The Ole Bull Academy: Conserving the Roots

The Ole Bull Academy at Voss is the realisation of Hardanger fiddler Sigbjørn Bernhoft Osa's dream - a centre for teaching Norwegian folk music and dance.

“My Cause in this World is Norwegian Music. I am a Musician. And as such, my People should believe me when I say that I hear a strange, deep Sounding Board tremble in its Breast. My Life's Purpose has been to put Strings on it so that it can speak out, so that its deep Voice can resound through the Temple Hall that it can be played by the Orchestras to create and realise our Art, which can only be raised up on this Foundation ... My Proposal to my Colleagues, the Musicians of Norway, is that we join Hands ... and, subject to mutual Agreement, establish an Academy for Musical Education.”

With these words, the visionary Ole Bull presented his great new cultural policy initiative of the 1860s, to establish an institution to establish an educational institution for Norwegian musicians. It was to take a very long time. Eventually Norway provided tuition in classical music, conservatories and - very much later - a State Academy of Music. The time was not yet ripe to discuss Norwegian folk music in connection with the Academy. But this is what Ole Bull had imagined as the source of inspiration for orchestral works with a national character, in the same way as those he knew from various countries in Europe, and as he himself had described his fatherland in music on his concert tours abroad.

When Sigbjørn Bernhoft Osa took the initiative to found an academy for Norwegian folk music and folk dance, the name was a foregone conclusion: the Ole Bull Academy. The location was equally obvious: Voss, a village with rich folk music traditions and home to the master fiddler himself.

As a popular, rhetorically gifted artist, Osa achieved plenty of publicity for his idea when he presented it in 1975. More than ever, there was a need for a bulwark of this type to protect the Norwegian cultural heritage. Strengthening this bulwark was such a serious, important task that it could not be left to private idealists. The authorities were equally responsible. The Minister of Education and Church Affairs understood this when Bernhoft Osa turned up in the Ministry with his plan. Regional development was a fashionable concept at the time. Many new factories and enterprises in rural areas were receiving establishment grants and far from all of them proved viable. The Ole Bull Academy, on the other hand, was cultural regional development with a future. The State Academy of Music and the other teaching institutions, who were to be the primary users of the Academy, also approved. The enthusiasts at Voss provided a new, unconventional supplement to the general educational services on offer.

The Academy started operations in 1977 but could not afford permanent staff for the first ten years. The board members usually worked free of charge and even had to provide personal guarantees for bank loans when the coffers were empty and they had to wait a few months for government, county and municipal grants. Two enthusiasts who particularly helped Osa with the administrative and practical tasks were Jostein Mæland, now the Academy's principal and Arnfinn Kyte, Chairman of the Board. With musical director Nils Økland, they are in charge of day to day operations.

After many years in rented accommodation, two years ago the Ole Bull Academy was able to take over the Kringsjå guest house, which is centrally located above Vangen, a short distance from the station. The institution has added a new building so that all the activities are gathered under one roof, with the obvious administrative and practical advantages this entails. The concert hall is reminiscent of a Hardanger fiddle: the walls are panelled in black alder, which is also common in Hardanger fiddles. Along the walls are borders similar to the mother-of-pearl decoration on the neck of the fiddle. In addition to this beautiful Osa Hall, which can seat 150, there are classrooms, a library, an office, a canteen and rooms for 37 guests. Kringsjå has therefore become a well-developed, practical course centre.

Some people believed that when Sigbjørn wanted to gather all the budding folk musicians in his school this might result in “Osa music everywhere". But Osa never imposed limitations on the fiddlers; he did not want to promote a uniform style or expression. He allowed full freedom in matters of interpretation. The most important thing was for the pupil to learn a good technique, to “keep his tools in order,” as he called it. Sigbjørn Bernhoft Osa had been taught to play the fiddle by his father before studying classical violin in Oslo. The fiddler tradition was the foundation for his knowledge and the basis for his ability to fly high and free.

Learning through practical participation is therefore the most typical characteristic of the traditional way of learning to play the fiddle. In the old fiddle schools, teacher and pupil sat side by side. The pupil learned the music by watching the hand position, fingers, bowing, use of the feet, by hearing the ornaments, melodic lines, time and rhythm of the strings and bow, and by feeling the dynamic, rhythmical intensity of the tunes. With years of training and practical use, the small nuances of playing are polished and fixed as unique characteristics of the individual fiddler.

You can never properly pass on this kind of experience through written music. Although the transcription may be exact and additional descriptive text is included, an abstract image can never replace the old fiddle school. Some kinds of knowledge are impossible to verbalise and can only be transferred directly from master to pupil. “Direct experience is the best method of passing on the unique and idiomatic in music and dance,” says Gunnar Stubseid, himself a fiddler and former music director of the Academy.

The instructors are among the best performers of instrumental and vocal folk music and dance in the country. The traditional material is presented in a way that suits the individual performer. The goal is for the pupils themselves to try to play slåtter on the Hardanger fiddle or an ordinary violin, or for vocalists to sing or chant ballads, folk songs, bånsullar and stev. They learn in the traditional way: the students learn the slåtter “through their fingers”. The singers and dancers learn by copying. Many students who know all about all kinds of music on offer through the contemporary media prove to have no relationship whatever with the old musical traditions. When you experience this, you understand the extent to which folk music has been neglected in Norwegian schools.

From the first, there was considerable emphasis on the social aspect of the courses. The meeting between folk musicians and students must not be limited to school hours. In the evenings they socialise, with focus on Norwegian folk music and folk dancing. This has created an environment where folk music is passed on in a natural way, at least as natural as possible within a given context.

It was important for the realisation of the academy's ideals that the institution should be separate from the college environment of the big towns and come out into the open landscape, to an original folk music environment run by people who had themselves grown up in these surroundings. The students notice that the people they meet here have deep roots in tradition. This isn't something that can be added afterwards. In the last eighteen years, the Academy has constantly developed and varied its curriculum. It now offers thirty different courses and teaches 700 students every year. Classically trained students and musicians find something new and are inspired: “We'll be back, because this was great fun.”

In addition to the fixed courses, the Academy is introducing an educational innovation. In the 1996 budget, the Storting has promised an additional half million kroner for the Ole Bull Academy to start a fiddler's school, or master class. This will provide for more individual tuition than has so far been possible. The plan is for a two-year course for folk musicians who have achieved a high standard, allowing them to pursue in-depth studies in their own tradition. The course is also intended to teach performers about the most important practical aspects of contemporary musical life so that they can earn a living as musicians. Most of the course will be devoted to individual master classes. Several of the most prominent performers and bearers of tradition will be associated with this course, which will naturally also include archive studies and active participation in musical events, contests and festivals.

Folk music is the part of the Norwegian cultural heritage that has been best preserved. It has managed to adapt to modern society and has the ability to vary and renew itself, alone or in combination with other forms of music. These are values our nation must conserve.

The Voss academy is the only institution that has the status of an educational institution for folk music that is not administratively or professionally linked to a classical music institution. It therefore has the freedom to use teachers with no formal education. But the knowledge and the expertise are there - and the environment.

Students come from all over the country to attend courses, but the Academy goes on tour too. Last autumn it arranged a course at Valle in Setesdal for fifty students from Agder Regional College. A course in Målselv was so successful that the Academy will be arranging a new course there this year. These are ripple effects at several levels, including the Osa Festival, an annual event in mid-October which fosters interesting meetings between foreign and Norwegian folk musicians. It includes exciting classical concerts, too. Last year, Yuri Bashmet came with a chamber orchestra. The most recent guests were the Swedish Radio Choir.

The idea of an academy to conserve national folk music traditions arouses interest abroad too. Denmark is looking for a model for a similar institution and Swedish enthusiasts are thinking along the same lines. The Baltic countries are also interested. Visitors from Russia and the UK have been to Voss and studied the scheme. However, it is clear that folk music has a stronger position in Norway than in most other European countries. For a long time, Norway was isolated at the periphery of Europe and separated from the cultural movements that have prevailed on the continent for hundreds of years. This is probably part of the reason why Norwegian folk music has retained its diversity and individuality right up to the present day.

Translation: Virginia Siger ©
Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.4 - 1996 No. 1
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