CORVALLIS — A few have described the nyckelharpa as “somewhere between a typewriter and your grandpa’s crackly old fiddle.” As an image, that’s adequate, but it doesn’t even begin to convey the instrument’s daunting beauty.
The modern chromatic version of this magnificently crafted piece boasts three rows of strings, 16 in total, with one melody string apiece (the only accessible by short bow, played with the right hand), plus a single drone and 12 sympathetic strings. The notes are controlled by a set of wooden keys pressed with the left hand.
And as manipulated by the great Olov Johansson, the sounds they make in action are positively exhilarating.
The nyckelharpa’s ebullience is central to the music of Väsen. For the last two decades, the Swedish trio of Johansson, guitarist Roger Tallroth and viola player Mikael Marin has melded traditional rhythms with contemporary expression to fashion a timeless, exuberant oeuvre. Centuries of melodies burst to life; all is new again, for both listeners and the band members themselves.
Local audiences will have only one opportunity this year to partake of this uniquely vibrant music in a live setting — Väsen’s Tuesday performance at the Majestic is their only Oregon show.
Johansson first picked up the nyckelharpa in 1980, when he was 14. It was an instrument that both his mother and maternal uncle played, and he found it fascinating.
“I was challenged by it,” he recalled in a Skype interview last week from Sweden. “It was really fun to try to work out the tunes I had in my head. I was also challenged by the sound of it, to make it sound good. I feel that the instrument picked me, somehow.”
With modifications to accommodate the passage of time and fashion, the nyckelharpa has been part of the Swedish landscape since at least the mid-1300s. But it was an Uppland luthier and player named Eric Sahlström who was most responsible for popularizing the instrument in the last century.
As a result, he and other regional legends, most notably Curt and Ivar Tallroth, were sought out by aspirants eager to study with the masters. Among their visitors in the early ’80s were Johansson and his friend Mikael Marin, both then still in their teens.
“Those were the heroes,” Johansson said of these mentors. “They were the best, with the richest tradition — especially Curt. He became my teacher and friend. I went to see him every second week, learning tunes and playing together. Then he started inviting me to come with him to small gigs. We played together until the end of his life. (The multi-instrumentalist died in 2001.)
“I learned tunes. I learned playing technique. I learned a relationship to music, to this kind of traditional music and how to treat it. I learned to improvise second voices and to play accompaniment. I learned to tell bad jokes and good stories connected to the music. But nothing of it was taught, really. I had to be there, to listen and absorb, and to try things on my own.”
In 1989, Johansson fortuitously encountered another Tallroth, Roger Tallroth (“They are distantly related,” Johansson said. “All people spelling that name in the same way are related somehow.”), at a Winter Market in Røros, Norway, where the two were among a group of musicians rooming at an old house. One night Johansson suggested a jam on nyckelharpa and a 12-string guitar that happened to be resting in the same room. According to Johansson, Tallroth demurred with words that would become part of the Väsen legend: “No, I’m going to take a shower.” As fate would have it, the shower was already in use, so Tallroth returned, and the two began making beautiful music together.
“The sound was just amazing to us,” Johansson said. “We played and played, and people sat down to listen. After a while a friend of mine said, ‘This is the best thing I’ve ever heard. If no one puts this out on a record, I will start a record company.’”
Such promises are typical in the excitement of the moment, but this friend, Olle Paulsson, was serious. (In fact, on his company’s homepage, Paulsson asserts, “The plans for my own label started (in) 1988, and a fantastic musical experience in Røros 1989 … made me realize my plans.”) A month after Winter Market, he made good on his declaration and launched Drone Music. In 1990, the label released its first album, “Väsen,” credited to Johansson, Martin and Tallroth. However, fans began identifying the trio as “Väsen,” so they adopted the name and became Drone’s flagship act.
The Swedish-Grammy-winning group has since appeared on such programs as “A Prairie Home Companion” and played numerous festivals worldwide. They’ve issued 15 albums to date, most recently 2009’s “Väsen Street.” Currently, there are no plans for a follow-up, but that has more to do with a hectic schedule than anything else. Because 21 years after striking their first note as a trio, Väsen still love the vitality and urgency of their ongoing musical dialogue; that breathless sense of adventure compels them further.
“The reason we are still playing together is because we enjoy playing together,” Johansson said. “Almost every time we play, something new happens that gives us the energy to continue. The best thing that happens in our music is when one of us surprises himself and the others. It doesn’t have to be much. It could be the new dynamic curve of a tune. It might be a new bass line. It might be a new intrusion.
“All three of us have developed our music-making. This is like our home arena, this band, and we do other things, too. But if you take Roger’s guitar-playing, it’s very unique. He totally re-stringed and retuned his instrument, so he’s the bass player as well. He can go all the way down to a double-bass register on his guitar. He can go all over the place, playing bass lines, rhythmical patterns, melody lines and second voices. Mikael has also forced himself to develop something unique and new.
“The stuff we play now is the result of 20 years of exploring and pushing ourselves, pushing the limits. That’s why we can do this. That’s why it’s still fun. That keeps it alive and fresh.”
When you were visiting Curt and Ivar Tallroth and Eric Sahlström, was this typical behavior for a teenager, to be this interested in traditional music?
No. In the little town where I grew up (Tärnsjö), where there were maybe 1,000 people, I think I was the only one. I felt very lonely at first, until I met other young musicians like myself — Mikael, for example. He was one of those, too, but growing up in a different small town (laughs). There were people out there, young musicians, when I started traveling more than 10 miles out.
How would you describe the trio’s musical relationship?
We have very clear roles in this band as it has developed. I’m usually playing the melody on the nyckelharpa. Roger is choosing the bass lines and the chords that he feels go well with the melody. Mikael has developed a fantastic skill of playing in between the melody and the bass line by adding interesting things without colliding, or crashing, harmonically. The bass lines aren’t fixed; they’re improvised while we are playing. The melody can also vary a bit. So we all have our own freedom. I’m shaping the melody, the phrasing and the ornaments, building and improvising the dynamic pattern of the tune. Mikael’s in there between, and Roger is fully in charge of the harmonic chordal structure and the bass lines.
Sometimes it’s hard to describe the music you’re playing. I’ve been trying to collect things that other people have said. A friend of ours described it as three soloists playing at the same time, and all three are listening carefully to the other soloists before playing the next note. We’re keeping three individual lines going at the same time, building a bigger picture. And I think what he said was the first time where we said, “Yes, you’re right! I never thought of that!”
Väsen had a fourth member, percussionist André Ferrari, for a while. What did he add?
It adds a fourth voice. André was playing very complementary rhythms, adding to the music. When we started playing with him, and when we played tunes as a trio before we met him, the musical space was already filled. So we had to make new music and arrange it for four voices, and the four of us filled it. So it seems like we are a little more free when we’re playing as a trio. It’s a smaller vehicle that can travel faster and turn quicker. I like both ensembles very much. But André is not so keen on the traveling part anymore.
How do you like playing in the United States?
We’ve played a lot in the United States. I think we’ve been there — Mikael’s father said a few weeks ago, “This is going to be your 30th time in the U.S.” How he keeps track of us, I don’t know (laughs). When I thought about it, I thought that might be correct.
The reason we come back to the United States is not because of the long journeys, the long flights and the traveling. It’s mostly because the audiences are really nice to perform for. They are very immediate. They react to what you do onstage, and if they like something, they show it. It’s nice for a performer to have that. In other countries, people are much more reserved and you don’t know what people think until afterward, when they come and tell you.
We’re looking forward to coming to Corvallis. We’ve met Alex Hargreaves and his sister, Tatiana, several times. We’re looking forward to seeing where they come from.
How important is this music to preserve and build upon?
It’s my first musical language. It’s the way I can express myself musically. I don’t know if it’s more important than a first language to other people, but it’s important to me. I like to share the way you can have fun with this music. I’m not much into preserving, rather, to pick the good pieces I can find in tradition and add something of my own, to try and achieve something new and exciting that will hopefully still be considered part of the tradition. But that’s not for me to decide. That’s for the future.