On the occeasion of the new Sigmund Groven compilation series from Grappa, and as a special Christmas treat for Sigmund’s fans all over the world; here is an exclusive interview with the composer, the musician and the artist.
Q: Your latest album, Harmonica Hits, is a compilation of your greatest hits, in a way. Several of these titles are household tunes and part of the modern musical heritage of Norway. How do you feel about being part of “the soundtrack of Norway”?
Sigmund: For me it has been important to share my own musical experiences and ideas, and I am both delighted and also quite moved to find that my music means something special to many people.
Q: You are no doubt Norway’s number one ambassador for the harmonica instrument. But you play quite a lot overseas and are also an ambassador for Norway, at least in musical terms.
Sigmund: As a Norwegian it feels only natural for me to include music from my own country in my programmes wherever I perform, whether at home or abroad. Apart from my own compositions I will always play some traditional music from Telemark, and something by Grieg.
Q: The range of music that you perform is very wide, from film themes to folk songs and classical music. How do you approach the selection process when preparing a new album?
Sigmund: When choosing repertoire I always look for music that suits my instrument, and, of course, music that I enjoy playing. An album is normally based upon an idea, a concept – in my case I have made albums featuring famous harmonica themes, classical music, original works for harmonica and symphony orchestra, etc.
I am very careful when playing transcriptions of classical music, making sure that I choose pieces which I find suitable for the harmonica. The harmonica is the only wind instrument where you can play chords and double stops in addition to single notes, and I always think of my instrument in terms of its potential and capabilities, not its limitations! The harmonica does have a limited volume in a big concert hall where it needs amplification, but on a recording you can make sure that all the subtle nuances, timbres and tone colours come out.
Q: You come from the county Telemark, which is rich on traditions. You also made an album called Til Telemark, a tribute to your home place. How did Telemark as a landscape influence you in your compositions and interpretations?
Sigmund: I grew up with traditional folk-music in Telemark, also classical music. My father was a competent amateur performer both on the Norwegian national instrument, the “hardingfele” (Hardanger fiddle) and the violin. I dare say it is inevitable that the environment, nature and scenery, and folklore of my roots are reflected in my music. Apart from Til Telemark and Legends where I have used some traditional ”hardingfele” pieces as the basis, I have never in my compositions actively tried to imitate or write in a specific Telemark style, but if the tranquility and beauty of the countryside comes out in my music I suppose that’s not a bad thing!
Q: How is the harmonica scene in Norway these days? Are new generations paying attention to the instrument?
Sigmund: Yes, it is growing, and there are some promising young players coming up. However, in Norway as well as in the rest of Europe and America the blues harp seems to have a stronger appeal to young players, and I do feel that the future of the chromatic harmonica in the style I represent is probably in Asia. There are many talented and devoted up-and-coming players in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea.
Q: How has the instrument itself developed since you started using it?
Sigmund: There have been immense improvements. When I took up the harmonica, the Hohner Super Chromonica 270 was just about the only decent chromatic available. This was of course a mass-produced instrument. After having asked Hohner for years to make him a real concert harmonica, without any progress, Tommy Reilly decided to go ahead himself. He went to a silversmith in London who, in 1967, made the world’s first real concert harmonica to Tommy’s specifications. It was made of solid silver, and was a big success. He showed it to Hohner in Germany, and they decided to launch the “Silver Concerto Chromonica”. Tommy, of course, had the first one, and I was very thrilled to get the second specimen in October 1969. This was a big step forward: the instrument had interchangeable reed-plates which had been developed especially for this new instrument. In 1980 I met Georg Pollestad, a Norwegian engineer and harmonica enthusiast, who made an excellent harmonica for me in 1981. He worked meticulously and seriously for many years to improve and develop this further, and from 1993 I have been playing the “Polle Concert Harmonica” exclusively. He has continued his untiring efforts to create new improvements, and this instrument is now the best one available, and is played by harmonica fans all over the world. It is made with great precision, and has many ingenious features. Characteristics of the Polle are great dynamic range, excellent response, smooth and airtight slide movement, and dependability.
Q: When was the first time you played the harmonica in front of an audience?
Sigmund: I think it must have been at an amateur contest on 17th May (Norway’s Constitution Day) at Notodden when I was 11 or 12, playing a popular tune of the day: Sail Along Silv’ry Moon. I believe I came second, beaten by a young rock’n’roll singer who sang Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti!
Q: In 1972 you and two fellow musicians performed 62 concerts in 15 days. Is that possibly a world record?
Sigmund: I have no idea wether it’s a world record or not, but certainly was a very busy – and very enjoyable tour! Checking my files I found that we actually played 64 concerts in 15 days!
Q: You have collaborated with countless members of the Norwegian music elite, but are there any collaborations you remember particularly well?
Sigmund: Apart from the invaluable influence of Tommy Reilly and the collaboration with some fine orchestras and musicians in many different countries, it has been a privilege and a pleasure to work with some outstanding Norwegian musicians. I still have great working relationships with Iver Kleive, Ivar Anton Waagaard, and Kåre Nordstoga, and I am greatly indebted to Erik Bye, Johan Øian, Willy Andresen, Kaare Ørnung, Ketil Bjørnstad, and Henning Sommerro, not forgetting great singers such as Ellen Westberg Andersen, Anne Vada, Tone Braaten, and Lars Klevstrand – to mention but a few!
Q: What is the greatest myth or misunderstanding about the harmonica as an instrument, that I am sure you encounter sometimes, and maybe even feel an urge to combat?
Sigmund: Up until a few decades ago the harmonica was mostly regarded as toy, but thanks to some fine performers it has now established itself as a legitimate musical instrument. When played well it can be very expressive and versatile.
I will endorse Tommy Reilly’s thoughts on this: “The harmonica is the same as any other musical instrument; some people like it, some do not. Any instrument played badly is painful to listen to. Many people who take up the harmonica expect to play it well in practically no time at all. It has as complicated a technique as any other instrument.”
Q: Many people associate the harmonica with blues, rock and Western music. But those are genres you have not worked so much in, could you explain the difference – or similarities – of your technique and style, and those of the bluesy harmonica?
Sigmund: First of all the diatonic harmonica, often referred to as “the blues harp”, has quite a different technique from the chromatic on which I can play in all the different keys on just one instrument rather than switching from one to the other which the blues players do. One typical difference is that bending the notes is easier to do on the blues harp than on the chromatic. The way I play is fundamentally a “classical” style, based on Tommy Reilly’s approach. I strongly believe in concentrating on the genres where I feel at home. The aesthetics of blues, rock, country music etc. are rather different, and I feel it makes sense to leave all this in the capable hands of some highly proficient players who master these styles with conviction and artistry.
Q: You have in the last few years been frequently to South Korea. What’s the special link between the Koreans and your music?
Sigmund: I was quite surprised some years ago when Grappa, the company I record for, told me that I had been invited to go to South Korea because my albums were climbing the pop charts there although, at that time, I had never played there. I have tried to figure out why my music has such an appeal to the Koreans. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the harmonica has its roots in East Asia – the various types of mouth organs (which look very different from modern harmonicas) used in their traditional music go back centuries, such as the Korean “seng-hwang”. Maybe the melancholy streak in my music and the nostalgic sound of my harmonica affects the emotions of the Korean people who have had so many tragic periods in their history. I always enjoy playing for Korean audiences, they are truly appreciative.
Q: Not everyone knows that you have a University degree in political science. Did you have plans for a different career at one point?
Sigmund: No one had ever made a career as a professional harmonica-player in Scandinavia when I was a youngster, so the prospects of doing so seemed quite unrealistic although it was my dream. I had in mind a career in broadcasting or in teaching, but music took over!
Q: Your latest albums have included mostly interpretations of previously written music. Are there any plans for an album with your own, new compositions?
Sigmund: The recording scene has changed dramatically during the past few years, and making new albums of instrumental music these days is not as attractive as it used to be. I do have ideas for new compositions, and needless to say I would be happy to embark on new recording projects should the opportunity arise. At the moment Grappa is planning volumes 2 and 3 of the series Sigmund Groven Collection which will also include some new titles as well as previously unreleased tracks.
Q: To those who want to start playing the instrument, what beginner advice do you have?
Sigmund: Buy a chromatic three-octave instrument in C, try to find a good teacher (not easy!), and get hold of the Tommy Reilly harmonica course. There is also some good advice on various internet sites.
Q: And finally, a few words about your plans for 2015?
Sigmund: It looks like a busy year ahead! There are several different projects. I will be performing as soloist with two of Norway’s leading orchestras, first a concert with the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra at the end of January, then some recordings with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra in April – including the first performance of a new work written for me by Norwegian composer Egil Kapstad, Prelude for harmonica and orchestra. Later in the year I will be playing a public concert with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra to commemorate the centenary of the birth of composer/pianist Johan Øian (who was my first accompanist).
The Norwegian National Library will also present a concert of Johan Øian’s music in which I will be joined by singers Tone Elisabeth Braaten and Lars Klevstrand, and pianist Ivar Anton Waagaard. Together with these excellent musicians I have a programme called Norges Melodier – Lengting, liv og song which is selection of Norwegian music through two centuries. We will be performing this concert in various venues around Norway.
In the autumn there will be another tour of the tribute to Erik Bye. In addition several church concerts and recitals in various parts of Norway, and the annual Harmonica Summer Seminar will take place at Notodden 25-28 June. In October Ivar Anton Waagaard and I have been booked for another tour in South Korea.
But before all this, Christmas holiday!
My very best wishes for Christmas and the New Year to harmonica fans everywhere!