Beethoven and Banjos – Cross-Genre Musicians, by Stewart Hendrickson

Classical music and folk music may seem like two opposing ends of the musical spectrum, yet many folk musicians today have started out with classical training and many classical musicians have crossed over to the folk music genre. Beethoven and Banjos is a collaboration between members of Decoda (Carnegie Hall’s affiliate classical musical ensemble) and folk musicians, creating and performing music together. Evan Premo, a member of Decoda and a native of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, is the artistic director and founder of this collaboration. Together with his sister Laurel Premo, a Michigan folk musician, fiddle and banjo player, and their parents, they produce an annual series of cross-genre concerts and workshops in the UP. Here we profile some of the artists and show how they span cultural and musical boundaries in their music.

The second (2016) season of Beethoven & Banjos celebrated the vibrant Finnish culture,  with guest artists from the Finish-American duo Aallotar (Sara Pajunen and Teija Niku), members of Decoda (Meena Bhasin, Hamilton Berry, Evan Premo, and Anna Elashvili), and Laurel Premo. This piece, “The Lonely Sparrow,” is an arrangement of two traditional Finnish polskas.

In this performance the musicians blend the two styles of music – classical and folk – rather than present a side-by-side comparison, this is classical, this is folk. This gives the piece a new perspective, respecting both genres of music.

Laurel Premo and her brother Evan were immersed in folk music growing up in a musical family – both parents played instruments – in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. While Evan went to the conservatory to study classical music, Laurel became a folk musician after graduating with a BFA from the Performing Arts Technology Dept. of the University of Michigan School of Music. An accomplished fiddle player, she also became proficient at playing the five-string banjo. She spent time during her undergraduate years studying traditional Finnish music and dance at the Sibelius Academy of Music in Helsinki, Finland. In 2017, Laurel spent five months at the University of Southeast Norway studying Norwegian fiddle, hardingfele, and dance with traditional masters.

Laurel has woven together various influences to create “rhythmically rich and melodically haunting music” on the banjo, fiddle, voice and guitar, and was a founding member of Square Dance Kalamazoo in Michigan. Since 2009 she has played with Michael Beauchamp in the folk duo Red Tail Ring where they blend traditional Appalachian songs with new musical compositions. With Michael and two other players she is also a member of The Bowhunter Stringband, an old-timey quartet begun in 2011 to provide solid music for square dances.

“Fall Away Blues” is an original composition and the title track of the new Red Tail Ring CD.

Since 2015 Laurel Premo and Anna Gustavsson (from Sweden) have been collaborating on a cross-cultural music project that “blends Swedish and American fiddle traditions, with Laurel on banjo and fiddle and Anna on the nyckelharpa. Their sound is based on the driving dance-based fiddle traditions from both countries, as well as the adventuresome musicality of 21st century female musicians.”

Anna Gustavsson “grew up in the countryside outside of Uppsala, and started playing nyckelharpa at the age of ten. She studied at the Eric Sahlström Institute, Framnäs Folkhögskola, Ethnofonik (artistic leadership course in Paris) and is currently a student at the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm. Her repertoire is from all over Sweden, specializing in tunes from Uppland and Småland. She also writes her own music and enjoys experimenting with improvisation.”

Premo & Gustavsson’s collaborative CD “I Walked Abroad” was released in 2015,  and they have since completed CD-release tours in both Sweden and the U.S. This is a collaboration of American and Swedish traditional music featuring clawhammer banjo, nyckelharpa, and fiddle.
“The Atlantic Waltz” is an original tune by Anna Gustavsson

“Sally In The Garden” is a traditional American tune, played on gourd banjo and nyckelharpa

Sara Pajunen grew up in the Iron Range of northern Minnesota, immersed in the Finnish culture of an immigrant community. Her father grew up with his Finnish-speaking grandparents and her violin teacher was from Finland. Sara studied classical violin with this teacher, but was also involved in Finnish folk music, singing and dancing. After her family moved to the Twin Cities Sara studied Finnish language at the University of Minnesota while also a high school student. Later she lived in Finland for four years. At the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis Sara participated in a program for emerging artists where she worked with musicians of various genres in an eclectic range of musical genres and styles.

Sara’s main focus is exploring the Finnish music of her heritage, performing – instrumental and vocal – composing, and teaching. Here she shares her musical journey in an interview with The PlayList. 

Her early work with Jonathan Rudman in the duo Kaivama and with her mentor Finnish fiddler Arto Järvelä can be heard on her 2012 album “Arto Järvelä & Kaivama.” In 2013 with the group Tango Pohian Tähden, Pajunen produced an album of classic Finnish tangos reinterpreted with influence from various genres and featuring Finnish pianist Timo Alakotila – listen to an interview with Minnesota Public Radio Morning Edition producer Jim Bickal talking with Sara about the tango and its connection to Finland. Here is “Täällä Pohjantähden Alla” (Under the North Star)  by Tango Pohian Tähden.

A transatlantic collaboration with Finnish accordionist Teija Niku explored their common heritage in Finnish folk music as the duo Aallotar. Here they perform the Finnish folk song Väliaikainen and the Tallari polska.

A past collaboration is The Newlands Co-op, with Vidar Skrede, a fiddle and guitar player with a background in the traditional music from Rogaland (southwestern Norway) and a masters degree in Nordic folk music from the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm; an immigrant, he now lives in Chicago. They played acoustic music from Norway and Finland “brought to these new lands by one immigrant or another.”

Newer collaborations include the Pajunen/Brynnel Duo, with Sunniva Brynnel – accordion and voice – performing, in the Swedish and Finnish folk music traditions, both traditional music from the two countries as well as their original music;
and Sound an Echo, with Rachael Kilgourbridge – an award-winning songwriter and violinist – they “combine distinct yet complementary musical histories within traditional music from their European heritages.”

Sara’s latest album release, Laatikko/Box, is a 30 minute “conceptual sound piece that blends electro-acoustic vocal and violin music with words from Minnesota immigrants, taken both from historical Finnish-American archives, and from interviews conducted with recent immigrants to Minnesota from all over the world.”

Here is Amass, an original composition by Sara Pajunen – influenced by her childhood in the Iron Range and her Finnish heritage, out in nature, among woods and lakes. Sara is now living in Boston, studying Contemporary Improvisation at New England Conservatory.

These young artists, coming from different cultures and within different genres of music, represent an emerging trend in folk music. Their musical training and cultural experiences have enabled them to rise to a new level of artistic expression.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *