Diving into the seams of Norwegian folk music, Anders Hana and Morten Joh as Naaljos Ljom unlock the harmonious potential hidden in their source material. For their new musical project, they turned to archives of traditional Norwegian folk and stumbled upon a treasure trove of microtonal melodies, nearly forgotten instruments and intoxicating rhythms. “We found music we had never heard before, with revelation-like astonishment.”
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Anders Hana and Morten Joh previously played in noisy and rambunctious musical outfits like MoHa!, Ultralyd, N.M.O.. Their most recent project Naaljom Ljom takes a different course and is heavily informed by their shared discovery of traditional Norwegian folk music in various archives around the country, including The National Library of Norway. Suddenly, they stumbled on a treasure trove of microtonal melodies, nearly forgotten instruments and intoxicating rhythms; captivating music that defies the usual conventions of scale, pitch and harmony. It has set the prolific musicians on a path to translate these musical gems to a more contemporary project with modern instruments like guitars, synthesizers, drum computers and tape echoes.
How has the heritage of traditional Norwegian folk inspired your work? “A big part of Norwegian folk music consists of melodic material played over a stamped rhythm, and was used as dance music. Traditional instruments are the Hardanger fiddle, violin, mouth harp, willow flute, langeleik (a sort of droned zither) and voice. Various drums have also been played, but this tradition died out a long time ago. Traditionally the music has been performed solo. The melodies have travelled from region to region and have been filtered through the different characteristics of each area. Therefore, there are many different ways of playing each melody. Contrary to the folk music in Sweden, where the shadow of functional harmony is more present, this is less apparent in the Norwegian music. When listening to old archive recordings, one can tell that the tonality is partly influenced by the harmonic series, but also incorporating an array of neutral intervals forming mixed and 'neutral' scales. This has changed with time and it has become more customary to interpret the old scales either to a minor or major scale. Eivind Groven, who was a folk musician and a music theorist, suggested already in the 1920s that one should use intonation just as a tool to approximate the vast number of scales and pitches, instead of filtering everything through the European classical 12 equal temperament, in which most of the pitches from the traditional music would then be seen as deviations. All the music we currently play as Naaljos Ljom is in one way or another derived from archive recordings obtained at various archives around the country, including at The National Library of Norway.”
What aspects of the music initially attracted you to studying it? “The discovery of the Norwegian folk music archives and the old tonalities they conceal was a determining factor. It was a period of suddenly finding a lot of music we had never heard before, with revelation-like astonishment. Five years after we stopped working together in the noisier bands MoHa! and Ultralyd, we had both on separate ends found microtonality and intonation to be potential fields of interest. It was at that point when we realized the aforementioned Eivind Groven was a pioneer in the field and also a folk musician. Somehow, we had no choice but to start working together again and began an intense study of this music.”
What was the process like of familiarizing yourself and gaining mastery over it? “At first, there was a lot of listening to the archive recordings, then there was the process of analysing scales and pitches from different tunes and players, figuring out how to generate these pitches from an analogue synth, making a microtonal guitar and obtaining a langeleik with adjustable frets (developed by Niels and Anders Røine). We have also started playing Hardanger fiddle in order to get a feel for the music on a traditional instrument and in such a way improve the translation to other instruments. Anders also went to learn mouth harp playing from traditional performers in Setesdal. You could say we are still at the stage of familiarizing ourselves with it, but we cannot say we have gained mastery over it yet (if ever…). Though the way we practice the material is not unlike the way we have worked together earlier, especially in MoHa!: by repeating small phrases or cells over and over again.”
How do you think your modern translation of Norwegian folk relates to or diverges from its traditional roots? “We are trying to use pitches and scales that we have found in archive recordings. The electronic rhythms we use derive from the stamped rhythm. We try to play the melodies as close to the material as possible, most of the time. The traditional music was used as dance music in the old days and we try to further develop this concept. It diverges in the sense that we use modern instruments such as synths, guitars, drum machines and tape echo. We also sometimes filter the tunes through other scales than used in the source material. We are using other registers; we can play the melody in a much slower tempo or use a subdivision grouping other than that of the main beat.”
What are the challenges and possibilities of translating your work to a live setting? “In principle, all our material is already translated into a live setting as we work out the forms together and rehearse repeatedly to be able to play them — our first release was more or less all recorded live. Of course, in a live setting on stage we could potentially extend the durations and allow for some unforeseen things to happen, especially if audience members decide they want to dance. One challenging element is changing between the different tunings rapidly between the individual songs and we hope our audiences don't mind too much that we spend some time doing so. Real Norwegian folk musicians are however known for spending a lot of time tuning on stage — so in that sense we follow the guidelines.”
Naaljos Ljom perform on Sunday 10 April at Rewire 2022.