Era by Era: Norwegian Radio Orchestra’s Variations Over Variations

By fortuitous serendipity one Autumn evening in 1799, British traveler Edward Daniel Clarke, passing through the Norwegian town of Røros, happened upon a most compelling local tradition. The village copper miners, having received their month’s pay, celebrated with a “miners’ ball. As a polsk tune began, Clarke noted, the men took their lasses to dance, “[practicing] every possible grimace, look, and attitude, that may express lasciviousness.” Upon Norway’s cessation from Denmark in 1814, however, those village tunes that so enthralled Clarke found new life as muses for Norwegian romantic nationalism—composers such as Edvard Grieg exalted rural melodies as perennial motifs of Norway’s cultural identity. Today, the composers on Variations Over Variations (Aurora) are successors to Grieg’s 19th century role—one diversified further by the plurality of 21st century musical sources. The pieces by Alfred Janson, Jan Erik Mikalsen, Knut Vaage, and Maja Ratkje, performed under the Norwegian Radio Orchestra conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya, faithfully preserve Nordic themes that so defined the life of the land, while embracing worldly sources steeped into the country for two centuries.

Janson’s orchestral Variations over Variations over a Norwegian Folk Tune is an homage over an homage to Grieg’s Ballade in the Form of Variations on a Norwegian Folk Song. Trumpeter-soloist Tine Thing Helseth explores a recurring three-tone descending motif borrowed from Nordic folk music—one similar to that Grieg employs in his aforementioned work. Though, listeners should not expect to hear a lively polsk as Clarke did centuries ago. Rather, Janson’s composition is more akin to the vuolle joik: a traditional song style practiced by the indigenous Sami people of southern Scandinavia. Conducive to improvisation, the vuolle joik often revolves around brief, repeated phrases, in which tonality might be obscured—characteristics upon which Janson’s Variations over Variations, is built. Elaborate ornamentation, often with chromaticism, lends diversity to both the variations in the vuolle joik, and to Janson’s own.

Mikalsen, in his three-movement Songr for Orchestra, first introduced in 2014, offers a trilogy of Norwegian identities: the natural, the primitive, and the ambitious. Each movement is unified by certain mutual elements common in Norwegian music; notably, the featuring of a hardanger fiddle (a distinctly Norwegian violin-variant), violin and viola tuned down a quarter tone, and the open fifth chord which appears throughout. In the first movement, extended string techniques—procedures revisited by Ratkje in the album’s final track—set a scene of undisturbed wilderness stirred at dawn. Col legno taps chitter like so many animals crunching leaves on the forest floor, while circular bowing and slide whistle/violin glissandos call and respond like bird song. The second movement borrows heavily from the raw “primitivism” of Stravinsky’s tumultuous “Sacrificial Dance” at The Rite of Spring’s finale. Tonal center is absent, while the brass swell forebodingly throughout until the movement’s explosive crescendo-conclusion punctuated by irregular drum rolls. Ultimately, however, the chaos does not detract from the third movement’s triumph. Though inconsistent throughout, tonality is weaved in and out of the landscape, eventually climaxing with a proud iteration of a quaint folk phrase featuring hardanger fiddle and indian harmonium, from earlier in the movement. Mikalsen’s cinematic landscape immediately transported me to Middle Earth where, in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, a similarly scored theme for the hardanger fiddle portrayed the proud horse-lords of Rohan.

Jan Erik Mikalsen--Photo by Eirik Slyngstad

Jan Erik Mikalsen–Photo by Eirik Slyngstad

In Mylder, written in 2011, Vaage looks beyond Norway for his muses, piecing together fragments from classical music’s most celebrated overtures. Glimpses of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Beethoven’s Egmont, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, and Rossini’s William Tell Overture reiterate throughout the composition; Mylder’s most intriguing element, however, is Vaage’s bridges between quotations, executed seamlessly by the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, without sacrificing Vaage’s or his musical benefactors’ intended sound. Mylder initiates its conclusion with rising pedal points in the woodwinds, sustained from a preceding bridge, as Mendelssohn’s opening theme from The Hebrides rises from the shadows in the strings. Yet, Vaage’s woodwinds replace Mendelssohn’s bassoon line, which continues into a Vaage-composed closure, creating truly innovative polyphony.

The album’s final variation, Ratkje’s Paragraf 112, is one of Norway itself. Atonal orchestral voices stumble irregularly, while wind instruments attempt notes, only to achieve labored gasps through their mouthpieces. The intentional instrumental incoordination is accompanied by extended techniques throughout: metal chains clattering like hellish hail barreling to Earth, zippers pulled to create gusts of wind, and cellophane crunched far from the microphone that evokes a distant, unnatural static. The dichotomy of seemingly inept man-made orchestral voices set against extended aural techniques imitative of a tortured planet, suggest an outlook far less optimistic than Grieg’s romantic nationalism. Indeed, Paragraf 112, written in 2014, derives its name from the eponymously labeled section of Norway’s constitution that promises the citizen’s right to a healthy environment. It is perhaps cynicism that led Ratkje to place Paragraf 112’s human component at such odds with her metaphors for the environment; conversely, it may serve as a cautionary tale of what might transpire. I believe the latter: that with true pride, with true nationalism, comes the responsibility to acknowledge the ills we wrought.