Rob Bentall

Reimagining the Nyckelharpa

This ACE-funded project project will shed new light on the nyckelharpa, a 700-year-old 16-stringed Swedish keyed fiddle, by commissioning UK-based contemporary composers to write new music for the instrument, performing these new works in a tour of northern England, and releasing the new music online and in a physical format. The project is crucial to new public exposure of the nyckelharpa, which almost became extinct until a revival in the 1950s, and is currently largely used in traditional music situations, primarily in Sweden but also in folk scenes in the UK, Europe and the USA.

To date, I have studied with traditional nyckelharpist Vicki Swan since 2015, experimented with extended techniques on the instrument, and written two new pieces – Music for Nyckelharpa and Electronics (2015) and Telian (2016/17). However, it is important to see how other compositional voices will react to and be inspired by the instrument’s qualities, as well as developing my own creative voice through writing new works for the nyckelharpa. The new compositions for nyckelharpa will re-imagine this unique instrument’s broad sonic palette through creative use of extended techniques and electronic processing. These new works will be created by a raft of talented contemporary composers: Ben Gaunt, Laura Bowler, Brona Martin, Tom Owen, and myself.

This will be the first UK project seeking to show how contemporary performance techniques can be applied to this vernacular instrument. Extended techniques, rooted in 20th century avant-garde music theory and practice, have not to date been applied to nyckelharpa performance. This is necessary, as despite its archaic nature, the instrument possesses great potential for sound production through these methods due to its percussive key rows, low string tension, idiosyncratic tuning system and profound resonance. New works for nyckelharpa and electronics are very novel, and are only preceded by my existing work Telian (2016) for this combination.

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