Sunday, April 20, 2014

Finnish fiddling: Building a Finlandssvensk tune

First a bunch of stuff about history, tradition, and some music theoryish stuff.  Skip to the bottom for recordings!

Fiddle vs violin

You all were wondering it - what is the difference between a fiddle and a violin?  Short answer: none.  Long answer: the instrument is the same, but people who play in orchestras generally call their instrument a violin while those who play folk music generally call it a fiddle (interesting side note - "violin" comes from Italian while "fiddle" comes from Old English, so the association of violin with imported classical music and of fiddle with traditional folk music makes sense!).  Not-entirely-serious answer: One has strings, the other has strangs (said in the best redneck accent you can muster).

Double the tradition, double the fun
There is an extremely strong tradition of fiddling in the Nordic countries, and Finland is no exception.  What makes Finnish traditional music (kansanmusiikki) especially interesting is that it, as much of Finnish culture blends traditions from the West (read: Sweden) and East (read: Russia) due to its location.  However, the two traditions seem to remain at least moderately separate.  Each tradition is associated with one of the two main language groups (Western with the Swedish-speaking Finns, Eastern with the Finnish-speaking Finns - see my other posts herehere, and here).  The separation is to the extent that my friends in each group seem to know pretty much everyone within their own tradition, but many fewer from the other group.  Being equally terrible at both languages, I was welcomed into both groups.  This post will be about Swedish-Finnish music (Finlandssvensk musik, since it is in Swedish), since I have had more opportunities to play that.

Finlandssvensk musik
Dancing queens
The point of this music, as with much folk music, is to be danceable (think along the lines of the Virginia Reel from middle school), so it has to be exciting!  There are a bunch of different types of tunes with different feels; polska, polka (other traditions also have varieties of polka...) hambo, schottische (based on Scottish strathspey), quadrille, waltz, and minuet.  I have collected a bunch of each kind, and will post them here eventually for you to hear.

Dancing to Finnish music on the Folklandia cruise; 24 straight hours of Finnish folk music and dancing on a cruise ship!

Fiddle is key
One of the interesting things about Finlandssvensk musik is the band setup.  I am used to American stringbands, which generally have a good mix of instruments including fiddle, guitar, banjo, mandolin, and bass.  When I meet American folk musicians, guitar is by far the most common instrument (except possibly in Boston - there are a lot of fiddles there).  However, it seems that here (Finland specifically, but I think it applies to the Nordic countries) fiddle is the most popular folk instrument, and it has a big historical tradition of being so.

Building a band with just one instrument
So, if all you have for your band is a bunch of fiddles, how do you make it not suck?  How do you make the music exciting enough to get feet moving?  The strategy is something similar to that in an orchestra - there is a first fiddle (melody) and a second fiddle (harmony).  The two parts are different and specific skills - the first fiddle is responsible for carrying the melody and ensuring that there is a good and danceable beat, while the second fiddle is responsible for improvising a harmony to keep it interesting.  In the group that I played with, everyone was technically capable of playing either, but most people truly were specialized in one over the other.

How to build a Finlandssvensk tune

Folk music can be written out, just like classical music, but unlike classical music, the notes are just guidelines.  It is just like a bunch of different people reading a storybook - every person has a dialect from their region and then their own personal way of speaking, so that two people from the same region will tell the story in similar (but not identical ways) while people from different countries would read the same story in a completely different way.  Here are some things that go into the Finnish folk music "dialect".

Ornaments are basically extra notes that make the music prettier, and are some of the most recognizable aspects of folk music.  They can include what classical musicians call "grace notes" (fast, little notes that go before the main note), short "trills" (switching quickly back and forth between two adjacent notes), and "double-stops" (playing two strings at once), but folk musicians use them much more frequently and in a different manner.  Finnish music includes all of these things.

Time Signature
This fiddle music is mostly meant for dancing, and it carries a strong beat (a beat is the pulse of the music that basically tells you when to take the next step).  The beats come in different patterns for different tunes - groups of two, three, and four are pretty common in Western folk music.  In each group of beats, each usually gets a different strength, and stronger ones usually indicate stronger movement.  For instance a waltz has the strongest beat on the first (you would count "ONE two three, ONE two three), and the dance similarly has the largest step on the first beat.  Finnish music includes these waltzes (which we also have in the Americas), but they also have dances with the strong beat on three ("one two THREE, one two THREE") that are totally foreign in our music.  In fact this actually is one of the most common beat pattern in Finland (whereas in the USA, pretty much everything is in four "one two three four, one two three four").

One of the unique aspects of Finnish (and other Nordic) fiddle styles that sets it apart from Anglo-Celtic/American styles is the use of twin-fiddle harmony (though I guess it exists somewhat in Canada).  One (or more) fiddles will play the melody, while another fiddle plays a harmony line below the melody (for people who know their music theory: according to a conversation I had with Arto Järvelä, this harmony is commonly either a sixth or a third below the melody).  American music often does harmony as well, but often in our vocal music, and then it can be above (the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou is probably one of the best-known examples of American music outside the USA - listen to the chorus of Man of Constant Sorrow for harmony above the melody; you can also count that the beats go "one two three four").

Example of a Finnish Waltz

I got to play with the Österbottniska Spelmän on an awesome Finnish folk music boat cruise, and took some recordings of the sets.  Here is a waltz in the Ostrobothnian (Swedish-speaking Finnish) style, recorded at a dance on the boat.  Things to listen for:
  • Time signature - in three.  Since it is a waltz, the emphasis is on beat one (but the Finnish influence of a strong beat creeps in a little) - "ONE two three, ONE two three"
  • Lots of fiddles - I think we had like 5 or 6 playing melody, and me playing harmony with another guy on viola

Me, playing with the Österbottniska Spelmän on the Folklandia 2014 boat cruise.  Me and the guy in front of me are playing harmony, while the other four on the right of the picture are playing melody.  The recording was from a different performance than this one, but the setup was pretty much the same.
Now here is me playing the melody by myself so you can hear the grace notes (all the little really fast notes in between the others).

Listen: Melody solo (written below)

Finally, here is me playing harmony to the recording of me above, so you can hear an example of a Finnish harmony.  The notes (from my friend Jarl Ahlbeck - thanks!) are below, so you can follow along!

Listen: Harmony solo (written below)
Listen: Melody + Harmony (the two recordings above)