Any idea of what a stev is?

Here, in Norway, the standard connotation of the word used to be short verses sung at a party, for fun, often with the singer a little drunk. Perhaps mocking someone or something.

But the last couple of years this music has been heard and sung more, also in serious ways, and there is a lot more to this Norwegian folk genre than just party songs. Try this:

This little verse of 4 lines can contain absolutely all sorts of texts, heartbreaking descriptions of how someone left their home for America, never to see it again, beautiful descriptions of nature, love stories, whatever. Mocking verses too.

Two stanzas from Guro Heddelid, a song about a beautiful young girl getting married. Her family name is from Seljord, Telemark:

Guro sat in
her saddle
with a red
skirt on,
The sun shone
at the bridal crown
lighted from afar.
Albunad of scarlet
fastened in
the fair hair
and around
the slender waist
a silver
belt swung.

And silver,
leaf and buttons
shone on her
young bosom.
On the
young cheek
The rose
sprung fresh and warm.
The hair
fell downwards
on the shoulder,
freely, like a stream.
She sat
like a hill birch
standing the
nicest way in the hillside.

Quite something. The rest of the song is about her wedding, and about the guy who did not get her, even if he had danced with her on the grass – every Sunday morning.

Source for this text: Aslak Brekke og visune hans. Jacqueline Pattison Ekgren, Aschehoug 1983. The translation into English is mine.

And musically this is something quite different, you could say. “Mainstream rhythm” in a song or a piece of music in classical Western music is kind of straightforward -fractions, basically, if I’m allowed to put it that simply. 2 beats in a bar, 3, 4, 6, occasionally 5 or 7. Some other variants, and the pulse normally moves ahead rather steadily. But what is this?

Listen to a couple of other stev, sung by contemporary performers in the Norwegian folk tradition:

There are thousands of these songs, which was surprising to discover for me as an inborn Norwegian, too. We never heard any of them at school, although I had a teacher who actually sang part of the Draumkvedet for us, in the 6th grade, a long medieval poem that is sung in the same tradition. It was a completely new experience to me then, as a young piano nerd, musically just about to move from Grieg to Joplin. I have understood that in the countryside, some teachers for instance may get the idea of asking the kids to write a stev at school, which tells me that there is a distance between – to me – suburbian Asker in the 70s and the surrounding parts.

Which is good, and fun.

Jacqueline P. Ekgren is an American singer and musicologist, educated in Vienna and at Stanford. She has been living in Oslo since the 70s, where she also mastered in musicology, beginning her academic voyage in
Norwegian folk music and stev especially with a master’s thesis in 1975.

What has she been up to?

Her major concern with stev has been to describe these songs in musicological terms, because the rhythm especially puzzled her, and other sides of the songs too.

When Jacqueline bumped into this folk music it was normal to thump your feet while singing stev, which still happens, and you can hear it on these recordings. The thing is, it’s not easy to predict where the foot-taps should be, because the “normal” pulse slows so much down you could say it more or less stops. Seemingly as long as the singer likes sometimes. You can normally not do this when performing music, without the whole thing falling apart and becoming unintelligible, unless it is expressly meant to be a halt in the music.

Sometimes the performer of stev add syllables or words too, so that the bars are extended from for instance 3 to 4 or more beats and the bar rhythm is completely crashed. It is more like talking than singing, in a way.

Jacqueline Ekgren filmed some singers doing this repertoire, with the foot-tapping present, and analyzed the material, measured the time between the foot-taps and compared the songs to look for patterns. And there were traces of a system. The first foot-tap of each line almost always formed a shorter time interval than the last one, and there were also tonal patterns that repeated themselves through the stev melodies.

Can we call this “stev rubato”? I believe similar things can be found in other genres of Norwegian folk music, and not only in vocal music. It doesn’t necessarily happen in this exact way, but it somehow feels like something from the same world. Listen to this:

Here, as I said, possibly because the occasion is for listening, not dancing, and because there is only one player, who can do more what he pleases, the fiddler’s way of playing approaches the “stev way”, I think, with stresses, drones and rubati that confuse the rhythm in my ears, makes it into something unusual, even if it is actually a square rhythm underneath, sort of.

In the next example the rhythmical irregularities are not so much in the pulse as in the stresses, with drones on places that confuse the feeling of a regular dance. Still, on this occasion, the piece is danced, and possibly because of this and also because there are several, not one player, this sounds more “regular” to my ears than the other pols.

All this said from the side, as an amateur listener to folk music.

My first musical home town was classical piano-and orchestra-land, Grieg, Mozart etc, and I don’t think you could sing or play quite like this there, at least you’d have to have very good reasons for doing so. Making a rubato is a completely normal thing to do in all music, dragging a steady pulse in different directions, faster and slower, so that it is not completely steady anymore. But here it is done in ways that I don’t think I would buy in Beethoven or Brahms.

There are, of course, rhythmical things even in the classical tradition that puzzle me. Quite a lot of harpsichord players make me pretty uneasy with their way of handling rubato, for instance. Maybe it is something in almost the same vein, I don’t know.

The irregularities in stev lie maybe all in the performance. If you note down the stev, the actual notes, in normal notation, it looks like a straightforward, simple song or a small thing made by some composer.

4 lines in a stanza, simple rhythm. But when performed, it is hardly recognizable because the steady rhythm is gone. It is, as I said, much closer to spoken language, a fact also stressed by the fact that there exists only a very limited number of melodies to the thousands of texts.

If you notate it the “regular” way you have to do violence to a lot of both tonal and rhythmical features, but the sheet music may still work as a plan for the performer, in much the same way as a written pop tune, which is also performed by quite different rules than a piece by Schubert, even if the notation in all cases resemble one another.

There are other irregularities in stev as well. The habit of laying stress on an upbeat or making it a long note instead of a short one is sometimes there, and perhaps this way of doing it are traces of hymns that were sung before the modernizing of church music that went on in the 19thcentury. Who knows. A long upbeat, a halfnote instead of a quarter note, for instance, is regular stuff in the old German hymns, which were also used in Norway before Lindeman and others modernized their rhythm.

There was at a point a discussion about “where is the music?” in Norwegian musicological circles – in the notation, in the head of the composer or the listener, or in the air in the concert hall? It is perhaps a discussion that is interesting to apply to stev performance because the difference between what happens in real life and what it looks like on a “standard” notated version is striking.

The tonality in the recordings of stev I have laid out here is the old way of using natural scales. To my tempered ears it has always sounded…you know, out of tune, which is of course not the case seen from the inside of the music.

Sometimes today, though, the singers have modernized their singing a little on this point, so I believe it sounds more like tempered than completely natural tonality, even if it still fits into a traditional idiom. At least I have heard old recordings sounding quite different, more strange. Possibly modern recordings are influenced by tempered tonality, which is everywhere nowadays.

Some of the stev melodies sound much like Gregorian chant, and there are some church hymns from this repertoire that is still sung in a Norwegian folk style.

The singing of the læstadianere, a Christian layman’s movement in the north, which I have heard and played to myself, is not so far away from the stev style either. The congregation where I worked as an organist in the 80s, on the island of Arnøy, Troms, used to take a good rest after each phrase, and I regularly got comments that I played too fast, with my rhythmically “normal” way of playing.

The stev way of treating time feels to me a little strange, maybe unnatural, and perhaps that is exactly what it isn’t. Music can be many things, and to me, Norwegian folk music is nature taken in more or less unfiltered, or at least not filtered through the intellect, or not in the way I’m used to. The real experience of it came to me for the first time when I heard it outside, on a sunny day at Otta, a really good Harding fiddler whom I have unfortunately forgotten the name of. The music felt like part of nature, hardly as a comment on it, just as natural as the trees or the sky.

Mozart and Grieg, I think, is thought and felt, lived, in a world more on the intellectual side, bodily and any other sides of the music put into ideas, as it were – this music, the stev and the rest, feels to me much more directly ruled by bodily thinking, if that is imaginable.

It seems to me that many people keep the world orderly not mainly by changing their thoughts, but by changing their actions or doing certain things rather than saying or even thinking them. Really new ways of thinking is for some just a nuisance, changing what they actually do is more important. Or keeping their old ways, that’s maybe more common.

If I got it right. Understanding others is pretty difficult sometimes. Some things are normally steady, stable, even guided by steadfast rules in a given cultural context, and other things are variable or left to free choice. The problem arises when something that is the ground under your feet in one culture bumps into the same field in another culture, being in this other culture completely random or moving like a carousel.

The original Norwegian text of Guro Heddelid, in Telemark dialect:

Og Guro sat i salen
med raue stakkar på
og soli skein på kruna
som lyste langt ifrå.
Albunad av skarlagen
i ljose håret hekk
og i kring om granne livet
eit sølvarbelte gjekk.

Og malir, lauv og sylgjur
det skein på unge barm.
Og på dei unge kinni
sprang rosa frisk og varm.
Og håre svang nedyver
på herd som straumen fri.
Ho sat lik li’arbjørki
då ho venast stend i li’.