Nils Økland is a renowned master of Norway’s national instrument the Hardanger fiddle. However, his musical outlook is far wider than just traditional music and his contributions diverse. Both as an instrumentalist and as a composer he interlaces elements of classical and contemporary music as well as jazz with traditional Norwegian expressions, finding common traits and not least common expressive mindsets across genres and time periods. Økland belongs to the category of musicians who have come to represent an individual sound and a musical sensibility that is completely their own.
And so it is no surprise perhaps that his first solo record is released by the legendary ECM label which specializes in finding unique musical voices and distinct sounds. Økland has released records in his own name before, but Monograph is his first solo record in the true meaning of the word. It features him alone playing his own compositions in the ancient Avaldsnes church of his native south western Norway. It is also in these parts, in the countryside around his cottage, that much of Økland’s music is conceived, or downloaded, as he puts it. The act of walking plays a part too.
-I think there is something about the rhythm of walking that inspires me, says Økland, or perhaps I should say tunes me in, because I find that many times my creative work takes the form of downloading. I don’t sit down to write music, I can’t do that. I need to be calm and experience tranquillity, perhaps even boredom, before music comes to me. It is quite mysterious, but on the other hand I guess it is something many artists can testify to.
When it comes to playing, Økland is inspired by context and the actual room he finds himself in. A sought-after performer who spreads his musical activity across a variety of projects and genres he plays all kinds of venues; from small clubs, to concert halls and not least churches. The old church in Avaldsnes made an impact on his playing he relates; it was just the locale that Økland and his long-time producer and collaborator Audun Strype had been looking for.
-The church has a special timbre, low and a little shadowy perhaps. It is a weighty kind of building, not heavy, but solid and insulated. Audun set up the microphones very close to the instruments, which means that the distinct timbre of the room becomes a backdrop; like a presence withdrawn.
The instruments in question are the Hardanger fiddle, with its two layers of strings and distinctive silver-timbre, the viola d’amore -an Italian counterpart to the Hardanger fiddle, similar in construction and principle but lower and darker in tone- and the ordinary violin.
-Some of the tunes on the record were inspired by actual instruments and their distinct sound, says Økland. But it can be the other way around too; like I said, most of the time melodies and themes come to me when I’m doing something else –some form of physical activity- and only later do I make a decision as to which instrument to use.
The tunes on Monograph are taken from material conceived over the past four of five years, much of which was written for ensembles and particular contexts and instrumental constellations. The solo format on the record is a result of Økland having reworked the tunes to express the essence of the music in new and solitary ways.
-I have gone back to my original ideas and to the first recordings that I made of the tunes. I wanted to rediscover the most fundamental qualities of the music and try to create something new on that basis. I find that there is a lot of freedom in being able to relate to music in this way, i.e. to reinterpret ones own material every time one plays it by way of variations and improvisations over certain fundamental traits. This was the way of the traditional musicians of old; hearing them play was almost like hearing them talk.
Monograph is the result of a request from ECM’s Manfred Eicher who knew of Økland and his unique musical expression from ECM recordings with Christian Wallumrød ensemble. Økland sent Eicher about two hours of material from the recording sessions in Avaldsnes church, and subsequently Økland, Strype and Eicher sat down to make a selection for the record.
-We were not determined form the start that it had to be a solo record. I was open for changes to the format, but when ECM thought that the solo recordings worked so well on their own, it was just a matter of choosing the right tunes and finding the right the order. On previous records I guess I’ve always felt that there has been a need for more musical voices than just my own, even though I have been thinking of a pure solo album for a long time. When Manfred said he liked these recordings just the way they were, it became clear that the time was right. He has a well developed sense of musical atmosphere and of how a record should be composed. The material on Monograph is varied but at the same time the record is an organic whole: Since it was only me playing –in the same room over two consecutive days– the playing itself became a continuous, undivided story that runs through all the different tunes.
A master violinist and Hardanger fiddler, Økland had little difficulty taking up the viola d’amore when he purchased one some years ago. However, on Monograph he decided to do some adjustments to his basic playing technique, common to the different instruments, to look for new sounds.
-For a trained violinist there is always a paramount focus on reducing the sound of fingers moving over the strings and all other redundant sounds that naturally occur when playing an instrument. This time around I chose to loosen up the technique and actually encourage such noises in my playing, which makes the whole sound become more organic and the context come alive. Doing this also points to the kind of freedom I associate with folk music and the notion of music more as speech than something that is written down, i.e. that the tunes always come out a little different every time. Originally there was a lot of improvisation even in classical music and to me the notion of adapting to context is an essential musical quality that I enjoy exploring. The other day I was playing with a poet and at one point I was supposed to change instruments. But when the time came it was awkward to switch, so I simply kept playing, trying to explore new properties and sounds of the instrument in my hands.
The music on Monograph is closely linked to the timbres of the instruments and the room as well as the organic sounds of the actual playing: the motions of the bow and of the fingers over the strings, breathing and even stomping. Critics have called it a master instrumentalist’s playful capturing of the moment and that it is an exploration of the interchange between tradition and novel spheres of tone and timbre. On Monograph contemporary music, classical allusions, improvisation and tradition are lifted into a subtle higher unity that seems natural, yet at the same time appears like uncharted musical territory. As Økland says himself, the music is like a conversation he is having with himself; a dialogue of questions and answers.
Nils Økland's Last.fm site
ECM Records (Record Companies\Outside Norway)
Nils Økland, Folk musician, Violinist