Swirling and Whirling on the Swedish Dance Floor
Keyed Up, the new release by the Swedish trio (sometimes a quartet) Väsen, is not a live recording per se. It wasn’t recorded at a concert venue before a clapping, cheering audience. Nonetheless, Väsen wanted to make this recording sound as spontaneous and lively as one of their “live” recordings (such as Levande Väsen, performed before a Swedish audience, where in between playing they tell humorous stories and jokes—but alas for me, in Swedish). In concert, the virtuosic musicians, Olov Johannsson, Swedish nyckelharpas (or key fiddles); Roger Talroth, guitar and Swedish bazooki; and Mikael Marin, violin and viola, with their boyish sly grins and humorous joking manner, are completely professional in their approach to their material, yet playful, with a warm rapport for each other as well as their audience. They hoped to capture this feeling in a studio recording without stifling themselves by over preparing.
Much of their material is music that they have composed themselves individually but bring back to the group for “filling” out and finalizing. This is one of the reasons the tracks on Keyed Up sound so fresh. A few days before they went into the studio, the three of them had basic ideas for the tunes, and worked them out just before actually recording them. This is a feat that only musicians who have played together for many years and recorded many albums together can do successfully. Väsen has been together since 1989 and have recorded about 10 albums together, as a trio and as a quartet. They have also recorded solo albums and have appeared as guest musicians on many others. It is as a trio, though, where they really shine is playing together as if of one mind.
In the liner notes, producer Robert Simonds quotes Olov as saying about the preparation for their recordings, “We’ve learned that too much rehearsal can be a bad thing. The more we rehearse, the more Roger likes to mess around with his part, which makes it hard for Mikael to find his part. The alternative is to lock into an arrangement early, which can make things too stiff.” Whatever the explanation, their music is never stiff, whether they are playing purely traditional music or their own. They are excellent composers and well as interpreters of music composed by such Swedish greats as Byss-Calle and Erick Sahlstrom.
Olov Johannsson was the first player of the nyckelharpa to be awarded the prize of world champion for both the modern chromatic and older historical nyckelharpas. The nyckelharpa is considered Sweden’s national instrument. This bowed instrument somewhat related to the hurdy-gurdy is a key fiddle; in other words, the strings are “stopped” by keys. The instrument displays an unworldly resonant sound similar to the Norwegian hardingfele.
Although Roger Talroth’s guitar and other stringed instruments such as mandola and Swedish bazooki are not traditional to the music of Sweden, they add an element that drives the swirling polskas, schottishes, waltzes, and bride’s marches to a new dimension. Traditionally, Swedish dance music is played with only the percussive element of the fiddler’s foot marking the time for the dancers. Väsen, though, seeks a wider appeal then the local spelmanslag (cultural organization), and they were one of the first groups in Sweden to appeal to a wider audience and thus bring their music to international stages. They have even played with The Kronos Quartet.
Many of their tunes sound ancient, highly danceable, and melodic. They have the memorable quality that stays with you all day. You will find yourself humming or whistling them as you are washing dishes, changing the oil in your car, or weeding the garden.
All of their recordings are excellent; but Keyed Up is one of their very best and I highly recommend it as a good way to become introduced to this amazing trio of musicians from Sweden. Their previous recording Väsen Trio, also on Northside, is also highly recommended.