In Which I Crash A Nyckelharpa Concert

Yesterday was the inaugural celebration for the new Center for World Music at UCLA. When I heard the festivities would include a performance by an ensemble including nyckelharpa, I decided I had to go. I had no intention, however, of staying for the lecture to follow, and I did not RSVP, even though attendees were supposed to.

I arrived at the Faculty Center and had to ask directions to the Sequoia Room. As I had feared, there was a greeter/doorkeeper matching names to a guest list, but when I admitted I hadn’t RSVPed, she said it was no problem and gave me a program. So I guess I didn’t really crash the event.

The first part of the concert, which began just after I arrived, featured a duo playing Thai classical music, about which I know nothing. One woman played khim (a hammered dulcimer that didn’t look so different from a Western one), and the other played jakhee (a three-stringed zither) and sau uu (described as a two-stringed fiddle with coconut shell–it looked kind of like an erhu). The khim and the jakhee both had a bright, resonant sound, and I enjoyed the music.

The second part of the concert featured Skin and Strings, a “bluegrass fusion trio” made up of ethnomusicology grad students who debuted as an ensemble in Shanghai a few years ago. For their first piece, one guy played banjo, another played tabla, and the third played the much-anticipated nyckelharpa.

The nyckelharpa is a Swedish fiddle-like instrument. It’s halfway between a hurdy-gurdy and a violin; it has keys like a hurdy-gurdy, but it’s bowed like a violin. It also has sympathetic strings. The first time I ever saw a nyckelharpa was at NEFFA (the New England Folk Festival) when I was a sophomore in college. Walking through the crowded hallways of Mansfield High School, I saw someone playing an unfamiliar and utterly beguiling instrument and immediately thought, What is that? I must know!

Coming back to last night, Skin and Strings’ second piece was a sort of mash-up of Indian classical music and bluegrass. The tabla player switched to sitar (I think?) and jingle sticks, and the whole trio sang. For their last piece, the banjo player switched to fiddle. While he played,  the tabla player struck the violin’s strings and body with two bamboo skewers. Meanwhile, the nyckelharpa player had traded his nyckelharpa for a plywood platform, on which he started out doing Québécois podorythmie. This morphed into tapping/clogging.

And that was it! I ducked out as the distinguished speaker was being introduced. (I had had the chance to partake of the Faculty Center-grade hors d’oeuvres–think miniature quiches and crab cakes). In total I heard less than 30 minutes of music, but it was worth it.

If you want to hear what a solo nyckelharpa sounds like, here is a video from a Swarthmore Student and Alumni Composers concert I attended on my twentieth birthday. The first tune is a waltz played on nyckelharpa. (If you watch the whole thing, you’ll hear a bit about the Folk Dance Club I was in in college. Also, I’m very fond of the last tune, A Nice Touch.)

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2 thoughts on “In Which I Crash A Nyckelharpa Concert

    • Yes! Funnily enough, I found out a week or two ago that Ryan played the nyckelharpa and got ridiculously excited. Then I heard about this concert! (I don’t actually know him, only of him.)

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