Folk music today is much freer than it used to be

Festivals

A conversation with Florian Walser, the founding director of the Zurich Festival Stubete am See.

Johannes Rühl - 2020-09-11
Folk music today is much freer than it used to be - Thomas Aeschbacher & Traktorkestra - Stubete am See ©Johannes Rühl
Thomas Aeschbacher & Traktorkestra - Stubete am See ©Johannes Rühl

What is tradition?

Florian Walser: It’s what emerges in the place I live, it’s the music that is cultivated here and has been handed down here. Everything that surrounds me has an impact on this tradition and thus on my music. That’s what tradition means to me. 

And what is folk music? 

Folk music is dance music. 

Is every type of folk music dance music?

In my opinion: yes. We know that the concept of “folk music” is problematic, and I personally find the concept of “dance music” much better. It’s a kind of music that is rhythmically designed so you can dance to it. 

Is there a folk music that isn’t dance music?

Of course, like “Zäuerli” yodelling. But in Switzerland, there’s hardly any folk music that isn’t danceable. 

What’s the “new Swiss folk music” still got in common with “folk music”? After all, hardly anyone ever dances to it.

That’s because dancing to this music has gone out of fashion. And yet you could dance to most of this music. At the Stubete am See festival, for example, we’re taking up this idea again with our “Tanzbühne”, our “dance floor”. We also play new music there. And even if it’s new, this music has to be simple and recognisable enough for you to dance to it, just like in earlier times.

Hasn’t folk music got more to do with social stratification?

I don’t think so. I think folk music has always transcended social classes. This music always needed educated people for it to be handed down, as it had to be notated. Others then played it. I don’t think that it was ever really restricted to one social class. That seems to me to be an erroneous notion. And the common description of small-scale Swiss wind music as “peasant music” is actually misleading. 
Today, we have an overview of music that reaches back to about 1750, which is the period from which we have the first written sources. There’ve always been people who engaged with folk music, in all kinds of ways. There are enough examples of “composed” folk music being adopted in the traditional repertoire. And the same musicians naturally played notated music in the churches. 

But there is a definition of folk music that suggests it must have been an oral tradition.

That might have applied at a time when musicians couldn’t read notation. But as soon as they started to write things down, that paradigm no longer applied. There has always been a certain degree of orality. But all the same, a lot was written down, and that sheet music and those manuscript books were guarded over like treasure. The whole boom in the new folk music has been founded on older forms of folk music, and it would not have been possible without these written sources.

What were your reasons for founding the Stubete am See festival?

My activities in the Zurich Tonhalle meant that I knew the premises very well. In earlier times, the Tonhalle was used for very different purposes – such as before 1939, which was when the Kongresshaus was built. They often played popular music before concerts – either inside the restaurant or outside in the garden. It always bothered me that these premises are only used for elitist purposes today. That was the main reason why I wanted to bring folk music back into these spaces. In 2006, when we set up the festival with the help of the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia, the “new folk music” was just beginning to boom. I’m not sure whether I would give the festival the subtitle “new folk music” today. 

Stubete am See 2018

 

Is Zurich an authentic venue for folk music? This music tends to be associated with a rural environment. Why should the most important festival for innovative folk music be held in Switzerland’s biggest metropolis?

Zurich is the place where I work, and it was crucial to me to reintegrate folk music in an urban context. The site of the festival is also historically motivated, because it was in Zurich that “Ländlermusik” began to spread out across the country in its heyday, back in the 1930s. It’s also very important to me to break down the boundaries between different genres in the Zurich Tonhalle, and to reintroduce into its concert spaces the self-same “simple” music that is actually the basis of our “classical” music. And as far as Zurich is concerned, we’re not the only ones. A few years ago, the series Volksmusig im Volkshuus was created in the Volkshaus here, which also features new folk music.

But Ländlermusik was for many years the core element of Swiss folk music. Why aren’t you so interested in it?

Because at some point it became boring. That epoch lasted for over 50 years. It lasted an extremely long time and is still continuing. That would be fine, if anything else had been visible alongside it. But everything else that existed was simply forgotten.

You mean the music that existed before the accordion began to appear in folk ensembles?

Yes. It used to be mostly string music, often in mixed ensembles. The spectrum of instruments employed was much broader, with the accompaniment spread across several instruments, not just given to one or two “schwyzerörgeli”. This greater variety of instruments that was the norm in earlier times helped to give the music more colour and made it subtler. One typical aspect of Ländlermusik is that the melody is varied virtuosically, but the music always remains strictly triadic. Given the instruments it employs, it just becomes boring after a while. 

Is the new folk music bringing back that former variety?

Yes, I think it is. This new music also incorporates time-honoured, traditional music – music that has emerged once again on the basis of research. Such research projects are important to me because we in German Switzerland completely forgot our roots in the 20th century. It is at present a defining characteristic of the new Swiss folk music that it has one foot in the folk music of the 19th century, and the other in a contemporary view of tradition.

Folk musicians claim to be cultivating a very old tradition that has existed since time immemorial. How is traditional music reacting to this paradigm shift? The new folk music is opening things up. What influence does the new folk music have on traditional folk music?

It seems to me that it is having an ever bigger influence. It is becoming ever more obvious that those who are working in the new folk music don’t just ignore tradition and reject everything that’s old. On the contrary – all the “new” folk musicians today refer explicitly to their appreciation of tradition. And that goes down well on the traditional scene. In this regard, I believe that the people who play traditionally have lost a bit of their fear of these technically proficient musicians who’ve been through the tertiary system. Both sides even allow themselves to be influenced by each other. You can even see that already on Swiss TV. Just consider the last edition of the Swiss TV production Viva Volksmusik with Nicolas Senn, that behemoth of Saturday evening viewing. These programmes demonstrate very clearly how much the renewal movement has achieved. Suddenly, a lot of new folk music is appearing on TV, as if it were completely normal. Twenty years ago, there was nothing like it in this form. I think Nicolas Senn and his team are doing important, exceptional work.

 

Has the new folk music blurred the local differences that used to be so pronounced?

Not at all! Just listen to a composition by Albin Brun. His music sounds incredibly typical of Central Switzerland. I think that these young people are also moving in the same circles where they came from, and where they received their musical socialisation. Of course, external influences are also a big help in fermenting new things. 

Are there enough young musicians and new ensembles for a festival as big as Stubete am See to be held every two years?

We have 32 slots on our programme, and I am able to fill them without any problems, every time. And it’s getting easier all the time. More and more people are engaging really intensively with folk music. It was different for my generation. I made a huge detour around this music until I was twenty, even though it was something that I actually lacked – a kind of music from my own environment, from my own country. I think that’s also why many musicians today still have an inner need to play this music. 

What exactly is so appealing about this music? After all, Swiss folk music hardly has a “groove” like Irish folk music. 

It’s got something to do with the fact that we’ve overcome the monotony of the TV-typical, mainstream Ländlermusik. Like I said, a lot of people are searching for what we’ve lost. To be sure, the new folk music today is also a mish-mash of all kinds of styles. But that was always the case with folk music. It has always been inspired by other types of music. Yet there’s a further, positive aspect to this. The new folk music today is a lot freer than it used to be. It’s also freer than classical music, for example. I think this is what makes it so appealing. It creates a lot of space for you to experiment, without the risk of your getting thrown off stage. And every innovation also turns into something traditional after a period of time, once it’s proved itself. The Hujässler ensemble provides the best example of this. Their style has had a big influence on the whole scene today. 

So what about musicians like dr Eidgenoss or the men’s chorus Heimweh, which is also extremely successful. Is this also “new folk music”?

These two ensembles are typical cases where my opinion swings back and forth for a long time. dr Eidgenoss would be too traditional for our festival; I feel they lack a sense of further development. Yet I would immediately put Heimweh on our programme if I had the technical possibilities. But we play in concert halls that only function acoustically, and we can’t afford the technical equipment necessary to amplify music properly. 

HEIMWEH - Verruckti Wält

 

The quality of performance among all these musicians has meanwhile undergone a marked improvement. What has changed since Lucerne University began offering degree courses in folk music? 

The variety of all these new emergent ensembles has a lot to do with the people at the University. But to my mind, they don’t do enough to establish a brand. You find the same highly qualified musicians time and again in different ensembles, presumably just because they want to try out a lot of different things. As the director of a festival, I’d like to help to make their ensembles better known and to make them visible to the public, above and beyond the festival itself. 

Sometimes it seems like there are more ensembles than there are musicians.

Yes, more or less. And yet the people who study at the University are bringing a lot to the genre – even though I don’t really regard it as a “genre” in itself. In essence, there’s always been “new” folk music. There’ve always been people who wanted to invent something new. And what’s good generally remains, while everything else is forgotten. I even think that this trend will become more pronounced. There are more and more young musicians who are doing new things.

As for Swiss folk music in general – is it in good condition? 

Yes. Developments are also very positive when it comes to TV. I think that even more extreme programmes might become possible – programmes in which new folk music is even more prominent. Nicolas Senn has announced that he wants to come to the Stubete am See and make a Potzmusig programme. That would finally be a show devoted completely to new folk music. Though we also have traditional music on our programme. 

Where do you think the new folk music is going to go from here?

I suspect the concept of “new folk music” isn’t going to exist much longer, because we just don’t need it any more.

That’s a great story.

 

 

Florian Walser was trained as a clarinettist in Zurich and Basel by Heinz Hofer, Elmar Schmid and Hans Rudolf Stalder. In 1990, while he was still studying, he joined the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, and has played there for 30 years. He was one of the editors of the Hanny Christen Collection of folk music, which is where he first came into intensive contact with old Swiss folk music sources. He founded the string group D’Sagemattler and the wind group eifachs.ch. In 2008, his idea for setting up a festival for new Swiss folk music won the “Echos” competition of the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia. The Stubete am See in the classical stronghold of the Zurich Tonhalle has been held every two years since then, with Walser as its artistic director. From 2012 to 2014, Walser was the managing director of the Centre for Appenzell and Toggenburg Folk Music in the Roothuus Gonten. From 2014 to 2019 he was a member of the Jury of the Swiss Music Prize, and was jury chairman for two of those years. 
 

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