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How do we present traditional music to a modern audience?

April 8, 2016

In this year’s Dulwich Festival we’ll be staging a Scandinavian Soundaround at the Dulwich Picture Gallery where you can get to grips with the polska rhythm, learn a långdans and even get your fingers around a Schottis!

We’ll also be welcoming the Joglaresa medieval music ensemble, with their display of minstrelsy from the Middle Ages to the 17th century.

But what are the challenges in presenting traditional music to a modern audience, or those of introducing the songs and sounds of another culture into our own?

Vicki Swan graduated from the Royal College of Music and specialises in nyckelharpa and Swedish bagpipes. Vicki was awarded the prestigious Brons Zornmärke in 2015 and is a full-time folk musician with the Scandinavian Soundaround. We asked her to share her experiences.

““What’s that?” is a question I get asked a lot. “It’s a nyckelharpa.” I reply and I already know what the next question will be: “A what?”. 

“The nyckelharpa is a keyed fiddle from Sweden and it is very evocative of the long cold winter nights. The nyckelharpa has 16 strings in total, comprising 4 bowed strings with keys to change the notes and 12 sympathetic resonating strings. It’s the wooden tangents that act like frets which give the instrument a very pure stark sound – but it’s the sympathetic strings that really give the nyckelharpa its haunting, entrancing tone. 

“Sweden isn’t alone in using sympathetic strings, Norway has the Hardanger Fiddle – a violin with four sympathetic strings and these sympathetic strings really give Scandinavian music its evocative beautiful sound.”

“So what of the challenges of presenting this to a new audience? On first listen, Scandinavian music appears to have a pulse that is hard to get to grips with so my first job as a teacher of this wonderful music is to embed the polska rhythm. 

“There are a lot of polskas and a lot of different kinds of polskas, but put very simply a polska officially has three beats – it’s just that the middle of the three can be in a different place depending on what sort of polska it is. Get this concept and suddenly the world of the polska is wide open.

“There is a whole branch of Scandinavian folk music that has its roots in the baroque era and it is this music that really captivates an audience. Once you get your head around the three beats of the polskas there is an intricate beauty of this music that is entrancing. It is familiar, yet exotic.”

For more details and to buy tickets for the Scandinavian Soundaround and the Joglaresa medieval music ensemble, visit the website: