It was during the folk movement of the 1970s that Swiss musicians began engaging intensively with their traditional musical heritage; this trend became increasingly pronounced during the 1990s. Their starting point was a desire to distance themselves from the folksy "Ländlermusik" that was much propagated by radio and TV, but which they looked down upon as conservative, and whose popularity was also declining rapidly at the time. The delight in renewal that characterised this movement is something that has continued unbroken to this day. These developments have also been partly responsible for the fact that traditional folk music has also begun to enjoy a greater degree of acceptance.
The most influential figures in this development included Dani Häusler (*1974) on the clarinet, and Markus Flückiger (*1969), who plays the schwyzerörgeli (an indigenous Swiss type of accordion). They and several others laid down a marker that had considerable consequences. These young musicians wanted to commit unambiguously to Swiss music – unlike the more ambiguous folk musicians of the 1970s and 1980s – and they liberated themselves from the cosy world of common or garden folk music. They deconstructed it, and took on influences from other musical styles that had up to now had no contact whatsoever with Ländlermusik. The newly formed group Pareglish mixed Ländlermusik with klezmer, rock and electronic material – in other words, pretty much everything that was available and that could be danced to. This would not have been unusual in and of itself, were it not for the fact that Ländlermusik, which was the starting point of these crossover genres, is particularly unsuited to such purposes. Pareglish only lasted for five years, but the quartet Hujässler that Flückiger and Hässler set up in 1998 has meanwhile become an institution on the Swiss music scene.
This ensemble was of fundamental importance for the creation of the "new Swiss folk music". It openly acknowledges its heritage, and does not (mis-)use folk music as a source of material for other concepts. Several factors came together here. The musical approach adopted by Dani Häusler and Markus Flückiger is free of any typical topics, folk ideologies or commercial aspects. They belong to a generation that is burdened neither by the politics of the 1968 generation, nor the mustiness of the commercial folk music styles popularised in Switzerland and elsewhere by the German-language TV entertainment programme Musikantenstadl. Their playing abilities also put everyone else to shame who had hitherto been involved in folk music. They were capable of performing at the highest level in other musical genres, too – something that was completely new. But they are meanwhile not alone in this.
Hanny Christen: Historical folk music as a catalyst in the present
An important landmark in the folk music renewal was the Hanny Christen Collection, which was transcribed by the cellist and composer Fabian Müller (*1964) and friends over a period of ten years, and published in 2002. This unique anthology of over 12,000 folk melodies from 1800 to 1940 was collated by the Basel ethnomusicologist Hanny Christen between 1940 and 1960. Publishing this collection offered everyone an opportunity to get a comprehensive view of Swiss folk music behind what had hitherto been a uniform façade. Its ten volumes became a unique window onto an almost unknown musical past, and many young groups on today’s new folk music scene make use of it. Fabian Müller is a composer of contemporary ("classical") music, but is also the founding director of the music publishing company Mülirad, and played a crucial role in founding the Altdorf House of Folk Music that has become a central point of contact, a training institute, and an all-round motor for the development of new folk music in Switzerland. Müller was also responsible for setting up the group Helvetic Fiddlers, together with Andreas Gabriel (*1982), a violinist who got his classical training in Lucerne. They were keen to reinvigorate the folk string music that had been almost forgotten in Switzerland outside Canton Appenzell. The Hanny Christen Collection made clear just how widespread the violin must have been as an instrument for dance music in Switzerland. It was often joined by a self-built basset whose tuning was situated somewhere between the cello and the double bass. Müller and Gabriel do not simply want to incorporate playing techniques from other fiddle traditions in Swiss folk music, and instead have sought to achieve a specifically "Swiss tone" in their playing.
In connection with the publication of the Hanny Christen Collection, a six-person ensemble was also set up in 2002 called Hanneli-Musig. It was perhaps not as wild and cavalier as Pareglish had been back in the day, but it brought together Dani Häusler, Fabian Müller and other representatives of very different approaches to the new folk music. These included the multi-instrumentalist Ueli Moser (*1944), who had been engaging intensively with a new kind of Ländlermusik from an early date, long before most of the other Hanneli-Musig musicians had been born. One of them, Johannes Schmid-Kunz (who plays violin and recorder) is also known as the managing director of the Swiss National Costume Association and is a busy music manager in the new folk music sector.
Markus Flückiger later became active in yet another melting pot – the ensemble Max Lässer und das Überlandorchester (literally: Max Lässer and the overland orchestra) run by the guitarist Max Lässer (*1950), a musician who had worked with big names on the popular scene such as Stephan Eicher, Andreas Vollenweider and Hubert von Goisern. Max Lässer founded his Überlandorchester in 2001. It was a large-scale ensemble very open to all kinds of content, and it dabbled in jazz, folk and world music without ever really leaving the Ländlermusik scene. Its sometime members also included the artist-cum-electro-mouth harp player Anton Bruhin (*1949) and the Appenzell dulcimer player Töbi Tobler (*1953), who had been playing new folk music even before the concept had even been coined. It was in 1981 – the year that NASA first flew to the International Space Station – that Tobler first worked with the bassist Ficht Tanner under the banner of Appenzeller Space Schöttl, playing free improvisations that used typical material from the Appenzell folk music repertoire. They caused quite a stir when they performed at the Zurich Jazz Festival in 1983.
Influences from Appenzell
Here, we have to mention the special role of Appenzell in Swiss folk music. This is because the music of Eastern Switzerland – neighbouring the Austrian state of Vorarlberg – is home to what is undoubtedly one of the most interesting music traditions of the whole Alpine region. Until well into the 18th century, dance music was accompanied in Appenzell by a duo of violin and dulcimer. Later, the double bass was added. By the end of the 19th century, this had evolved into a string ensemble comprising first and second violins, cello, double bass and dulcimer. Even today, the stylistic influence of Austrian music remains unmistakeable, especially that of Viennese salon music. But the accordion did not fail to make headway on the Appenzell scene, and in the1950s and 1960s, numerous groups used it in an effort to keep up with the musical fashions of the day.
In 1999, the admittedly odd-sounding ensemble New Original Appenzell String Music Project was founded by Töbi Tobler on dulcimer, the classical/experimental violinist Paul Giger (*1952), the yodeller/violinist Noldi Alder (*1953, from the musical dynasty of the Alder family), the contemporary composer and cellist Fabian Müller, and the classically trained Argentinian double bass player Francisco Obieta. They used material that had been handed down and took it on grandiose excursions into archaically reductionist spheres of natural scales. But they also demonstrated a lot of trust in Appenzell folk music, which is in any case unique in the Alpine region. The music they added – both "found" and newly created – was typically Swiss; but it all fitted perfectly together. It was as if this music had mutated and undergone historical distortions, and had thereby opened up a long-forgotten door. The shifting notes of natural scales in the strings imitate the solo singing of traditional "Ruggerseli" and "Zäuerli", and it is as if Alpine landscapes open up before our ears; but then at the end, surprisingly, we find ourselves back on the dance floors of Appenzell peasant music.
The initiator of this new string music project grew up in an Appenzell music dynasty that has remained unbroken for 125 years: the violinist, dulcimer player and singer Noldi Alder. He was the co-founder of the ensemble Kapelle Alderbuebe and completed his classical violin studies at a rather late date. After being active in traditional folk music for many years, he became more and more interested in older forms of Appenzell music, and thereby provided an important stimulus for the renewal of Swiss folk music.
The Geschwister Küng ("Küng siblings") were also hunting for new possibilities for performing traditional material. They have stayed much closer to their traditions than Noldi Alder, playing in the folk costumes that Noldi has long rejected, and they are dedicated to a more "cultivated" form of Appenzell string music, though with unusual sounds coming time and again to the surface.
The yodelling discourse
Yodelling has a special status in Swiss folk music, and has been regulated by the Swiss Yodelling Association for over 100 years. But this wordless form of singing allows for very different forms of expression, as we can hear from the yodeller Nadja Räss (*1979), the vocal acrobatics of Christian Zehnder (*1961), the highly versatile Barbara Berger (*1970) and Erika Stucky (*1962), who is generally regarded as a jazz singer.
Nadja Räss is classically trained, and is judged to be one of the most versatile yodellers of the younger generation. She is as happy in art music as in folk music, which she unfolds as if from the inside out. She engages with the most typical aspects of folk heritage, while at the same time displaying a great degree of inquisitiveness about what lies behind the immutable rules of the Swiss Yodelling Association. She performs new compositions – most of which are her own – and also practises all styles and types of Swiss natural yodelling and yodelling songs. She unearths these in the course of her extensive researches, and then arranges them for performance. They sound both vibrant and at times even experimental. Remarkably, Nadja Räss always performs in traditional costume. In 2018, she succeeded Dani Häusler as the head of the folk music programme at Lucerne University.
The charismatic musician Christian Zehnder comes from Basel, and studied vocal pedagogy before learning overtone singing, body-voice techniques and various yodelling techniques too. In 1996, he founded the Duo Stimmhorn (literally, "tuning horn") together with the alphorn player Balthasar Streiff (*1963) from Basel. At first, they were better known abroad than at home, though they offered yet another aspect of acoustic Alpine landscapes. Everywhere in their music we hear sounds and soupçons, notes and noises that somehow awaken involuntary associations with the Alps, even though we have never heard them before. Zehnder has also played with such sonic connotations in his subsequent projects. His erstwhile partner Balthasar Streiff has meanwhile enjoyed much success with the ensemble Hornroh. Streiff’s quartet of alphorns and büchel (a trumpet-like relative of the alphorn) explores musical regions ranging from folk-music idioms to new music.
If Christian Zehnder has already brought us to the boundaries of "pure" folk music, we definitely leave that perspective behind us with the performer, singer and accordionist Erika Stucky. Her origins are in Canton Valais, though she was born in San Francisco. She plays around with many hackneyed ideas taken from traditional acoustic Alpine material, but with her refreshing stage presence – surrounded as she is by first-class jazz musicians – she is really at home in a clever, cabaret-like, fun-filled jazz. This isn’t simply an effort to build bridges between jazz and folk. But we can nevertheless categorise Erika Stücky as belonging to the new folk music context, and she has meanwhile become one of Switzerland’s internationally most successful musicians.
Jazz and folk – or vice versa
The jazz trumpeter Hans Kennel (*1936) was very successful in the 1960s, and in 1982 he and his band Alpine Jazz Herd took their first steps towards a contemporary Alpine music. Theirs was very much a jazz perspective, however. When he co-founded the alphorn quartet Mytha in 1990, Kennel had advanced so far into folk music that he now became a catalyst for further developments in the field. He was also responsible for the alphorn being played more and more by jazz musicians. In this regard, his collaboration with the singer Betty Legler (*1961), the jazz composer and improvisor Christoph Baumann (*1954) and the inventive flautist Matthias Ziegler (*1955) is particularly noteworthy. In 2002, they released their successful collective composition Chriesibaum im Jahresring ("Cherry tree in the ring of years"), which they termed a "hike through Alpine sound worlds". Kennel prompted even more interest when he discovered the Schönbächler siblings, who under the name s’Heuis sang songs in the style of the yodellers from the remote Muotha Valley in Central Switzerland.
Albin Brun (*1959) from Lucerne comes originally from the folk movement, and found his way to the new folk music via jazz. Together with the adept, versatile accordionist Patricia Draeger, he is very busy in all kinds of projects – his own and those of others. He was recently acclaimed for his duo with the young cellist and accordionist Kristina Brunner (*1993).
Looking forwards in the rear-view mirror
The group Doppelbock and their project eCHo, led by the multi-instrumentalist Dide Marfurt (*1957), have become another opportunity for many excellent musicians to come together. Doppelbock was founded in 2000 and is somewhat more open to outside influences; it’s folksier than others, and yet very much in tune with Swiss folk music. Their guest list reads like a Who’s Who of the new Swiss folk music scene. Their basic formation includes the schwyzerörgeli player Simon Dettwiler (*1976), who is otherwise at home in the ensemble Pflanzplätz in which the accordionist Thomas Aeschbacher (*1966) also plays. He in turn often plays together with his father Werner Aeschbacher (*1945). One permanent guest with Doppelbock is the eccentric actress, yodeller/violinist Christine Lauterburg (*1956). Her style is often more associative than strictly traditional, but she employs her refreshing yodelling technique for her own unique sound spaces that are often pop-like and groovy in mood.
The group Landstreichmusik, led by the violinist Matthias Lincke (*1974), is almost identical to Doppelbock in its personnel. Like Andreas Gabriel, Lincke has made a considerable contribution to introducing the violin to (new) Swiss folk music. The neck zither is another instrument that has been reinvigorated by this scene – with Lorenz Mühlemann and Thomas Keller two of the performers who have made the biggest contribution.
All these musicians seek inspiration in the past for a music of today. The encrustations of a folk music that is regimented, commercialised, instrumentalised – or merely simply sleepy – have been broken away. In their group Tritonus, founded in 1985, Urs Klauser and his colleagues went on explorations into earlier times when folk music as we understand it perhaps did not yet exist. Together with the instrument builder Beat Wolf from Schaffhausen, he embarked on a meticulously researched, at times highly speculative engagement with pre-Romantic folk music – a music about which we still know very little today.
Rhaeto-Romanic special paths
The music of the Rhaeto-Romanic linguistic region of Canton Graubünden developed a dynamic all of its own. It is the home of Corin Curschellas (*1956), who sings in her native tongue of Rumansh – Switzerland’s fourth national language. She is a restless artist who has performed with many different ensembles and in many different projects; hardly anyone in Switzerland has enjoyed a more extensive international network in the worlds of both theatre and jazz, and she herself lived abroad for many years. All these friendships and contacts have had an impact on her unique approach to Alpine issues. The music of Graubünden is also central to the work of the clarinettist Domenic Janett (*1949) and his group Ils Fränzlis da Tschlin, who prove that this large mountainous canton in eastern Switzerland offers its own special colours in the spectrum of Swiss folk music. The Fränzlis da Tschlin have meanwhile undergone a remarkable transformation, with their original all-male line-up becoming a family band dominated by its younger, female members – though it has remained as active and successful as ever.
Most of the exponents of the new Swiss folk music were all born in the 1950s and ’60s. But the scene has long become home to a new generation of musicians, who are proving that the "new Swiss folk music" was not a brief episode, but a development that offers great potential for the years to come. The most prominent of these recent innovators include the schwyzerörgeli player Marcel Oetiker (*1979) and the violinist Andreas Gabriel (*1982). Andi Gabriel is a member of the group Ambäck, along with Markus Flückiger and the bass player Pirmin Huber (*1987), who like him studied in Lucerne. They have been enjoying much success, and in many respects they offer a quintessence of what has been happening in the new Ländlermusik of recent decades. The University of Lucerne has been producing highly successful graduates such as the dulcimer player Christoph Pfändler (*1992), the violinist Maria Gehrig (*1988), her brother, the accordionist Fränggi Gehrig (*1986), and Kristina Brunner (1993), who plays with Albin Brun, as already mentioned here.
The prime motor for these developments is undoubtedly the folk music study programme that was set up in 2006 at the Lucerne School of Music (part of the University of Lucerne). It has already brought forth a considerable number of excellent graduates who have been very much influenced by many of the musicians mentioned here – for the simple reason that they are on the teaching staff at Lucerne. The most notable of these is Markus Flückiger, who has had a greater impact than anyone on the current folk music repertoire.
Venues for new folk music
The new folk music movement has also prompted the emergence of new festivals for its performance. Altdorf in Canton Uri was the first place to get wind of what was happening, and so set up a new festival in 1999 entitled Alpentöne ("Sounds of the Alps"). It focussed on contemporary music with an explicit connection to the Alpine region and the Alps, and became pretty much the prototype for a new type of festival. It was initially curated by Mathias Rüegg, the sometime director of the Vienna Art Orchestra. Alpentöne takes place over three days every two years, with over 50 ensembles participating. The new folk music is just one of many possible musical depictions of the Alps that find their way onto the concert podiums of Altdorf.
Other festivals with a similar focus include the Klangfestival Toggenburg ("Sound festival Toggenburg"), which was founded by Peter Roth and will be directed by Christian Zehnder as of 2020. It has a keen interest in the natural tunings found in the folk music of Eastern Switzerland. The Volkskulturfest Obwald ("People’s cultural festival Obwald") is very different, for it offers drastically contrasting cultures. There, you can hear a monastery choir from Bhutan alongside local traditional folk ensembles.
Another important festival is the Stubete am See ("folk jam session by the lake") in Zurich, founded by Florian Walser (*1965), a clarinettist in the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra who has made a major contribution to reinvigorating historical folk music as a member of the "farmers’ music" ensembles D’Sagemattler and eifachs.ch. The Stubete am See commissions numerous works and includes concerts with large ensembles such as the Ländlerorchester, thereby also contributing to exploring the boundaries of folk music.
Further festivals and concert series have sprung up since – such as the Heiden Festival, the Alpenklang Festival for New Folk Music in Bern, the Volksmusig im Volkshuus series in Zurich, the Stubete in der Markthalle in Basle, and the Pöstli Stubete in the "Old Post" Restaurant in Aeugstertal, to name but a few.
An ongoing story
The new folk music in Switzerland has meanwhile become so established that the very name of it has arguably become almost obsolete (though it has in any case long been rejected by many musicians). This name assumes a degree of difference that no longer exists with any clarity in the real world of music. As in all other spheres of music, the spectrum of possibilities in folk music has been vastly expanded – which all in all suggests a healthy future for the "new folk music" in Switzerland.