Bleakness in Ballard

The darkness at the center of the Northwest's cultural heritage.

FOR ANYONE WITH a Scandinavian background, going to Ballard's First Lutheran Church was like going home. For the rest of us, the poem, the music, the style of performance of Norway's most famous sung medieval epic poem, Draumkvedet—performed there last Wednesday—was mostly unfamiliar ground.

Draumkvedet, Norway's medieval epic poem

First Lutheran Church of Ballard

January 6

All but one of the cast traveled from Norway for this performance, and had performed it three days earlier in Oslo Cathedral. Vocalist Halvor Håkanes, a singer with a baritone timbre who could sing well into the tenor range, has been working with Draumkvedet, or Dream Song, for more than a decade. He was joined by Oslo Cathedral organist Kåre Nordstoga, and a member of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, violinist Per Sæmund Bjørkum.

Draumkvedet is a description of a journey through hellish territory toward heaven and the preliminary day of judgement, witnessed by one Olav Åsteson, who falls asleep on Christmas Eve and doesn't wake up until Epiphany. He then goes to church and tells his story. In modern parlance, it is the tale of an out-of-body, near-death experience, though this one has remnants of the Norse gods woven in with the Catholicism that was Norway's dominant religion when the epic was written.

The saga is at least 600 years old (possibly composed originally by a cleric), and was carried down by word of mouth, with dozens of variants in both verses and music, until folk researchers in the 19th century wrote it all down and tried to disentangle the earliest versions from the stanzas added later. The words are in simple folk-song style, four lines and a refrain to each verse, and the researchers heard it sung to the tune of countless old melodies.

ACCORDING TO HÅKANES, it was probably sung without accompaniment. For this version of 50 stanzas, Nordstoga had arranged the music so that organ and violin acted as prologue, dramatic chorus, commentary over or below the singer, and as interludes heralding what was to come. Håkanes' performance was simple. He sang in a straight, almost dry voice, with no dramatic inflection, bar singing a little more emphatically from time to time. He stood utterly still, using no body language. Yet the beauty of the modal music and its simple presentation cast a spell, and the artful accompaniments built an enhancing web around it. The music of the violin often seemed related to bagpipe sound, with melody over a drone, and the same rhythms and types of ornaments. Bjørkum said there was no bagpipe heritage in Norway, but perhaps the style traveled the other way, with the Vikings over to Scotland.

A lecture beforehand, by Professor Audun Toven of Pacific Lutheran University (wearing the traditional dress of Norway's northwest coast), helped set the stage with historical and religious background information. He also explained references in the saga (of which there was an excellent translation in the program notes), which otherwise would have gone over most of our heads.

This was the first venture here of a new group, Synnøve Søstre Produksjoner, which intends to produce programs from or about Nordic culture. Next fall, it plans one on the Black Death of the 14th century. In anticipation, Bjørkum played on the Hardanger fiddle (a Norwegian folk violin) a folk tune that described, in the music, a horse that carried the dead through forest and marsh to the church every day, until it died of exhaustion.

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