Published: 24/01/2013 11:47 - Updated: 24/01/2013 12:00

Sarah adds Norwegian strings to her bow

Sarah Jane Summers
Sarah Jane Summers

THOUGH raised in the Highland fiddle tradition, Inverness musician Sarah-Jane Summers has long had a fascination with the sound of Norway’s Hardanger fiddle.

Having already experimented with the instrument and its additional four understrings in Scots-Norwegian band Fribo, Summers has taken her interest further by completing a Master’s degree at the Norwegian State Academy of Music (NHM) in Oslo.

Her studies have also led to her latest album, "Mala Fama", recorded with guitarist Juhani Silvola and double bass player Morten Kvam, though there are still nods back to her Highland fiddle heritage as one of the final pupils of famed Inverness-shire fiddle player Donald Riddell.

"I had played the Hardanger fiddle for many years, with a Scottish fiddle player’s approach and understanding, and I knew I was only scratching the surface of the instrument," she said of her decision to study at the NHM.

"It cannot be overstated how different from the fiddle the Hardanger fiddle is. It requires a completely different use of both right and left hand from Scottish fiddle playing. I also wanted to learn a lot more about a different musical as well as linguistic language and culture.

"Norway may be one of Scotland’s closest neighbours, but it is such a different culture from Scotland, with many of the concepts I take for granted in Scottish culture simply not existing in Norwegian — for example, they do not have words which equate exactly to ‘please’ or ‘sorry’. The fact that my husband lived in Oslo clearly had nothing to do with my decision to move!"

Norwegian musicians are perhaps less influenced by outside cultures and Summers laughs that the average folk music audience in Norway has a surprisingly high tolerance for the Hardanger fiddle being tuned incessantly during a gig.

"There is a really strong musical scene in Norway in general. Oslo, in particular, is a leader in European jazz and has a startling amount of incredible musicians," she said.

"Traditional music-wise, Norway has an incredibly strong and vibrant scene. The more purist side is very strong and is promoted and supported to a huge degree by the degree courses and the ‘kappleik’, a competition system which the majority take extremely seriously and often compete in until old age."

Summers describes her new album is a snapshot of the music the trio were playing when they recorded it rather than a conscious effort to create something new.

"We all write for the trio and the arrangements are worked on collectively," she said.

"We feel quite free in our approach due to our relatively unique mix of cultural and musical backgrounds. Juhani comes from an experimental music background and is highly in demand as an experimental pop record producer; Morten started out as a traditional Norwegian traditional accordionist, but went on to study jazz double bass and now plays with one of Norway’s top pop artists; my youth was spent singing along to Radio nan Gaidheal, playing 20th century classical piano and, of course, the fiddle."

Though based in Oslo with her Finnish husband, Glasgow’s Celtic Connections Festival provides an opportunity to bring her music back to Scotland, where she will be playing at St Andrew’s in the Square on Sunday.

"I’m really excited about the Celtic Connections gig," she declared.

"It’s been a wonderful opportunity to gather together three of my favourite Hardanger fiddle players, all utterly inspiring in different ways. Håkon Høgemo was my Hardanger fiddle ‘guru’ during my Masters and is quite rightly viewed as a true master of the traditional West coast Hardanger fiddle style. Caomhin O Raghallaigh creates mesmerising pieces based upon traditional Irish music.

"Also from the West of Norway, Nils Økland and Sigbjørn Apeland (harmonium) create stunning soundscapes, bringing the Hardanger fiddle very much into the improvisational realm. The trio will add its Scottish-Nordic- improvisatory mix to the concert. So you can expect to hear this wonderful instrument, with its resonant understrings being used in four very different ways, from traditional through to contemporary."

Though she cites modern art, and particularly photography, as one of her main inspirations these days, Summers says she cannot understate the gift she received from Donald Riddell, who in turn learnt his fiddling from one of Summers’ own relatives, Alexander Grant of Battangorm.

She is returning that gift by rejoining Silvola to record an album of traditional Highland tunes she learnt from Riddell, but she also plays with fiddle quartet RANT alongside Shetland sisters Jenna and Bethany Reid and the Black Isle’s Lauren MacColl.

"It’s great to play with Summers/Silvola/Kvam and we are working on music for a second album just now," she added.

"I also have a couple of new projects in Oslo, one with a jazz trumpeter and one with a jazz pianist, both involving a lot of improvisation. I’m also doing more and more solo playing.

"And knitting! When you live in Norway — brrr! — you need many knitted items!"

• "Mala Fama" by Summers/Silvola/Kvam is released on the NorCD label.

Sarah-Jane Summers curates an evening dedicated to Norway’s national Hardanger instrument as part of the Celtic Connections Festival at St Andrew’s in the Square, Glasgow, at 7.30pm on Sunday 27th January.

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