Is “contemporary traditional music” an oxymoron?

Prof. PhD Sven Ahlbäck, KMH Stockholm (SWE) with drummer Petter Berndalen (SWE): Challenging the idiom - the role of orally based reflection in the meeting between style and instrumental idioms in Swedish Folk Music.

Prof. PhD Sven Ahlbäck, KMH Stockholm (SWE) with drummer Petter Berndalen (SWE): Challenging the idiom – the role of orally based reflection in the meeting between style and instrumental idioms in Swedish Folk Music.

(Picture from

I am visiting Sweden with my family this summer and hope to experience two different “takes” of its indigenous music. First, a contemporary celebration of the musical traditions of midsummer taking place 250 kms northwest of Stockholm in the county of Dalarna ( Second, in Stockholm itself, some modern musical expressions by professional musicians who have chosen traditional forms for their starting points, or to put it another way, consciously chosen to let their predecessors’ music speak of as well as to the times we live in.

I have some familiarity with the former already thanks to musical links established years ago between west Wicklow and the Siljan area. I love the sound of traditional Swedish fiddle music – slightly more formal and genteel than our own, I think I’m right in saying, but similarly mesmeric and making up an equally rich and varied tradition, full of sublime melodies decorating the many varieties of polska dance meters underlying the music. My sense of it is as very much a music of the people, playing it together as equals, passing it on as a cultural “heirloom” to the next generation, and sharing it with their communities as something pure and radically opposed to work and productivity and progress.

For the latter, through that same connection (Bill McChesney previously of the group Groupa came with the Swedish kids the last time they came to Blessington and left me some CDs – ” The music is based on a great and tender caring for Swedish Folk music, coupled with refined musical skills.”) I have some familiarity with an older generation’s work, but I am also looking to Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh as a kind of guide to more recent sounds, in particular a 2007 interview he did with Toner Quinn of the Journal of Music ( I have a sense that Caoimhín may not put the ideas in these exact terms today, but I still think his thoughts on the traditional music scene in Ireland as compared to Sweden then are worth considering:

“It’s so narrow… We don’t have a progressive traditional music… Traditional musicians are afraid to break out of it. There is amazing Irish contemporary classical music, amazing contemporary Irish jazz, but non-existent contemporary traditional music. That’s why Stockholm was so interesting. I went there to try and figure out why there is interesting contemporary folk there… we are basically at the point they were thirty years ago. They put in place a system to deal with the gaping holes in their then system of education… [T]o create interesting contemporary traditional music you need to study the tradition in incredibly fine detail. That’s what they are doing.

They were initially inspired by the developments we had, the incredible burst of creativity in the 70s, but in the 30 years since then they have been highly critical that we have been stagnant. And we are – we have been so stagnant. I mean, I don’t know if there has been any group that has done anything that isn’t derivative of the Bothy Band and Planxty. Kíla may be an exception….

But you can’t view it in the same way as what I am talking about in Stockholm, where their innovations, their progressiveness, is completely based on their own music. They have rhythmic movements completely based on folk music, concepts of temperament and tuning that are completely based on folk music. Sven Ahlback has developed a system of teaching temperaments that doesn’t reference classical music or jazz at all. It is completely based on Swedish folk music.

A music education needs to evolve, to come right from within Irish traditional music [on which, see for more].”

In the interview, Caoimhín mentions the Swedish percussionist Petter Berndalen (now a fellow band member in This is How We Fly), who in this TEDx talk describes how he came, rather circuitously, to, as Caoimhín puts it, actually play the tunes on his percussion (something I hope to see in Stockholm but don’t expect to see in Rattvik … yet):

Not for the feint-hearted: Petter plays percussion-only versions of traditional Swedish tunes (

Not for the feint-hearted: Petter plays percussion-only versions of traditional Swedish tunes (

Who would deny Petter the right to explore what his percussion set-up can do with the traditional tunes of his country? His ancestors wouldn’t be into it, I’d wager, but they were not the “professional listeners” we are today with our 24-hour music radio and portable album collections. They had far less music available to them and felt, I imagine, sated to hear now and again the great tunes and songs of their time at dances and gatherings such as the midsummer festival, and have them linger vaguely in the mind’s ear at other times; and their children were delighted, I reckon (just like mine will be, I know, when in Sweden) to learn those tunes by listening to and repeating (and eventually altering slightly) what the older generation taught them. Change happened more slowly back then, I think it’s true to say, but without doubt change happened, and each generation produced, less self-consciously I imagine, their own versions of the sounds they received: a contemporary traditional music of their time.

While Sweden and Ireland both experienced massive folk revivals in the 1960s and ’70s and contemporary versions of the indigenous musics became what you might call mainstream for a while, they have both since receded into a bit of a “subcultural niche” (as Wikipedia puts it) within the musical universe we have at our fingertips. To keep that culture as sustainable and “healthy” and visible as possible, I think there absolutely needs to be a contemporary approach to traditional music alongside the more historical approach. I am extremely thankful to people like Caoimhín and Petter and Groupa for stepping out of the archives (escaping the island of Faiakes, Odysseus-like!) and bringing the outside world news of what’s yet in them for others (mere mortals) to enjoy. As he himself was quoted as saying recently:

“Sometimes, being from the world of traditional music, I wonder how to give people a window into that world, to share what I love about it. The same with other things in life I love, like being in the mountains. I want to start from scratch and make a really compelling, rich, wonderful thing of it, and a very Irish thing, but somehow hopeful and exciting and beautiful.” (


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