New Classical Tracks: Traditional folk songs, ethereal arrangements

Trio Mediaeval
Trio Mediaeval
Album cover

They grew up surrounded by Norwegian folk songs, but the members of Trio Mediaeval are not folk musicians. Their repertoire consists primarily of sacred and contemporary music. Norwegian folk songs and medieval ballads have always been part of that mix.

Linn Andrea Fuglseth formed Trio Mediaeval 10 years ago, after meeting Anna Maria Friman and Torunn Ostrem Ossum in different choirs in Oslo. Linn's fascination with the beautiful melodies, harmonies, and rhythms of Norwegian folk music inspired her to create a few arrangements for their trio.

On their latest recording, simply titled "Folk Songs," Trio Mediaeval adds their musical imprint to this living, oral tradition. In Norwegian folk music, the composer of the piece is rarely known. Linn Andrea Fuglseth says there is one instance on their new release where the composer is known.

"One song I learned from my mother's women's choir, it's called 'Gjendines Badnlat,' and that's a quite famous song because it was written down by Edvard Grieg," says Fuglseth. "Grieg heard some woman called Gjendine singing it out in the mountains, and he wrote it down. So later, he made a piece for piano."

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Fuglseth remembered this little tune just before they started recording this disc. She threw together a very simple arrangement and hoped for the best.

"The first evening of the recording session I said, there is one more tune, would you just please listen and see if you'd like to do it? We tried it out and it really worked well," says Fuglseth. "That was maybe the surprise of the recording session, that this actually worked. We did only one take."

Percussionist Berger Mistereggen takes time out from his full-time position with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra to join Trio Mediaeval on this new recording. He specializes in traditional Norwegian drumming which dates back to old military traditions, which, in turn, became a folk music tradition.

The added percussion enhances the music on various levels.

"It gives this other dimension to the music," agrees Linn Andrea Fuglseth. "The voices are maybe light and clear, and high sounding, or kind of ethereal. But when you add the drum it makes this connection to the ground, a very earthy sound. It's really a very nice, different perspective to the music, the energy."

Mistereggen takes another instrument that's rarely heard, the Jew's harp, and turns it into a percussion instrument.

On the first track, titled The Little Child, Mistereggen gets some really strange, fun sounds out of it. At the start of the song it's barely audible, but that soon changes.

"That's the very nice thing about it, it can really blend in and you hardly hear it, you can maybe just hear some overtones, some strange high notes, and then he can really bang it," says Fuglseth. "And if he uses his voice and breath he can make it sound very percussive, then it's really nice, really groovy."

Another sound that makes Norwegian vocal folk music distinctive is the tradition of singing without words. It's a style known as "tulling."

According to Linn Andrea Fuglseth, this is an opportunity for each singer to improvise a little.

"Sometimes if we're singing unison it can be nice to have the same vowels. But in many of the other pieces where we don't have words, we just make up the little nonsense words. It's better if it's individual sometimes. It varies from piece to piece," she says.

With the folk song I Don't Think Much of Those Boys, Trio Mediaeval winks at the audience a bit as they alternate between a bit of text, and a bit of "tulling."

Trio Mediaeval takes full advantage of their singing space. Their last three recordings, including this one, were all done at St. Gerold, a monastery located in the Swiss Alps. The simple chapel is an inspiration, and says Linn, so is the wine.

"It's also a place where we can eat and sleep, and they have this wonderful wine cellar there. Every night we are presented some new wines, and as the recording comes along, it gets better and better, these wines, and maybe the last night you get the best wines," Fuglseth says.

Just as wine improves with age, so do traditional folk songs. As they're passed down from one generation to another, each singer makes the songs her own.

With their new collection of "Folk Songs," Linn Andrea Fuglseth and the members of Trio Mediaeval carry on the oral tradition of Norwegian vocal folk music. As they give each piece their own personal stamp, something old is new again.