While Norway has close historical ties to both Sweden and Denmark, it is not only a country with its own distinct culture but also one made up of a patchwork of regional subcultures. Almost half of the country is above the Arctic Circle, and difficult terrainsmountains and valleyscrosshatch the land, which account for sharp differences among the isolated regions.
Of course, homogeneity has come with modernity, but regional differences still are there among the 4.6 million Norwegians, including a growing cosmopolitanism as the world has shrunk and Norway has become a wealthy supplier of oil to the world. While Norway has emerged as a modern, prosperous European country, its music often resonates with the wilder aspects of its rough-hewn natural character.
Norwegian traditional music sprung to world attention with the 1994 compilation The Sweet Sunny North, compiled by David Lindley and Henry Kaiser. Lindley, best known for his work with American popular artists such as Jackson Browne, helped shine a spotlight on a corner of the world that even world-music fans were unaware of since the southern climes get most of the attention. One group featured on the album, Chateau Neuf, was a 16-member group of university students who loved their homeland's folk music but played it with an amalgam of traditional and nontraditional instruments. As a result of being on the compilation, Chateau Neuf got a recording contract and became a mainstay on the festival circuit and on Norwegian television.
Regardless, traditional music in Norway has a long, strong lineage, passed down by folk musicians, generation to generation, though that has changed with the music's urbanization. The most typical Norwegian instrument is the hardanger fiddle, a intricately decorated instrument that has several sympathetic strings, a shorter neck and a flatter bridge that makes playing two or three strings at the same time easier. Fiddlers playing for dances would typically also supply the rhythm for dancers by stomping a foot. Other traditional instruments include the munnharpe (Jew's harp), bukkehorn (ram's horn) and the langeleik (Norwegian zither). Traditional singing is kveding, which includes shorter forms and longer ballads.
Some of the rural fiddle playing and singing makes use of the so-called natural scale, as opposed to the fixed-intervals of the Western chromatic scale. And experienced musicians take advantage of the freedom by playing in any number of ad hoc tunings and scales. As in many other countries, the accordion became a dominant instrument in Norway by the early 1900s, changing the character of folk music. The urban version of folk dance became gammeldans, or "old dance," ironically eclipsing a host of older dance styles. The instrument that led these dances is the trekkspel, or accordion, whose fixed intervals and loud volume made it the bane of the old-style fiddlers.
In recent years, outdoor festivals have become a more important for folk music, though traditional music has had regular support from government institutions and arts organizations. In addition, with the growing role of academic institutions, there has been a marked increase in the quantity of high-quality musicians.
One of the most internationally successful Norwegian folk musicians is hardanger fiddler Annbjørg Lien, who has both strengthened the tradition and stretched its boundaries (to occasional criticism from purists). Lien began performing as a teen and has since become a noted composer of neotrad tunes that bring in various influences. Lien is also known for her work with the Norwegian folk group Bukken Bruse (Billy Goat's Beard).
What Lien is to the fiddling tradition, Kirsten Bråten Berg is to the singing tradition: someone who takes the sounds of Norwegian folk sounds and combines them with modern influences from outside. In 1997, Berg collaborated with Senegalese musicians to create From Senegal to Setesdal, which demonstrated how traditions from seemingly disparate cultures could work together.
The six-fiddler group Majorstuen has recently emerged as a leading ensemble, winning a Spellemannsprisen (aka the Norwegian Grammy) in 2003 for its debut album. The group's members come from rural backgrounds, but they met while living and working in the city. Majorstuen has created a sound that allows you to almost smell the hay yet it has the polish of any chamber or new-music ensemble.
Along with the rise of Norwegian folk music has been the increased attention to the Sami people or Lapps in the north of the country. Mari Boine has been one of the best known of this long-overlooked people and culture, taking the spiritual music and creating electronic landscapes.
Norwegian folk music has also had significant interchange with the country's classical music. Violin virtuoso Ole Bull, called "The Nordic Paganini," had an international following in the mid-1800s classical community, but he also helped promote hardanger fiddlers. In fact, Bull sometimes performed with Myllarguten (aka Torgeir Augundsson), a master hardanger fiddler who broadened the role of a folk fiddler from someone who plays exclusively for dancers to one who also performs for listeners.
The most famous Norwegian in the world of classical music was composer Edvard Grieg. Though his early musical education was in Leipzig and Copenhagen, over the years Grieg tried to create art that expressed a Norwegian national identity. He moved to Oslo in 1866 and his work two years later, "Piano Concerto in A Minor," is infused with the character of Norwegian folk music. As he struggled to establish his career, he continued to create music that echoed the folk traditions and natural beauty of Norway. Later in his life, Grieg spent summers in the Norwegian countryside, composing in a one-room cabin on the edge of a remote fjord across from a glacier Marty Lipp