The devils playground

The Devil's Playground

If the hardingefele is 'the devil's instrument' and the ecstasy of dance a 'devil's pleasure', then Espen Sommer Eide's kinetic instrument   Karusell invites into the devil's playground.   The conceptual composition of the work is itself a choreography, playfully intertwining historical references and contemporary experimentation in sound, movement, and technology.   It is a work that spans divers genres that associate themselves with the term 'sound art', from sonic installation environments, to 'new music' and 'electronic music', and even 'turntablism'.   Like a luring magic from a new mythology, the instrument entices the onlooker to play it, and captures the moving body within a realm where sound both compresses and expands time.    Karusell's sonic spell is a postmodern incantation that simultaneously cycles through the specific voices of social histories and a pervasive contemporary noise.  

The heart of Sommer Eide's instrument is a carousel, or 'merry-go-round', that one used to find in children's playgrounds.   This particular carousel was found nestled in its own rust and the tall grasses outside the Norsk Folkemuseum, long unused and hidden from vision and possible use.

While at one time carousels such as these were common and favored objects in children's playgrounds, in keeping with recent waves of public protection laws, they have been deemed unsafe, and removed from public use .   Putting the carousel to use again in this work is almost to challenge a contemporary taboo .   Endowing the mechanical voice of this, now historical object, with a voice derivative of the Norwegian folk instrument, the hardingfele , excites the historical taboos of a music associated with mythology, supernatural forces, sonic alchemy, and dangerous forbidden pleasures.

The eerie, yet tantalizing, silvery overtones of the fiddle's understrings and unique tuning systems has a visceral power that makes the hair stand deliciously on end and curl in delight.   Its uncanny sonic hypnosis renders its mythological associations readily understandable. Legend tells of the Fossegrimen , a supernatural spirit that lives in the waterfall and plays the fiddle.   Those who hear its tune are lured under the falling water by its seductive tones, never to return.   It is said that those who seek out the spirit in the desire of learning its music can summon the spirit by throwing a leg of a mutton into the falls.   Fossegrimen   will offer its musical lesson by dragging the seekers' fingers up and down the strings until they bleed.   "Fanitullen", meaning "the devil's song" is the most widely known hardingfele tune in Norway.   It is associated with the story of a violent event that occurred at a wedding in Hallingdal during which time the devil was discovered to be sitting discretely in the vicinity, playing the tune.

Karusell uses a hardingfele tune entitled "Gorrlaus", as the source material for its own voice.   The word "Gorrlaus" is used to describe a particular set of hardingfele works, and means "damned loose"1 after its unique downward tuning of the fiddle's lowest string.   The contradictory forms of the compositions tease and manipulate the emotions of the both the listener and player. In this, Karusell makes direct reference to the myths of musical magic, perilous sensual desires, and of course, the sonic nature of the hardingfele itself.

The hardingfele sound is so unique, its emotional effect so powerful, and its connotations so strongly associated with Norwegian folk music that a single note has the power to lock the listener into a highly cultivated cultural memory. Once a sound synonymous with popular culture and integrated with daily life's activities, pleasures, and sorrows, the nurturing of folk music today can be seen as somewhat fetishistic.   While having succeeded in remaining an unbroken musical tradition, the often nationalistic efforts to cultivate 'the original music' have inadvertently developed 'purist' connotations, which for some, like Sommer Eide, have rendered the music as lifeless, inflexible, and in negation of its original playfulness, energy, and ability to compliment a contemporary everyday experience.   With Karusell , Sommer Eide seeks to both play with, and challenge some of the presumptions of folk music as a detached cultural genre.

While the hardingfele sound is a conceptual cornerstone in Karusell , you won't actually hear it in the work.   The melodic specificity of "Gorrlaus" and the sound of the hardingfele itself, are deconstructed so as to render them both sonically inaudible and hidden from immediate associative perception. The unmistakable sound of the hargingfele is replaced here by the synthesized tones of digital processing, an almost default challenge to the sanctity of folk music traditions.   Abandoning a codifiable melody, Sommer Eide has taken the abstraction of the hardingfele 's sonic ornamentations as the essence of Karusell's voice.   Employing both micro- and macroscopic approaches, he attempted to isolate and synthesize tonal attributes of the hardingfele such as its unique tuning systems, abrasive micro-tonality, string resonance, and visceral dissonance, map them to synthesized tones, and bring them forth as the music itself. The abstract tension of the resulting artificial sound overlays resonant tonal fragments with the 'frozen in speed' glitch-beauty of early nineties electronic music pioneers such as Oval . Whether played like a dj dragging a record or like the quickening of running fast-forward through a cd, as re-championed by sound art practices, Karusell's 'squeaky wheel' inspired timber once again offers a celebration of noise as music.   In contrast to the melodic recognition factor inherent to most folk tunes, Karusell 's song reminds us that all sounds can be considered as music, both as organized into composition, and inherently.   Karusell replaces the traditional voice of specificity with the abstract utterance of a postmodern digitized culture.

Yet, while Karusell attempts to move away from direct reference to a recognizable folk sound, it actively teases out references to folk mythology, magical experience, and certainly to folk dance.   Just as Fossegrimen beckons a body to enter into the cascades of the waterfall, Karusell   draws the body of the player to enter into the instrument itself and become enveloped inside it.   You grasp the bars with your hands, swirl the wheel with leaping rhythmic feet as they stomp and push against the ground, perhaps close your eyes or lean backwards to submit to the dizziness of the centrifugal forces that seek to through the ecstatic body off the ride. The carousel, the body, the sound, move in unison in a round with a swelling temptation to turn faster and faster and faster still.   The player is the instrument's activator, but also its partner in a precarious dance in which it is questionable who is leading whom.   The performer/audience relationship is collapsed and the carousel beckons new partners to enter inside its realm.   The bodies simultaneously join in the dance, to participate in the release of its sound, or to simply sit inside, giving into trance; lost in an endless whirl.   The body that has danced long and fast enough, upon leaving the dance, has to struggle against its own instability; the lingering momentum, like a magic spell, has altered the body's perception and sense of self control.

Taking advantage of the effect on the body's equilibrium, individual or group dancing in tight circles has, since early history, been a physical strategy towards the induction of frenzy, ecstasy, and trance in ritualistic dance.   Since the 16 th century, 'round dance' as a genre in Europe combined folk traditions with ballroom dance choreography and generally evolved more as a expression of communal 'togetherness' and an acceptable form of social recreation than as spiritual practice.    Because of the strong relation between dance as a spiritual medium and dance as social entertainment or individual pleasure, there developed a fine line between its role and perception as a communal spiritual tool,   an 'innocent' mingling of bodies, an overindulgence of the flesh, and a manifestation of a sinister occult presence.  

Much of the hardingfele music was actually 'written' for dancing and is structured from circular phrases that repeat and build upon one other.   A skilled fiddler would often take delight in spinning his dancers around faster and faster until delirious.   Throughout the 19 th century, thousands of these instruments were destroyed or burned because of their sudden infamous effect on the body.   Sweeping religious movements deemed dance induced ecstasy, and the mystical music that induced it, as unsuitable pleasures.   In offering a perceptually altering, yet delightful physical experience set to music both derivative of and critical to traditional folk music, Karusell invites us to 'dance with the devil'.

The spatial treatment of K arousel's music furthers the work's exploration in cyclical movement and sound.   Turning the carousel not only produces the music, but also revolves the sound around in space with the moving body, across four speakers placed along its circumference.   This certainly constitutes a 'surround' sound, but with a kinetic sound/body coupling that breaks from the theatre-based standards that assume to cater kinetic sound to a fixed body.   The technological enablers of the work such as the popular Max/MSP software environment, and its customized magnetic rotation sensory device, align it with trajectories in the electronic arts genre, a genre whose manifestations are occupied fore mostly with experimenting with emerging technologies towards forging new technological grounds and representing alternative uses of new medias.   With the increased accessibility of body tracking and sound positioning techniques, kinetic sound/body coupling has increased tremendously as an area of experimentation since the early 1990s, often with complex systems that attempt to localize moving bodies with video or on-body devices and compute the relative position of the sound.

The success of Karusell , however, is in its simplicity.   It is not concerned with how many bodies are present or with sonically mapping their specific location.   Karusell is able to create the illusion of body/sound tracking by simply recognizing whether or not the carousel is in motion and how fast it is turning.   The assumption, of course is that there is a body setting the disc in motion, and that the body is, or is partly 'riding' the instrument.   While it is possible to remain in a static position and play the instrument by 'pushing' the wheel around, the affordance of the object's inherently enticing quality lures the body to ride or dance, thusly, with natural suggestion, completing its conceptual premise.   The body becomes one with the instrument, one with the sound.  

Karusell offers a ride through the voices of histories.   Releasing the magic of music itself, the circle goes 'round and around.

Camille Norment

Oslo, September 2008 
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1. Morten Levy, The World of the Gorrlaus Sl├ątts ( Copenhagen: Copenhagen University, 1989), vol 1., p. 5.