seljefløyte is a Norwegian flute made from willow and Hans Fredrik Jacobsen reckons his latest album Svadilja is the first ever to solely feature the instrument in its traditional form. Years ago on a trip to Norway I was considering buying a seljefløyte and went into a music shop to see if they sold such a thing. They didn't and my enquiry was met with a look of bemusement and I was asked why I didn't just make my own. It turns out you can buy them but they are mostly made from plastic to give them a greater longevity, albeit then covered with willow bark to give them a look of authenticity. Jacobsen prefers to make his own seljefløyter, in the traditional way. “One of the things I love doing most is whittling a willow pipe. This is something I do every spring, when nature is awakening with new life, colours are appearing, sap is rising in the trees, birds are singing and the world is a better place.”
Svadilja is a collection of solo pieces which Hans Fredrik Jacobsen chose to record in the open air, travelling to Krogskogen, a forest not too far from Oslo where sound recordist for the project, Audun Strype, has a cabin. Having been warned that the willow shoots required to make a new instrument may have been consumed by the local population of moose, Jacobsen brought with him some freshly-made flutes stored in a pipe of water. Without such care a seljefløyte will have a very short shelf life. The value of recording on location was that all the tracks have a background of the sounds of the forest: the wind in the trees, insects and, in particular, a chorus of birdsong. With the help of Helge Kvam, a leading authority on Norwegian birdsong, a section of the sleeve notes lists twenty-one different bird species which can be heard in the recordings, giving timings of when they make their first appearances so they may be identified.
The pieces on the album include a number of tunes which have become part of the seljefløyte repertoire as played by luminaries such as Eivind Groven and Marius Nytrøen, plus original compositions and improvisations from Jacobsen himself and a tune called “Kom Mai”, adapted from a melody by Wolfgang Mozart, quite a challenge on such a humble instrument. The seljefløyte is much simpler than most flutes, having no finger holes and operated purely by opening and closing one end with a finger and the use of breath control. This clearly limits the melodic possibilities but played by someone as adept as Hans Fredrik Jacobsen it offers enough to maintain musical interest, sometimes underpinned by his foot stamping a rhythmic pulse.
The seljefløyte has a penetrating yet warm pleasant sound but its melodic and tonal range being limited, the forest sounds which accompany it brings variety to the listening experience as well as providing an appropriate context. The album ends with an ornithological bonus, when, in common with all Heilo releases, things draw to a close with the plaintive call of a golden plover (heilo in Norwegian), for once sounding completely at home.
Hans Fredrik Jacobsen shows you how to make your own willow flute.