States. Although jazz musicians now enjoy inclusion in our music conservatories and Western art music radio stations, some claim that this institutionalization has changed jazz-accentuating elements similar to Western art music at the cost of jazz's unique qualities. Might institutionalization do the same thing to folk music as to jazz? Ultimately, perhaps, we must decide if the heightened opportunity and exposure for folk musicians outweighs these potential drawbacks.

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. When not busy with his studies, Teitelbaum tours with his Swedish folk music trio Bjärv (>

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