Väsen

ArtsWatch Weekly: full-tilt boogie

Imago tilts the action in a topsy-turvy Greek classic, Brett Campbell's best music bets, "Jersey Boys" croons into town, new theater & dance

The question echoes down the centuries from the Greek myths and Euripides’ play, which was first set on stage in 431 B.C. and just keeps coming back: was Medea balancing the scales of justice when she murdered her husband’s new wife and her own children, or was she falling off her rocker? People have been arguing the point ever since (Medea shocked its original audience, coming in dead last in that year’s City of Dionysia festival), and the question of teetering out of control remains foremost, right down to Ben Powers’ recent adaptation of Medea for the National Theatre in London.

The ups and downs of rehearsal: Imago’s tilting stage for “Medea.” Imago Theatre photo.

Enter Jerry Mouawad of Imago Theatre, whose own theories of balance reach back to his mentor Jacques Lecoq, the French mime and movement master who advocated a “balance of the stage.” In 1998 Mouawad and Imago took the advice literally, creating a large movable stage, suspended three feet above the floor, that tips and leans as the actors shift position on it. They used it for an acclaimed production of Sartre’s No Exit, in which the constantly shifting balances became a metaphor for the play itself. The show was revived several times and traveled to theaters across the country.

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Väsen preview: Swedish spirit

Power folk trio’s exuberant mix of tradition, progressive artistry, and rock solid chops  breathes new life into Swedish traditional music

by DANIEL HEILA

In 1989, at a gathering in Røros, Norway, nyckelharpa player Olav Johansson met guitarist Roger Tallroth on his way to take a shower, as legend has it. The two Swedish folk musicians spent a storied evening and night jamming together, to the delight of the crowd that gathered to hear them.

So impressed was Olle Paulsson that he started a new record label, Drone Music, to record the fledgling ensemble. Johannson joined violist Mikael Marin and Tallroth to record their first CD together, Olov Johansson: Väsen. People started asking to book the group “Väsen” and the name stuck. “Väsen” means spirit or essence in Swedish (akin to Finland’s sisu) and a more appropriate name could not be found for the Swedish powerfolk trio’s vibrant sound.

Väsen performs in Portland, Ashland and Eugene.

Väsen, which performs April 15 at Portland’s Aladdin Theater, April 19 at Southern Oregon University Music Recital Hall, and April 20 at Eugene’s Shedd Institute, crafts original compositions and arrangements of trad tunes that bridge the gaps between folk, power pop, classical, and melodic jazz. Building on Swedish folk music roots, the high energy trio (quartet in Europe when joined by percussionist André Ferrari) play the type of new Nordic folk music that rides on syncopation, accented weak beats, odd meters, and dense string-driven heterophony with crooked tunes similar to the Quebecois dance tradition.

Folk revival

As with other folk music festivals in Scandinavia during the 1970s and ‘80s (Kaustinen Folk Fest in Finland and Folkemusikkveka in Norway), Gärdesfesten, the Swedish Woodstock of 1970, gave a folk revival in the country added momentum as interest in traditional Swedish music and dance grew. Though the movement slowed in the late ‘70s, a resurgence of interest in the polka in the ’80s pushed new ensembles into the public eye and the new dance venues gave them an opportunity to hone their playing.

Väsen is a product of these times. Back in the day, nyckelharpist Johansson and violist Marin sat at the feet of such Swedish folk music notables as Curt and Ivar Tallroth and Eric Sahlström of the Uppland region. Within a few years of taking up nyckelharp in 1980 at age 14, Johansson was considered a master player. In 1990, the year after meeting bandmate Tallroth, he won the championship in both traditional and modern categories at the Nyckelharpa World Championships at Österbybruk, Sweden.

A composer, producer, and arranger who has been a Swedish national fiddler since 1983, Marin has played under Leonard Bernstein and collaborated with artists such as Mikael Samuelsson, folk rockers Nordman, and Kronos Quartet. He plays in the duo Marin/Marin with his daughter Mia Marin.

The old time dance lilt of Swedish folk tunes is given punch and drive by Roger Tallroth’s 12-string rhythm guitar constructions that thicken the texture of the bowed instruments while securing the downbeat—sexing it up with satisfying syncopated accents—and taking the harmonies a bit farther afield than Grandpa Ole might approve of. Tallroth is a bit of an iconoclast, having developed his own unique style of playing. His signature ‘Tallroth tuning’ and ever changing style of rhythm guitar have influenced string players in the Nordic/Scandinavian folk scene for years.

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