Notes from Scandinavia
The Danish String Quartet's Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen on recording a folk album
It all started in 2006. We were to take up a residency with Danish Radio that year and at our presentation concert we decided to spice up the programme with a folk tune encore. The piece was Scottish, written by Swedish composer Bosse Nordin, and the roar from the audience when we finished made it clear that this folk music thing was something worth trying again.
We started making more folk arrangements to use as encores and occasionally incorporate into the classical programmes themselves. We often had people coming to us after performances saying things like: 'That encore you did was so fantastic - what was it called? Have you recorded it? The Haydn and Beethoven was also nice, but that encore… oh my!'
This was both nice and frustrating to hear. We practice for days, weeks and months and spend hours listening to other recordings, as well as taking lessons, to be able to perform a Haydn or a Beethoven quartet. We love these classical masterpieces – we became a string quartet because of them. Then we throw in a little folk tune and it appears to be the thing anyone remembers after a concert.
Of course this isn't entirely true. But we realised that adding some folk tunes to a classical performance broadens the sound spectrum the audience is exposed to and creates a very memorable atmosphere. The audience starts listening more closely to everything – classical as well as folk – because they don't know what will happen next. This awareness and being in the moment is an important part of any concert.
It all gave us something to think about, and we decided that we would give folk music some focused attention. And we wanted to do it well.
At the beginning of 2012 we decided to take the final step and record a full folk album. We talked a lot about how we should do it, asking ourselves questions like: why would a classical string quartet record a folk album in the first place? How could we use the qualities of a classically trained ensemble without compromising the authentic feel and swing of folk tunes?
Our individual backgrounds came in here. I grew up listening to, and playing, traditional Scandinavian music. My parents gave me a violin and took me to folk festivals, courses and dance evenings in both Denmark and Sweden. So this music started flowing in my veins from a very early age. Even when I started playing classical music, folk continued to follow me.
In Norway our cellist Fredrik Sjölin would regularly dig into his fathers collection of vinyl folk albums from the 70s and 80s. He started collecting instruments as a teenager and played the guitar, irish bodhrán and fiddle. For Asbjørn (viola) and Frederik (violin) folk music was a fairly new thing. But being around Fredrik and me, they were exposed to hundreds of post-concert folk sessions and soon came to love the beautiful simplicity and easygoing nature of the tunes. Folk slang even started to creep into our rehearsals: the main worry in a Haydn minuet was no longer the classical obsession with 'being together' but the feel; the swing.
And just as we learned a lot about classical music by playing folk, we also felt that we could bring something new and fresh to folk music with our classical backgrounds. We didn’t know of any other professional quartets who played traditional Scandinavian music so many paths seemed to be available to us.
In september 2013 we went to Kirsten Kjærs Museum in Northern Jutland to record our folk album Woodworks. The place is fantastic. Built by two enthusiastic art-loving doctors some half-a-century ago, it is shrouded in the most inspiring atmosphere. With nature, art, workshops, a beautiful little concert hall and a guest house full of old instruments and a fire place, this was the right place to be creative.
We arrived three days prior to the first day of recording to polish our arrangements, rehearse, cook and enjoy the place. Later our friend and amazing sound engineer Sebastian Eskildsen came with his microphones to do the recording. It was mainly Fredrik and I who made the arrangements, but everybody pitched in with ideas and thoughts on the process, and as always in our quartet, we all contributed in different ways. Later, Frederik took on the lion's share of work in the editing room and Asbjørn researched and wrote the liner notes. It was, of course, important to us that everybody felt happy with the end result. We never considered ourselves as a folk band, but we didn’t want to sound like a classical ensemble either. I think the result has ended up being somewhere in the middle.
In January we signed a contract with the Danish label Dacapo Records. They gave us all the freedom we wanted and we stayed in close contact with the graphic designer and the photographer for the album art. When the CD was released on May 5, we held something quite unique in our hands: something that was made almost entirely by us and that was a fantastic feeling.
- Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, violin, The Danish String Quartet