Nils Økland and his Hardanger fiddle

No instrument symbolises traditional Norwegian music as the "Hardingfele" does. But not only is it the prime image of the folk music tradition, as signifier of the quintessence of Norwegian culture as such it transcends music altogether and symbolises the emotional and existential dynamics of the traditional Norwegian way of life: rural, in close interrelationship with nature and thus always containing a flare of mysticism and wonder.

Nils Økland, 2003

The special tone of the Hardanger fiddle –due to its two layers of strings- evokes a distinct mood and a feeling of enchantment: it has a luring voice, associated with the mysteries of nature, and, in older times, the perpetual pull of the other-worldly. Thus the characteristic sonic properties of the Hardanger fiddle have come to be associated with what one might call some of the most profoundly Norwegian experiences.

The force of the sonic properties make the instrument unique and a forerunner in relation to contemporary music’s great emphasis on sonic elements and "production" in order to infuse moods and airs that are not contained in melody and structure, but largely reside in the sound itself.

One of the foremost handlers of the instrument today is Nils Økland. And the essence of his mastery lies exactly in a deep understanding of the instrument and the sonic potential it has; as it always has had, to evoke unique emotions. The Hardanger fiddle has always been more than an instrument among others, and regarded rather, at least in the right hands, almost as a tool of human saucery

And Økland has perhaps more than anyone else been able to transfer this essence of the instrument into contemporary music and fuse it with the sonic potential and expectations that govern much of music today. As fiddler he is uniquely wide-ranging and versatile in his musicianship; the genres and styles he works within, the compositions and the collaborators he selects.

Far from the fiddlers who are still exclusively operating within the folk tradition to which the instrument originally belonged –and who are vital for sustaining the tradition which is such an important foundation- Økland has taken the Hardanger fiddle into all kinds of musical contexts and masterfully let the instrument’s uniqueness play out in a variety of forms of expression.

Thus he is often mentioned as a paragon in building bridges between traditional and contemporary music, and also between synchronic genres and styles.
In the folk music establishment he is hailed as an important re-interpreter and someone instrumental in renewing the tradition thus making it significant anew.

This position is largely due to the fact that Økland is not only a soloist and interpreter but composes most of his material himself. This enables him to utilize his instrument and its potential fully and in novel ways, widening the repertoire and styles in which it is heard, and thereby –in still remaining in contact with the tradition- broadening the horizon of folk music.

From his background and extensive training in traditional music he is emerging as more and more of an independent musical force that transcends all categories, while at the same time he continues to perform within the frames of given styles and genres.

A pointed example of Øklands diversity is his recent involvement with the Bergen International Festival; an event at which he has frequently featured. This year he played a number of concerts in three different formats ranging from traditional fiddle concerts, to a jazz/electronica project.
He is a member of several different outfits in addition to his own folk band, notably the acclaimed Christian Wallumrød jazz ensemble.

Økland has released three solo records all of which have been very favourably received. Attention to Økland has been steadily increasing, and so has the admiration for his work. His latest record, last year’s ‘Bris’ (Breeze) was thus described by UK contemporary music site “The milk factory”:

On Bris, which translates as ‘breeze’, Økland creates some incredibly dense musical moments, allowing for melodies to emerge from sonic clouds, only to disappear again as mysteriously, creating an often unsettling, yet fascinating, feeling all the way through, from the intensity of tracks such as Gjenmon to the vast open spaces of Bønn or Grålys.
This third album by Nils Økland further establishes him as one of the great folk musicians of his generation. Yet, the folk tag appears almost too restrictive to describe the scope of this record as Bris references far wider influences and proves a superbly defined platform for Økland to develop his beautiful emotional soundscapes.

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