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Annbjørg Lien turns it all upside down.
Peggy Latkovich sees what falls out of the innovative Norwegian fiddler's bag.

Start out with a razor-sharp Hardanger technique. Add a fearless sense of musical adventure. Top it off with the ability to weave the threads of Norwegian, Celtic, jazz, and avant-garde musics into a wild, dazzling sonic tapestry. Mix these ingredients together and you get Annbjørg Lien.

"I have been able to travel to different countries, learn about different traditions, and just collect everything up in a bag and then turn it upside-down and just use it in my own way."

Lien began playing Hardanger at age 6. Growing up in a musical family in the district of Sunmore on Norway's west coast, she developed an early love of traditional Norwegian music. "Both of my parents loved and played folk music, so I grew up listening to the traditional styles," she says, "My dad played the Hardanger himself, so he was my teacher in the first years. It seemed like a natural thing at home, but in the area there was no tradition. I had to travel to meet people who had the same interests and we did a lot of that." She studied classical violin along with Hardanger, but gave up the former when it became too restricting. "I wanted to dive deeper into the music," she says, "I felt the two styles were kind of closing doors for each other, both technique-wise and how I experienced it by playing, so I stopped the classical and just went on with folk one hundred percent. But I'm very happy today that I had the classical together with the folk, for the technique and for the beauty of the classical music." This classical technique has also enabled her to solo with Norway's major symphony orchestras.

Making music her life's work was a foregone conclusion. "I've been asked before when did I decide to do this for a living, when did I decide to be a musician, and I never decided that. It was just suddenly there and there was no return."

A Lien She is equally at home in folk, jazz, New Age, and stadium-rock idioms. On one of her earliest albums, Annbjørg, she heads a group of Norwegian jazz artists. Subsequent works found her delving more deeply into the folk tradition. Kjellstadslåtter, for example, is a collection of tunes from her home district and she has won numerous national championships in traditional music.

In 1987, she and Arve Moen Bergset, Steinar Ofsdal, and Bjorn Ole Rasch formed the group Bukkene Bruse (Billy Goats Gruff). The group has toured the world, receiving rave reviews wherever they've played. In 1994, they had the double honor of playing for the closing ceremonies of the Lillehammer Olympics and winning a Norwegian Grammy. That same year, her solo work was introduced to North America on Shanachie's Sweet Sunny North compilation.

One of the projects that Lien finds most rewarding is Bukkene Bruse's work with the Norwegian relief organization Redd Barna (Save the Children Foundation.) In 1998, the group was appointed ambassadors for the organization. They made a trip to Mozambique to find out about Redd Barna's work there and to collaborate with local musicians. "We worked with children and they were dancing and singing, so natural," she reminisces, "We [in the North] think too much. Everything is planned; everything is decided. We are trapped by all of the things we have. What's important to us is valueless. They have nothing and they are happy and are dancing from day to day. I think everybody should take a trip like that once a year as a reminder. In a musical way, I was inspired by the freshness." Some of the children's singing can be heard on Lien's latest release Baba Yaga.

Between working with Bukkene Bruse, she has released several solo efforts. Baba Yaga and the tour in support of it were both made possible by a prestigious Norwegian culture grant that she received in 1998. She has an appreciation of the Norwegian government's healthy support of the arts: "I'm able to do concerts and tours because of that. It opens up some doors and you're able to make a living." The grant she received was the first to go to a folk musician. "That was a big victory for folk music in Norway, because it's always gone to rock music or classical or jazz."

cd cover Baba Yaga is a massive work, full of sweeping electronic sounds and tone colors from all over the world. "It's a bigger production," she says, "It's more programmed, more of an electronic expression mixed with acoustic instruments. It has bigger contrasts than the previous ones, contrasts between very light and very dark, from big to small, from drastic to beautiful. It was very inspiring to start to work musically on those kind of big contrasts." The listener will hear a definite Emerson, Lake, and Palmer influence on this one, with its classical gesture mixed with electronic stadium rock. Lien readily admits to this influence. "Keith Emerson and a lot of other musicians have been inspired by Pictures at an Exhibition," she says. One of the movements of Mussorgsky's massive work is based on the fairy tale of Baba Yaga. "Baba Yaga has contrasts in her life, her energy, her being. I researched a lot on the Internet to learn more about Baba Yaga, and I found that she was a perfect kind of character for a more or less a concept album," she says.

She sees this work as a logical progression of where she's been up to now: "One CD was based on the last one and that one on the one before that. It's a process based on what I've done already. This is the album I want to do now, and that's how it is with an album. You never know when you start how it will be, where you are at that year. That trip, that line will change over time compared to what you have experienced between the last album and the new one. That's the beauty of making records. It's kind of a documentation of where you were at that year, musically and in the soul."

Other than ELP, Lien's influences run wide and deep. "I think it's very hard to pick one or two because you get a lot of inspiration without knowing it, just listening to a lot of records, going to a lot of concerts, meeting a lot of people," she says. "It doesn't have to be musicians. It could be just beautiful people you meet on the street or anywhere that you can transcribe into music. I have been able to travel to different countries, learn about different traditions, and just collect everything up in a bag and then turn it upside-down and just use it in my own way."

Process is not as important to Lien as absorbing as much of what's around her as possible by traveling, meeting and playing with other musicians. "I think the important thing is not to think too much, but to go in there and define what exists. I think it could be very dangerous to go in there and analyze it too much," she says, "Without knowing it, a lot of inspiration is going into your body, and you just bring it back home and it's there. So I try to keep it as open as possible and not to try and think too much about what is right and what is wrong and where it all comes from, but just to do music and enjoy it."

at Nordic Roots 2000
photo: Michele Delfino
In January of this year, Lien teamed up with fiddlers Natalie MacMaster of Canada, Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh of Ireland, Catriona MacDonald of Shetland, Liz Carroll and Liz Noel of the U.S. The group, dubbed String Sisters, played an enthusiastically received concert in Glasgow after just a week's rehearsal. "It's a fantastic project," Lien raves, "Catriona MacDonald had this idea and we talked about it for a long time: 'Wouldn't it be fantastic to bring all these fiddle players together from different traditions and see what will happen.' It was a very strong experience, and it's not like a woman's thing actually. It's more like good fiddle players who have their own band and their own thing. We had one week before the gig where we learned each other's tunes and got together to get to know each other. Everybody had such respect for each other." Though other commitments have prevented the women from making the group a permanent entity, all are excited about getting together to tour or record in the future. "We wanted to do it again," she says, "We looked at each other [after the concert] and said 'My God, it's over!' So we definitely want to do it again. There's no actual plan because everybody's involved at this moment very actively in their own projects. But if everybody can do a gig or a concert, it's there, in between projects. It was inspiring for everybody to do it."

She sees herself as part of a movement among Scandinavian musicians who are using traditional music in more avant-garde ways. Bands such as Utla and Bazar Blå are bringing a sort of "new primitive" sound into the fore. "There's definitely a movement. It's kind of a break-out-of-the-box thing," she says. "I think it's important for the folk scene to have purists and it's very important for the folk scene to have the avant-garde people to widen things. One side gives the other side life and it brings up a lot of discussion, which is good. It's much better to disagree than not do anything. I think it's healthy; it makes it alive."

"In Norway, there's never been anything other than the completely traditional. Norwegian tradition moves so slowly that you can have control over it," says Lien. "It's not like Ireland, for example, where all of the bands and the modern musicians and artists have brought the folk music expression in their tunes at an early stage. In Norway, there's never been anybody like that to do crossover things in folk music. I think that's why we have such a unique tradition."

Lien feels blessed to have the rare opportunity to follow her own path: "For me, the most important thing is to have a personal relationship to it and not just copy what the others are doing, but find my own roots. It's so important that you take some chances to keep it alive. I've had beautiful people around me all the way with open arms, saying 'Just do what you want to do.' I feel I've been very lucky." - Peggy Latkovich

Available at cdroots.com
Baba Yaga
Bukkene Bruse: Stone Chair
Felefeber: Norwegian Fiddle Fantasia

Annbjørg Lien's Home Page
Recordings are available from Grappa, Norway and Northside, US
Recordings are also available at cdroots.com

Read more about the music of Norway on RootsWorld

All photos courtesy A. Lien unless noted
Audio © 2000 Grappa Records, used by express permission

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