Thursday, January 25, 2007

CD Review: Grovt och grant/Rough and Shiny by Alicia Björnsdotter Abrams and Emma Reid

I’ve only once been fortunate enough to hear these two young women perform, and, ever since, I’ve been keen to get a recording of them. I must say, it’s been worth the wait. I listened to it, candles burning, while I did all my Christmas baking, and I am still enjoying it in January.

This recording is a joy and a treasure. Most of these tunes are from masters of the Swedish fiddle, tradition-bearers who lived late and long enough to be recorded or even to participate in the folk revival of the 1970s. As in other such cases, it is remarkable good fortune to have these gems performed with such love and respect by younger players.

It is also a pleasure to hear these musicians build on the tradition in their own compositions (such as Alicia’s lovely Gröttschottis, track 7) and in their interplay with other traditions (Road to Poynton/Paul and Jenny’s Wedding, track 13 and Vals/Ville de Quebec, track 5.

Most of this recording, though, is devoted to the peculiarly Swedish polska. The polska is a dance said to have developed from Polish influences that arrived in Sweden around the end of the sixteenth century when the two countries were briefly united under one king. As it has evolved over the centuries, the polska is a dance in triple meter, although, unlike the waltz, its three beats are asymmetric—they are not organized around a stressed first beat and may even be of different lengths. Melodically, these tunes have been described as employing “blue notes,” but perhaps what we hear is better understood as either unusual (to our ears) modes or melodies that developed independently of the tempered scale. Be that as it may, it is well worth opening your ears, because this music really swings!

According to the brief liner notes, grovt och grant (rough and shiny) refers to the technique of playing in octaves, one fiddle above the other, in order to incorporate both the high, “shiny” voice of the fiddle and the lower, “rough/coarse” foot-stomping voice. (These are dance tunes, after all.) You can hear a lot of this octave-doubling work in Gumas Polska (track 4). But the reality is that these two fiddles saunter, swing, turn, and glide past each other not only at the octave, but at many different intervals, now closer, now farther apart, now intersecting in a passing unison. This Swedish art of stämma—creating a second part that shadows and engages the first—is richly realized here. A beautiful example of this is Trollpolskan (track 6), which the album notes describe as småpratande (small-talking or chatting). The countermelody work here is truly thrilling; it speaks its own mind quite independently, yet somehow manages to achieve unison with the melody as each phrase tapers to a close. I can see the chatting ladies, sitting forward in their chairs, coffee cups clinking, but this intricacy also brings to mind the ever-twining wood carvings at Urnes or the pattern on a tablet-woven ribbon—the ones that grace the hem or cuff of a Scandinavian folk costume.

This music is extremely evocative of landscape and of the feelings of being immersed in nature. But there is also the presence of human beings. There is Auld Swaara (track 14), a lament from the Shetlands, in a darker, more mournful version than I’ve previously heard. The Skänklåt (track 11) and Gamla Rådasin (track 3), are both weighty and declarative; the latter is paired with a lively polska that has more than a hint of the baroque in its countermelody. And are those cow horns I hear in Hedningspolska (track 6) and the Anders Södersten polska (track 4)?

I wish I knew more about Uppland fiddler Viksta Lasse (1897-1983)--I adore these versions of his tunes: the utterly gorgeous, twirling, breathing, thinking-out-loud Polska til Wik (track 9) and likewise Vendelspolskan (track 10), which recalls the strathspey with its sharp, rhythmic push-and-pull, although the melody is so Swedish!

Grovt och grant begins and ends with journeys. For me, the Himmelfärd (heaven-journey, track 1) is over the hard, glinting sea, the fiddle bow mimicking the rocking of the wave-tossed boat. Längs gamla stigar och färdevägar (track 17) takes us along winding roads through sunny pastures, cool woods, and marshy bogs, all punctuated with boulders left by glaciers--or trolls, take your pick! But however you see it, both journeys will take you, unequivocally, to Sweden.

The Swedish homeland, like the grovt och grant title, may be a place of contrast--the cold, dark winter followed by the bright flowering of summer--but this record reconciles the two, bringing to mind the shifting contrasts of shade and sunlight through fluttering birch leaves. The rough and shiny are always there, as are, always, the dark and the light, but the whole is as graceful and lively as dancers as they step, bob, and twirl around each other, balancing on an unbreaking line between two extremes.

Alicia Björnsdotter and Emma Reid will appear in an interview on WFMU Transpacific Sound Paradise. It will air (via the internet) Saturday January 27, 2007, starting around 7pm EST, and I am told it will be archived for later listening.

Grovt och grant/Rough and Shiny is available from CD Baby.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

On the not-so-mythical outcomes of drinking and toasting

If you read my earlier post On the mythical origins of drinking and toasting, you might appreciate this lighter treatment in the form of a video piece entitled Dinner for One. It's also known as The 90th Birthday Party or, in German, Der 90. Geburtstag. Originally written in England in the 1920s as a theater piece, it was recorded (in English) in 1963 by German television.

This short comic skit has become a cult classic in Germany, Norway, Sweden, Austria, Denmark, Finland, German-speaking Switzerland, and South Africa. In some places it has, interestingly, become a New Year's Eve television tradition. (I've been told that Swedish TV started running it on New Year's Eve in 1972.) Combining slapstick with a sort of dignified pathos, it eventually arrives at a life-affirming conclusion.

I love this piece because it's fun to watch. I also love its tragi-comic read on the human condition, which at once recognizes the absurdity of, and the heroism involved in, persevering in the face of inevitable decline and death.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Weaving, War and Womanhood

In her history of textiles, Mary Schoeser has remarked that “…textile techniques and their terms readily become analogies for the mysteries of nature and the universe.” Both sides of the analogy are clearly linked with female endeavors and power.

In Greek mythology the three Fates, female figures in control of human destinies, are depicted as spinning, measuring and cutting the threads that represent individual lives. Norse mythology employs the same analogy, with the three (female) Norns depicted spinning the thread of life for the hero Helgi in the Poetic Edda. The metaphor that compares a human life with a length of thread is clear and understandable. The fact that the Fates and the Norns are female bears witness to the reality that women have traditionally been the spinners and weavers. The metaphor works particularly well, though, because there is an even deeper identification of women with the “mysteries of nature and the universe.”

Nowadays we are so far removed from the processes of spinning and weaving that we may well wonder, what’s the big fateful deal regarding these activities? In pre-industrial societies, textile production was an enormous part of life. It was parallel to food production in that both entailed harvesting or gathering as well as processing, and both must have been constant, ongoing activities. Children have watched their mothers doing these things for eons.

Food is undoubtedly a necessity, and clothing, even if not needed for warmth, is important for other societal purposes. Other textile items, including bags, baskets, fishing nets, sails, etc., are necessary tools. Through many generations, people—primarily females--developed and perfected the technologies and processes that allowed their families and societies to survive, adapt to varying conditions and prosper. Their successes rested on their knowledge of agriculture and animal husbandry, both of which could provide food and fiber.

(Am I wrong to credit women with all this? Jochens writes, “Although direct proof is scarce, few scholars doubt that women bore the chief responsibility for spinning and weaving in primitive societies, a conclusion supported by cross-cultural comparisons.” In addition, let me say that, even if my husband is normally in charge of the crops and/or the animals, what happens when he goes to war? Or goes on a trading or raiding expedition? Or travels far from home to participate in some sort of governmental assembly? Or simply has to work late at the office? If I want my family to survive, I had better know my husband’s business as well as my own!)

Thus women, through the ages, have been central to many essential activities. And let’s not forget the obvious: Because of their primary roles in childbirth and child rearing they are essential to life itself in a way that men are not. History and myth abound with stories of male raiders setting out to steal the neighbors’ women; evidence that women have felt the need to abduct men is scanty at best.

Perhaps because of their traditional occupations—giving birth and feeding and clothing the next generation with the bounty of the earth-- women were thought to play a particularly large part in the natural cycle of life and in the connection of humankind with nature. In a situation where the natural world was little understood and felt to be capricious or frightening, this connection might be especially valuable. Indeed, in the historical Germanic and Norse world, this seems to have been the case.

Tacitus reminds us that among the continental Germans, women were particularly regarded as prophetesses and sages. In Snorri’s Heimskringla we continually meet with priestesses, prophetesses and wise women who move the action along with their premonitions and insightful words. In the Eirik the Red’s Saga, Thorkel, the head of a household in Greenland, wishes to know when his district will recover from a difficult season, so he engages a prophetess to provide answers. In the Voluspá the god Odin himself summons a dead prophetess from her grave to obtain information about the destiny of gods and men.

Of course, the natural cycle includes both life and death. The Fates not only spin the thread, but they also measure and cut it when life is through. So we would expect to see female figures involved in the bloody realities of both birth and death.

Norse mythology famously features valkyries, female agents of fate responsible for choosing those who will die in battle. In the Norse poem Darraðljóð, a group of twelve valkyries are depicted weaving a gruesome tapestry using warriors’ entrails as warp and weft to the refrain, “let us wind, let us wind, the web of war.” (One wonders if Dickens had this poem in mind when he created that infamous knitter of the French Revolution, Madame Defarge!) Jochens observes, “In effect, Darraðljóð pursues to a logical conclusion the image of the Norns, who were female figures in control of the thread of fate.”

Valkyries bring to mind the Greek goddess Athena, at once a goddess of war and of the “women’s arts” of spinning and weaving. She was also, incidentally, the goddess of wisdom. Athena figures into Homer’s depiction of Penelope, who uses her weaving and her wits to control her own fate. Penelope is the wife of Odysseus, delayed ten years in returning home after the Trojan War. She insists she will not remarry until she finishes her weaving. Every day she weaves, but at night she secretly unravels her work, thus keeping her many suitors at bay until she receives word of Odysseus’s return from (of course) Athena.

Textile-related stories abound in Greek mythology. Arachne was a woman who bragged that her weaving was better than Athena’s. As a punishment, the goddess turned her into a spider. Though women may not have engaged in sports or war, their competitive instinct could be strong and their anger potent! And speaking of potent anger, Medea, one of the most powerful sorceresses of Greek mythology, took revenge on her unfaithful husband and his new bride by giving the bride a beautiful, magic robe that burned her alive when she put it on. (I don’t know that Medea wove the robe herself, but she clearly masterminded and engineered its magic.)

These stories are interesting in part because they move beyond the supernatural, fleshing out real women’s activities, roles, and emotions. They attribute motives and generate narrative where there was only mute production (and reproduction). Textiles become not only a symbol but also an instrument of women’s creativity and fate. As women’s handiwork is transformed into works of mind, heart, and soul, we encounter a wonderful, telling paradox: the intangible attains immortality while the tangible is doomed to disintegrate.


Anonymous. “Eirik the Red’s Saga” (translated by Keneva Kunz) in The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.

Anonymous. “The First Lay of Helgi the Hunding-Slayer,” in The Poetic Edda. Translated by Lee M. Hollander. Second edition, revised. Tenth paperback printing. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.

Anonymous. “Voluspá,” in The Poetic Edda. Translated by Lee M. Hollander. Second edition, revised. Tenth paperback printing. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.

Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. New York: Modern Library, 1996.

Jochens, Jenny. Women in Old Norse Society. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1995.

New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. Translated by Richard Aldington and Delano Ames and revised by a panel of editorial advisors from the Larousse Mythologie Générale edited by Felix Guirand and first published in France by Augé, Gillon, Hollier-Larousee, Moreau et Cie, the Librairie Larousse, Paris. New Edition 1968. Ninth Impression. U.S.A.: The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited, 1974.

Schoeser, Mary. World Textiles: A Concise History. London: Thames & Hudson, 2003.

Tacitus’s Germania is cited in Jochens, Jenny. Old Norse Images of Women. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.