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Violinist Finds Fiddling Around To His Liking

Musicians of note: One in an occasional series offering a backstage look at the lives and livelihoods of San Diego musicians.

July 28, 1986|KENNETH HERMAN

SAN DIEGO — The symbols of Norwegian culture are not numerous. The lush music of Edvard Grieg and the angst -ridden paintings of Edvard Munch stand at the sublime end of the scale. And at the humorous extreme is Garrison Keillor's "Norwegian bachelor farmer" caricature from Minnesota's mythical Lake Wobegon.

But an obscure Norwegian cultural artifact, the Hardanger fiddle, has been revived by San Diego violinist Paul Severtson and has given his musical career unexpected international scope. Last summer, Severtson played his fiddle at the Bergen International Music Festival. Severtson was the sole American performer in the concert which inaugurated a new recital hall at Troldhaugen, Grieg's home and shrine in Bergen, Norway.

Severtson discovered the Hardanger fiddle, a Norwegian folk instrument whose history dates back to the 17th Century, about 13 years ago at a local mecca for Norwegian-American culture, the House of Norway in Balboa Park.

"They had had the fiddle since the 1950s," Severtson said. "While it was kept on display and one fellow sort of played it--but never played the way it was supposed to be played--they were looking for someone who could play it authentically."

Enter Severtson. Not that the tall, soft-spoken musician had prepared himself to be an ethnomusicologist, one of those scholarly researchers who digs up ethnic and folk musical arcana. An accomplished violinist with a pair of degrees from Yale, including one from the School of Music, Severtson was a performer, not a researcher, although he had played professionally every musical idiom from symphonic to pop.

"I was in the San Diego Symphony for a few of seasons between 1972 and 1975. I got as far as one of the strikes and accompanying prolonged negotiations when I decided to leave." As Severtson was "putting a band together"--his phrase for forming the local pop trio called Stone's Throw--he encountered the Hardanger fiddle.

Severtson first heard of the folk instrument from a college friend who had gone to Iceland on a Fulbright Scholarship to study contemporary music, but instead became interested in Scandinavian folk traditions. Once Severtson had located an authentic Hardanger fiddle, however, the challenge then was to learn to play it. Although the Norwegian Folk Institute sent him some literature about the unique instrument, it wasn't much of a start, "because what was in the books was only half the picture. It's an oral tradition. Printed notes don't convey all of the subtleties of rhythm and bowing, and they tend to be in error because the music is very difficult to transcribe."

Learning to play from recordings was the next step, but it was not until he made his first trip to Norway in 1977 that he began to master the instrument. "Listening to those old men play their fiddles, I discovered a live tradition that continues to be handed down from one generation to another." Traveling to remote villages on Norway's western coast, he encountered distinct regional traditions of fiddle playing.

An elaborately carved dragon head usually decorates the end of the Hardanger fiddle's peg-box, giving it the appearance of a Viking ship's prow. The India ink tracing on the instrument is also typically Norwegian in detail, like rosemaling. A second set of strings that runs under the main set, and vibrates sympathetically when the top strings are bowed, gives the fiddle its unique timbre.

The repertory for the Hardanger fiddle is mainly dance music, dances with quaint names like springer and halling . During Severtson's first Norwegian visit, he tracked down the farm in Telemark where the House of Norway's Hardanger fiddle was made in 1918. "The grandson of the man who made the fiddle danced while I played it for him and his family. His children were watching a Laurel and Hardy film on the television--they were unwilling to give up their movie for our music-making--it was one of the most unusual cross-cultural soups I have ever encountered."

While Severtson had the advantage of knowing how to play the violin as he was learning the Hardanger fiddle, he said the instruments are not interchangeable. "The most evident difference between the violin and the Hardanger fiddle is that the fiddle is always played two or more strings at a time," he said. Unlike most violin music, the usual texture of fiddle music is rich with double stops, giving the allusion that more than one fiddle is playing. Severtson likes to tell the story about the folk dance accompanist in Los Angeles who, after hearing a Hardanger fiddle on a record, transcribed and arranged the music for two fiddles, only later to discover her mistake.

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