The press kit says that Väsen was “commissioned to arrange and perform [this] music to mark [the] occasion” of Carl Linnaeus’ 2007 tercentenary. Who commissioned them? Not an essential question, I know, but one that’s been niggling at me. After looking through the official Linnaeus 2007 website, I haven’t found a thing. Not a breath of them, not a whisper, not even in the Music and Theatre section. A search turns up a number of other Linnaeus-themed events in Sweden and around the world (a lecture in Perth called “Welcome Mr. Flower Power”, an exhibition of silkily luscious flower photographs in Cape Town’s Kirstenbosch Gardens, a dance performance by a Butoh group in Tokyo, etc) but no Väsen. I tried the calendar of events on the tourism page of their home city, Uppsala, without any luck. “Din sökning på ordet vasen linne gav 0 sökträffar,” it told me. Your search for ‘vasen linne’ gave no results. Were they part of the Linnaeus Week 2007 Folk Festival? Who could tell? The search engine advised me to go panning for gold in Forsmarks bruk instead.
Linnaeus was born in the Swedish principality of Älmhult but it was further north in Uppsala, the home of his later years, that he died. ‘Linné’ is the name he’s known by in Sweden. ‘Linnaeus’ is the Latinate version he used when signing his written works. He lived at a time when learned men knew their Latin. “Deus creavit,” he said. “Linnaeus disposuit.” God creates; Linnaeus organises. He sorted animals and plants, devising a system that began by assigning each object to its largest general category and then working down through the phylum, subphylum, order, family, genus, species, and so on, becoming progressively more precise until we end up, today, able to refer to a lion as panthera leo, the white-lipped snail as cepaea hortensis, and the rough red ironbark eucalypt as eucalyptus sideroxylon. It’s an elegant system, and it seems right that Väsen’s graceful folk music should be used to honour its creator.
The booklet that comes with Linnaeus Väsen spends some time telling us how fiddle tunes are relevant to a man who liked to tell lions where to go. He had “No ear for music” it admits, but “in any case, Linnaeus could dance! … [D]uring his travels he eagerly participated in a variety of dance-related events … Linnaeus mainly danced the polska.” They explain that the “Carl Linnaeus Polonaise” on this disc was dedicated to the man himself by his brother-in-law who composed it, while the “Polonaise C-Moll” was the work of the son of a school friend, an “irritating youth” named Magnus Gronkvist. The music for “Tiliandermenuetter”, or the “Tiliander Minuets”, was found on the rolls of a barrel organ taken from Linnaeus’ estate and restored to working order in 2006. Various polskas were invented by fiddlers with connections to the Linnaeus family. Everything is justifiably linked to Linnaeus, although in some cases the connections are so six degrees that I have trouble following them.
Väsen storm through the tunes with their usual verve. They’re back to being a four-man group after their last album, Live in Japan, saw them playing without their percussionist, André Ferrari. On Linneaus Väsen Ferrari is everywhere, tapping and bumping. He thumps at a regular pace through “La Marche”, a powerhouse tune that charges along like a train, growing sharper, darker, and more intense as it goes. Tick clack—it sounds as if he’s knocking his drumsticks together. The bowed strings, deviating from the traditional tune, slur and grind weirdly, the drum crashes after them, and it seems that surely the musicians must be driving themselves into a frenzy of exhaustion but they defy expectation and keep going.
“Tiliandermenuetter”, is slower, a gradual knotting of strings. Then there’s a polonaise, gravely paced, alive with winding violin. The polskas are gleeful, open-air, open-hearted dances, nothing hidden here, not too many twists and turns—they’re less compelling than the darker, Voldemort-hearted polonaise, with its Aubrey Beardsley curves. The album comes to a close with the unadorned “Klippings handskar”, another one of the tunes “presented … on [Linnaeus’] barrel organ.”
There is more guitar here than Linnaeus would have recognised. Väsen is unusual among Swedish folk groups in that it has integrated Roger Tallroth’s guitar into its signature sound as naturally as if he were playing the more typical fiddle or nyckelharpa. No one makes a big deal of it. They innovate by stealth, in contrast to the flashier Hoven Droven who play up their guitar and posit it as part of a rebellious rock-folk fusion.
The three string musicians are all as good as they were on Live in Japan yet I like this album less. It’s difficult to enjoy the violin and nyckelharpa when we’ve got Andre Ferrari’s percussive trump-te-tump jumping around them. This is not the riverine flow of Live, but a grabbier noise. “Give ‘em a bang,” it says, cocking one eye at the audience, “get their attention, reel ‘em in.” (Looking at it from a different point of view, you could say that it makes the music more clearly dynamic, more obviously, immediately (rather than quietly, progressively) stimulating, and shouldn’t folk music, by definition, try to attract as many people as possible?) Live was an album that you had to hear in full. Linnaeus would do just as well in an iPod on shuffle. None of this takes away from the fact that Väsen is one of the best folk groups in northern Europe, it’s only to say that with Linnaeus they’ve shifted into a different gear. An ideal album for those of you who preferred them on Gront.