Gjermund Larsen: A fiddler poetic and intense

Gjermund Larsen is a rare folk musician. A young fiddler of brilliant renown on the folk musical circuit, he was not satisfied. He wanted to learn more, improve his technique. He wanted to write music, and bring the traditional music to places where it had never been.

Gjermund Larsen 2009 (foto: Geir Dokken)

-I started on the diploma (advanced masters) at the Norwegian Academy of Music simply because I realized that I wasn’t able to play my own compositions as well as I wanted to. When you play your own music you have an acute sense of how you want it to sound –you are both composer and performer at the same time– so there is always this internal measure that your playing has to live up to. With my background in rhythmic folk music I found that it was especially the tranquil passages that posed a challenge for me technically. So I set my mind on mastering these aspects of the fiddle and also on challenging myself by writing music that would demand this kind of playing. Composing
and playing have become two things that challenge me in complementary ways. Composing makes me want to perfect my playing and finding the exact right tone while playing is very inspiring in terms of composing.

Gjermund Larsen has performed his own music with some of the leading Norwegian orchestras. He is a pioneer when it comes bringing together folk music and the large format of orchestras and choirs. At this year’s Førde Festival Gjermund is engaged both as soloist and composer.
- I am playing the opening concert with singer Berit Opheim Versto and the Norwegian Soloists’ Choir, it’s the premiere of a commissioned piece by Eivind Buene. We will be playing the same material again another evening, but for that concert I am also composing a new piece myself, which I will perform with the Soloists’ Choir. It will be a kind of suite; a further development of my continuing collaboration with the choir. It is an interesting challenge to arrange folk music for a choir and still keep it authentic, meaning that the music will really work in a folk musical context. One of my principles is that whatever I do with traditional tunes I always want to retain the rhythm and groove. Stylistically that is one of the challenges of working with orchestras and choirs.

Gjermund loves to write music, and he is in the process of establishing himself as one of the first fully-fledged and truly diverse composers hailing from the camp of traditional music. However he is not ready to prioritize composing at the expense of playing.
-I think that it is perfectly feasible to have a career as both composer and traditional soloist. Of course composing does steal a lot of time from practising. On the other hand, I have practised a lot in my life, so by now I have the foundation and experience to allow me to concentrate my practising according to need, i.e. ahead of important concerts and events. Another thing is that so far I have only written music that I have also performed myself. So until now the roles have been interlocked. But I would certainly like to compose for other formats too, i.e. write music that I won’t be playing myself. -Film music e.g., which I really enjoy. I’m very inspired by the atmosphere the music invokes in movies, and I’d like to have a go at that. In fact I have had some requests, we
will see if there is time..

Critics call Gjermund a uniquely poetic folk musician distinguished by the gentle warmth of his tone, the natural lure of his melodies and the broad range of his poetic sensibility: from catchy dance tunes to tranquil meditations. Last year saw the record debut of his own Gjermund Larsen Trio. «Ankomst» (Arrival) reaped unanimous acclaim and won a Norwegian Grammy in the folk category. Even amidst the brilliant revival of Norwegian folk music this was a record that truly stood out; a selection of songs so rich and diverse in emotion and so beautiful and well tempered in execution that the whole horizon of
Norwegian folk music seemed to have been broadened.

-I am inspired by all kinds of music, says Gjermund, even though the traditional music of my home region has always been most important. This is primarily dance music, with a pretty rough and aggressive style of playing. However, my chief source of influence is Hilmar Alexandersen who was a local fiddler and composer with an unusually rich and diverse repertoire. There are strong lyrical elements and a lot of melancholia in his music. I think my so-called poetic vein has to do with this influence. I always put emphasis on the ambience of the music and the melody. My goal is to make good melodies.

Gjermund composes his music on the violin, sometimes on a foot bellow organ, and occasionally using computer software.
-Sometimes I want the music I write to sound entirely traditional, and so I simply work within the conventional framework. But other times I take my starting point from something that is clearly in breech of the traditional formula, like an unconventional rhythm pattern. The challenge is to retain the folk elements and make them stand out and shine in a new context, which could mean untraditional instrumentation or novel rhythm patterns. I am not interested in merging traditional expressions with other genres really; it is more about expanding the horizon of folk and exploring the possibilities.

Førde is a place for inspiration and a festival with a special place in Gjermund’s
-I was selected for the festival’s talent project back in 1999, and that was a decisive event for me, says Gjermund. It was a huge inspiration and an encouragement for me to choose folk music for real. Since then I have performed at Førde many times of course, and the best thing of all is the jamming with other musicians.

The intensity of Førde, with music going on around the clock, accords well with the life Gjermund is leading at the moment.
-It is all about keeping up the intensity, he says, and always making new music. It is really important to keep working on different projects simultaneously and be part of many different bands and constellations. Every project will have both intense and quiet periods, that is why it is important to be part of as many different things as possible. But my main focus now is the Trio. We are doing a lot of concerts this summer and fall, and we’re rehearsing new material.

I’m pretty sure there will be a new record out next year.

Album: ‘Ankomst’ (Heilo/Grappa 2008)

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