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New Classical Tracks: Danish String Quartet is fine with folk music

The Danish String Quartet includes, from left, Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen, Frederik Oland, Asbjorn Norgaard and Fredrik Schoyen Sjolin. Caroline Bittencourt
4min 59sec : New Classical Tracks: Danish String Quartet
29min 35sec : New Classical Tracks: Danish String Quartet (extended)

Danish String Quartet: Last Leaf (ECM)

They met at music summer camp in Denmark when they were just kids. That's when violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen and violist Asbjorn Norgaad started to explore music for string quartets. They also became lifelong friends who love making music together as founding members of the Danish String Quartet.

What sets them apart? Their heartfelt approach, the natural grittiness of their performance?

Here's what Norgaad thinks: "If there is anything that sets us apart, it's mostly in our story. Because I think many chamber ensembles they're often a product of something in music academy that maybe people create a group to have a career; they do it kind of later in life. For us, the string quartet came before us actually deciding to become professional musicians. So it's so ingrained in our personal history, as well, that the way we learned individually to play our instruments was very kind of intertwined with creating the quartet."

The other thing that's ingrained in these musicians, is Nordic folk music. They recently released their second recording of Nordic and other folk tunes arranged by the members of the group. It's titled, Last Leaf.

Rune, how did you decide to put together this collection of Nordic folk tunes?

"With the folk music, we simply had to kind of figure out which tunes will sound best for string quartet. We made actually more arrangements than we could use basically, so we discarded a few of them, so now I think we've found the 16 best tunes that we could from the Nordic countries."

Let's talk about the title of this recording. It's also based on one of the songs that appears on this release. It's not the title of that song, though. Tell me a little about the story behind Last Leaf.

"We have a track on the recording that is called 'Dromte mig en drom.' And that is the oldest known tune that we know of in Scandinavia, I believe. And it's a melody that was written down in a set of laws written by the Danish King Valdemar the Victorious in the beginning of the 13th century. I think it was written down from 1200 to 1216, or something like that. And that was actually the first real set of laws introduced to the Danish kingdom in that way. And on the last page, on the last leaf, of this set of laws there is a melody written down.

"And you know it's very simply notated. It doesn't look like the notation we have today. So there's only four lines and basically some ink dots kind of marking where the notes are. And every Danish person knows this melody because it has been used by the Danish Radio for many, many years as like a melody between shows, and it's a very, very beautiful melody. And the text for this melody is actually something about righteousness and that everybody should be treated fair and stuff like that. So, it also has a quite beautiful message."

Asbjorn, did you make any interesting discoveries as you were researching the pieces for this collection?

"At one level, folk music is a very local thing. It's the thing that you go to your local pub or whatever and you play there. But it's also global. It's the same melodies that are flowing everywhere. And I think that's kind of mind blowing when we are dealing with something that we think is so Danish and so local. And, actually it's a beautiful thing that's kind of uniting music lovers all over and has been doing it for hundreds of years."

To hear the rest of my conversation with the Danish String Quartet, click on the extended interview above, or download the extended podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

Resources

Danish String Quartet (official site)
Danish String Quartet: Last Leaf (ECM site)
Danish String Quartet: Last Leaf (Amazon)