Interview: Musical Journey to the Arctic with Violinist Eldbjørg Hemsing

February 3, 2023, 4:09 PM · Norwegian violinist Eldbjørg Hemsing was born into music, born into a love for nature, and born into the far North - it's no wonder that she calls her new album Arctic a long-time passion project.

"I wanted to show a part of the world that most people will potentially not be able to see with their own eyes, to give a sense of the Arctic of the very, very far north," Eldbjørg said, "and to do so in a way that shows the beauty and the life that we need to preserve."

Eldbjorg Hemsing
Violinist Eldbjørg Hemsing. Photo by Gregor Hohenberg.

Eldbjørg, 32, grew up in a place full of northern culture, landscape and mythology, about three hours' drive north of Oslo and just 620 miles south of the Arctic Circle. I spoke with her in late January, right after she had finished a concert series in which she performed the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with the Oslo Philharmonic.

"I was born in a teeny, tiny little village in the middle of nowhere, in an area called Valdres, in Norway," Eldbjørg said. "Around 600 people live there, and it's very near the big mountain chains of Norway, called the 'Jotunheimen.' If you like Nordic mythology, it's also supposedly the birthplace of Thor with the hammer, and all those stories. My name, 'Eldbjørg,' actually means 'Protector of Fire.' The Nordic mythology is very strong here."

Her father, a scientist responsible for the protection of a nature reserve, instilled in her a love and respect for nature. "It's hard to find a direct translation for what my father's work is, but it's kind of a mix between a park ranger and someone who works for the environment," she said.

The music came from her mother. "My mom is a violinist, so it was the most natural thing to start playing," she said. Her mother, Bente Hemsing, was her first teacher, and she also taught her to play Norway's national instrument, the Hardanger fiddle.

"My mom used to practice with me," Eldbjørg said. "When you are really young, it's fun to play, but you also need some structure. So she was quite clever in the beginning, saying, let's practice 15 minutes - right before a children's TV program. So you knew that, okay, right now we're focused, but afterwards you could do something else. She's a very good pedagogue."

Eldbjørg's sister, Ragnhild, also plays the violin. The two of them have been performing together ever since the days when they gave house concerts for their teddy bears.

When she was just six, Eldbjørg performed for the Royal Family, for Constitution Day in Norway. It was at the National Theatre, and "it was my first experience having such a large, live audience," she said. "I remember the feeling of walking out on that slightly tilted stage into that completely dark room - I couldn't really see anyone. But I remember that energy, that kind of excitement and curiosity - having people wanting to listen. That definitely started a spark."

Eldbjørg went on to study with Alf Richard Kraggerud (brother of Henning Kraggerud) at the Barratt Due Institute of Music in Oslo; then she went to Vienna, where she studied with Boris Kuschnir.

"That was my upbringing, nature and music, all the time."

Eldbjørg's other recordings have touched on her heritage, but not specifically on her passion for the natural beauty and vast expanse of the North. They include Grieg Violin Sonatas (2020); Tan Dun: Fire Ritual (2019); Dvorák & Suk (2018); and Borgström & Shostakovich Concertos (2018), with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.

Eldbjørg has spent quite a bit of time in the far North. She toured and recorded with the Arctic Philharmonic, an orchestra based in Bodø. The orchestra, which is featured in "Arctic," was established in 2009, and Eldbjørg did their inaugural tour of all of the northern parts of Norway and played with them many time since.

"Right now I'm also working quite a bit with a festival in Bodø, which will be the 'European Capital of Culture' in 2024," she said.

"When I often think about the Arctic, one thing is the Arctic Circle, but there's also the islands of Svalbard - Spitsbergen, and the town of Longyearbyen... it's basically the last stop before North Pole. That's the big island, and it's massive, although on the map it looks like a little dot. But that is also part of Norway, and in many ways it is the beating heart of the North."

What is it like to be there?

"It's almost hard to explain what it feels like to be up there," Eldbjørg said. "It's the one place where I've felt so incredibly small....When you live in cities, everything has been made for the benefit of humans. Nature is secondary, until it starts affecting you. But in the North it's turned around. Nature is the number one force, no matter what you do, because it immerses everything. So for instance, if you travel in the north, particularly in the wintertime, you might not arrive on the day you're supposed to arrive. You might arrive three or five days later! We, as humans, have very little to say up there. So it is very grounding."

To create what she describes as a "soundtrack for the Arctic," Eldbjørg drew on the talents of two current film composers, who created new works for the album - Jacob Shea and Frode Fjellheim. There are also violin arrangements by Ben Palmer of works by Nordic composers, including Henning Sommerro, Ola Gjeilo, Selim Palmgren and Einojuhani Rautavaara. And she included classical works by Edward Grieg and Ole Bull.

"In the beginning, I found it quite hard to find the right sound for the album," she said. "As a violinist, it's easy to think about the sound of the instrument, and to feel like the music has to be made for that vessel." Eldbjørg plays on the 1707 'Rivaz, Baron Gutmann' Stradivari violin, on loan from the Dextra Musica Foundation.

"But as we talked more about the story and what I wanted to convey about the North, it became quite clear that this is also an audio-visual journey, in a way that gives the listener images, without necessarily being told what to see," she said. "It's not all about virtuosity; it's more about creating a sound world where everything is dreamy and open for interpretation. At the same time it gives some guidance throughout - for instance, some of the titles are quite specific. Those titles should set the mood for what you're about to hear."

Among the new works created for the album is the six-movement "Arctic Suite" by Los Angeles-based Shea, known for his work writing music for the British nature documentary series "Planet Earth II." Titles for those movements include Frozen World, Aurora, Sunrise, A Rush of Life, Polar Winds, and Sea Ice Melting.

Eldbjørg Hemsing performs "Sea Ice Melting," from Jacob Shea's "Arctic Suite":

"We talked a lot about the images we wanted to convey," she said. "It's very easy to think about the North as - ice cracking, rough earth, harsh environment. But I didn't want that. I wanted it to be lush - a majestic sound world that pays tribute to the beauty of it all."

Composer Frode Fjellheim - best-known globally for writing the opening music for the movie 'Frozen', wrote two pieces for the album, "Under the Arctic Moon" and "Return of the Arctic Sun," both inspired by "joiks," the traditional songs of the indigenous Sámi.

The Sámi are indigenous people who live in the northernmost parts of Norway, Finland, in the Lapland area, and also in Russia, in the Arctic Circle. They can be nomadic, not bound by state or country.

"Frode Fjellheim is a good friend of mine, he's a fantastic musician and composer," she said. He also is a traditional Sámi "yoiker" - versed in the traditional songs of the Sámi. "He uses his heritage and shows it in different lights," Eldbjørg said. "When I asked him if he wanted to contribute, he thankfully said 'yes' immediately."

Eldbjørg Hemsing plays "Under the Arctic Moon" by Frode Fjellheim with the Arctic Philharmonic:

Fjellheim two pieces "are very much inspired by the environment up in the North," she said. "'Under the Arctic Moon' is that quiet time of day, when everything is dark and completely solitary. The Arctic moon has a very specific light; it's very white and it gives everything a certain aura. It's like a ghost lamp."

His other piece, "Return of the Arctic Sun," "is specifically for the time in January when the sun finally returns," Eldbjørg said. "Even though you only see it for two seconds, at least you know that lighter times are coming. There's new energy, new hope, a new beginning."

In the Arctic, "the yearly cycle is very much decided by the sun and how much you see of it," Eldbjørg said. The heart of winter, from October on through - is truly dramatic. "It's completely dark," she said. "There is no sun, there is no daylight." The sky shows only slight hints at the passing of each day.

"The only thing you can see, to determine your day, is a slight difference in the nuances of blue," she said. "So it's slightly more blue in the middle of the day, and then it gets dark again. It's super interesting, and it's quite difficult. Imagine you're in the night time all the time! It's quite tough for the mind."

Starting on December 21, the winter solstice, the sun is finally on its way back - but very incrementally.

"From January, maybe around the 17th or so, you can start to see the sun," Eldbjørg said. "At first, you only see a few glimpses of sunlight - just a sliver on the horizon. Then every day you get just a little bit more."

By spring, it's heading toward another Arctic extreme - "by May, June and of course July, August, it's midnight sun, which means that there's no night any more. So we have sun, 24-7!" she said. "It's quite interesting, and it's almost hard to explain what it feels like and what it does to you - but it is magical."

Eldbjørg also included an arrangement of one of Norway's most popular melodies, "Vårsøg" by Sommerro.

"Vårsøg", arranged for violin and orchestra by Ben Palmer:

"It's a melody that became super popular in Norway, and it was used for a long time as the melody in radio and TV shows," Eldbjørg said. "If you walk on the street in in Norway and play this piece to someone - most people will immediately know what it is because it's such a recognizable melody. The piece itself is based on a poem, which was written in 1945, at the end of the Second World War. The title means 'search for a new spring.' So in a metaphorical way, the poem was written about the longing and the hope for peace and for stability in the world."

Click here for Eldbjørg Hemsing's album, "Arctic."

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