Still to discover over here, the Norwegian saxophone-player Karl Seglem is among the musical celebrities of his home-country. In the recent years he mainly became known for repositioning Norway's traditional music, which he is fond of, in a new contemporary context. After many years on the road with his band Uttla, also deeply rooted in Scandinavian music, Karl Seglem points out new potential connections between Jazz and Northern Folk in his own new album "New North".
Here the old and the new have been set side-a-side: Seglem's saxophone floats freely in spaces defined by unobtrusive electronic sounds and correspond with the gentle but intriguing harmonies of the traditional Hardanger fiddle. Also to be heard are the sounds of another ancient instrument Seglem fancies: the "prillar horn", manufactured from the horn of a Norwegian goat. Having only four sound holes and limited tonal range, this is a demanding instrument for any musician and forced even on Seglem a different point of view: It is necessary to slow down the music, he declares, pure speed and virtuosity would loose every meaning in this context...
Carina Prange spoke with Karl Seglem in Berlin
Carina: People trying to find a category for the music that you play, call it "Folk-Jazz". How would you define your music?
Karl: Well, to be honest, I think it's a mix of many things: world, folk, jazz, improvisation, ... So it´s hard to put one genre on it. It´s a mix, but the most important thing is that it's mine. My music. It's music that I want to play. So it's not as interesting, I think, where to put it. It's more important what comes out.
Carina: To which degree does tradition play a role in your approach? Is there a conflict between honoring tradition on one side, at the same time being part of current musical streams?
Karl: Well, I am one of a very few jazz-musicians, who is into tradition and worked with it especially the Hardanger-fiddle-tradition over an extended period. For twelve years now I have been working with Hardanger-fiddle-player Håkon Høgemo. I feel lucky that I met him, and had the opportunity to do research and to learn this music.
I was not born into a folk-family and, unlike most Norwegians, did not listen to folk-music in my youth: I started to play saxophone in a marching band. We have this special school system in Norway, where you are quite free to work with your own things. There I got in touch with jazz and folk for the first time I was sixteeen, seventeen.
I played traditional jazz in bigbands and my own bands the American traditions in a way. But I never felt really comfortable with this. Maybe because I am not good at copying others, I felt very early that I had to find my own way. So I started to listen to folk music and found that there were a lot of fiddlers here and a lot of singers! Why shouldn't I try to get in touch with this material?!
And then I started to work with it. And then I started to work with this fiddler in ´91 then. So the folk-music has been very important to me since then. And for me it's not controversial that I use it as a source. For the jazz-people it can be a problem: They are not sure if I am a jazz-musician or am I a folk-musician!
And the folk-people... - well actually I have played more folk-festivals than jazz-festivals in Norway! I don´t know why. That's also maybe because I have worked more with this trio called Uttla than with my own project. Consequently I am now trying to put up a clearer focus on myself as a saxophon- and goat-horn-player than before.
Carina: Nevertheless, there's a strong connection to the sound of the Hardanger fiddle in your playing. How did you work out a playing style that fits to the fiddle so well?
Karl: Ah, well by playing, I would say. In the group Uttla we have a worked a lot with traditional Hardanger fiddle music - and this music is special! You know, this fiddle has nine strings, it has five resonating strings underneath the four playing-strings on top. You always play two strings at a time, two or three. The strings underneath vibrate in resonance, so you get a ringing sound with a lot of overtones.
The first time I started to play with Håkon, I was really amazed of this sound. Because the tenor sax which I play exclusively of all the saxophones and the fiddle, they really go together very well. It was something magical, I felt. But it has been a long way to work with this sound to the first album with it.
The tenor is a very loud instrument, but the fiddle is not. It's loud in another way, it has a lot of sound, however on another level. It has been a challenge to try to like play less loud on the tenor, but in a way with the same power. Also to make the music open with space: When you hear Hardanger fiddle-music for the first time, it seems very complex, but it's also very simple. It´s kind of double thing. If you work on this more and more, you get closer to it like with anything else.
Carina: The saxophone is regularly used in Jazz and Classic but not in ethnic music styles. What are the preconditions, musically and knowledgewise, for a sax-player to fit in a Folk ensemble?
Karl: The preconditions ... yeah, for me it has been what I just talked about: First of all you have to know your instrument and you have to be related to the other musicians. So I won't say it's anything special: It's the same you have to do in jazz and classical music, too.
I have been working very little with written music in my band, because we mostly rehearse without. My compositions I explain by ear to the fiddler and vice versa. This way, on the tenor sax, I think I learned maybe fourty or fifty Hardanger fiddle-tunes.
Carina: On the saxophone you play far reaching melodic lines, based on classical scales with emphasis on the sound. How complicated is it to reach this simplicity is your playing really as free from Blues-influences as it appears?
Karl: I am glad you are saying that. I feel it's quite loose from influences: I don't want to sound like someone else, I have no ideal in playing saxophone. I have always tried to extend the instrument in my own ways, inspired by folk-music, naturally, of course by other musicians like John Coltrane or Pat Metheny.
But I try not to listen too closely to one musician. I listen to Bach and Hardanger Fiddle-music and old vocal recordings. But of course you hear a lot of music all the time, so of course you get hidden influences from all over. But the goal is to try to create music that is clearly mine.
Carina: Another instrument you play on "New North" is the traditional goat horn. Where did you get the knowledge of how to play it?
Karl: Well, I just started and learned it my way (laughs). I have two goat-horns which I use most, and this one it with a reed, like a saxophon it's called a Thong-horn and it's very rare. I don't know anyone else playing it in Scandinavia, at least not professionally.
These instruments are my ideal, too, because you have all the notes in between, the quarter notes. I don´t want to play totally clean, so I like this, it in a way puts some dirt in the music.
There is a man in Norway, who makes all these nature instruments like "Selje-Flöt", different other flutes and he also made these. He learned it by an old craftsman, who died soon after and had been the only one who could do it. There were some old paintings explaining where to put these holes and so on. But it's quite random, also the thickness and everything. This here is a very good horn. I have three more, one Thong-horn and two prillar horns but these here are very good compared to them. Because you can make music on them.
As a saxophon-player I learned very much by playing this instrument, because they force you to simplicity. You don't have all these possibilities, you have to focus on maybe only four tones in a melody or so. And then you have to play them. On the saxophone, it's very easy to play fast and if you can´t play it, it´s just to practice! But on this instrument it in a way has no meaning to play fast. It's totally different parameters you have to focus on. So it has got me a lot of insight as a saxophon-player, too, to play this instrument, yes!
Carina: Besides combining traditional Norwegian Folk Music and improvisation, you are also a friend of electronics and studio-effects. How does that go together?
Karl: This collaboration is with Reidar Shar, the studio-engineer I have been working close to for many years. He is an artist on a very high level in studio-technique and I am not. However I know what I want and he can help me with this and he does. So he is important for me when it comes to that part of the music.
And we let the music decide it: put a fiddle in here or make an electronic change to get the music better. Never the other way - like doing something electronic, because "the music is not good enough". (laughs) Then you have a problem! With my band and my music, I want it to be acoustic; it must have an acoustic heart in a way.
And then, if this heart and body is good, you can do anything with it. And that´s why it´s so fantastic to work with Reidar, because he listens and can put in other colours by using electronics and modern studio technique. For me that´s fine if the music gets also this colour. The Hardanger fiddle is usually very pure and you should not do this there, they say, but there are very many possibilities...
Carina: To fetch material from the Folk history and kind of "re-contexting it" can be looked at as problematic. Is what you do accepted by traditionalists?
Karl: Yeah, you always get those questions. And there will always be people who think this is not right and so on. But I think, if the music shall develop, you have to use it in new ways. You have to try to take those steps further. Well, in Norway it´s not very much accepted, very few people use folk music as a starting point for improvisation. If you do, you are not lookked at as a jazz-musician, not as an improviser, because you are not improvising over this American tradition.
I, as a musician, I just have to do it to make good music. And there are also people that like it very much. Generally I think, that it's real vitalizing and may even get some more people to listen to the traditional music like the Hardanger fiddle-music. So it's always both.
Carina: Do you have a sort of philosophy for life?
Karl: That´s a difficult question to answer here on a Tuesday-afternoon in Berlin (laughs). It´s, well ... to try to do what you are best on. And believe in that and work with that without saying that the things that others work on are not worth anything, I mean! But still do what you feel are the most honest and right things to do for yourself as a human being and as an artist.
CD: Karl Seglem - "New North" (Ozella Music/In Akustik OZ 006 CD)
Ozella Music im Internet: www.ozellamusic.com
Fotos: Ketil Jacobsen (1, 3), Oddleiv Apneseth (2, 4)