Jennifer Erikkson submitted an essay to Sydney Arts Guide titled ‘On Sweden, Coffee breaks, Electric Viola Da Gambas and Musical Boundaries’. It is published here in full, unedited.
Although populated by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders for at least 50,000 years, post 1788 Australia is a nation of immigrants. My family is no exception. Knut Axel Eriksson, our Swedish grandfather, was a working-class merchant seaman from Stockholm. He stepped off a ship in Melbourne in the 1920s where he met and married my cockney English grandmother. He never went back to Sweden.
My grandmother was a milliner (hat maker) by trade, and an amateur pianist in her spare time. She loved Chopin, English music hall songs and much more! My grandfather played the harmonica, perhaps learned during the long weeks at sea. Music was in my blood.
In developing my career as a viola da gambist I had not thought much about my Swedish musical heritage until about 8-10 years ago. Swedish-Australian lutenist and guitarist, Tommie Andersson, has been a friend and a member of my early music ensemble, The Marais Project, since its inception in 2000. We talked for years about doing a concert of Swedish music until we finally got our act together. This led to a CD of Swedish baroque, folk and jazz music titled ‘Smörgåsbord.’ This off the beaten track recording was an unlikely hit, spending 3 months on the Australian Top 20 classical charts. It was even launched by the Swedish ambassador and featured on Swedish national radio.
Scandinavia and the electric viola da gamba
After Smörgåsbord I thought I had exhausted my Swedish musical roots, but it was not to be so. In 2015 I formed ‘Elysian Fields’, Australia’s only electric viola da gamba ensemble. Members included leading jazz musicians, classically trained musicians like me, and others with deep experience of world and folk music. We also span different generations. I have somehow ended up being the oldest, an achievement I do not particularly want to celebrate. Two of the founding members were in their 20s and another in their early 30s.
Soon I became aware that most of us had links to Sweden. Singer/violinist Susie Bishop’s partner is Swedish. She speaks Swedish and visits the country regularly. Our young bass player Siebe Pogson has Swedish heritage and saxophonist Matt Keegan spent a year studying in Sweden. As to the others, we have made them honorary Vikings!
Scandinavian music started creeping into our set list. In 2018 Elysian Fields launched a Scandinavian Project at Sydney’s Foundry616 jazz club. In January 2020 we hit the studio to record the most interesting and beautiful of the Swedish and Scandinavian music we had arranged and composed.
Iso hits hard
As we moved into post-production in February, the world was already under the grim shadow of Covid – including the shut down and isolation of whole sections of our society. Complete industries came to a halt. Our gigs started to get cancelled. The music industry joined tourism and hospitality in ‘falling off a cliff.’ Venues closed, tours were put off, cashflow dried up. I personally have had 60 performances cancelled or postponed. Our Producer/sax player Matt Keegan expected our CD project to be suspended or cancelled. Instead, I made decision to dig deep financially and finish the job. That is what artists do – we make art, even in a crisis. Even when money is tight and the future unknown.
Fika – more than a coffee break
The CD was always going to be titled Fika (pron. ‘fee-ka’). What, many will ask, is fika? Fika is a Swedish term that is often translated in English as a coffee break. In reality, it means more than that. Fika is about making time for friends and family, to share a cup of coffee or tea and a bite to eat. You cannot do fika alone although ironically, as I write this, many people remain isolated or separated from those they love. Melbourne has just closed down for a second time. Long before the current crisis Elysian Fields wanted to create a beautiful recording that would bring people together, as fika does. This is our offering to a world in turmoil.
Blurring the lines – is it classical, is it jazz or is it world music? (And who cares…)
Genres help us name things, to categorise what we see, hear, and do. Order is a good thing. It is also a bad thing. In art, being given a label, or not being easy to label, being allocated or not allocated to a genre, can accelerate, or slow down your career. If critics and audiences do not know how to categorise an artist, or struggle to describe what they are doing in conventional ways of thinking, they sometimes leave you alone. Worse still, they write you off by putting you in an awkward box.
As an ensemble we have never explicitly tried to be anything specific genre-wise, we have just written and arranged materials, played them, and worked to refine what we do. Although we fuse disparate musical elements together in new ways – including the sound of the rarely heard electric viola da gamba – we are not a ‘fusion’ band.
The great thing about the group is that as musical equals we each bring who we are to the table and don’t apologise for what we are not. This enables wonderful things to happen. For example, I am a viola da gambist specialising in French baroque music. I am most at home in the music of the Court of the French king, Louis XIV. I am not a jazz musician, but I am playing with some of the best jazz musicians in the country. This could and should be incredibly intimidating. I just don’t have ‘the chops’ that they do. I cannot improvise like they can. But rather than focussing on what I cannot do, I contribute classical music’s discipline, attention to detail, phrasing, and clarity of texture.
Matt Keegan, Matt McMahon and Siebe Pogson bring to the band what to me are exotic jazz harmonies, an amazing sense of rhythm and adventure, along with a freedom to adapt and respond in the moment. They also have a great capacity for nuance and subtlety in chord voicings and melodic line.
Drummer Dave Goodman – ‘Dr Dave’ (he holds a PhD in drumming) – is as much a musical colourist as a keeper of the beat. His subtle washes of sound define the mood of many of our songs.
Susie Bishop, a classically trained singer and violinist, has a Masters degree in opera, but is equally well-known on the national folk and world music scenes from bands such as the Aria-nominated ‘Chaika’. She is an electrifying performer who can literally bring a room to a standstill by the sheer beauty of her voice. When Susie sings a folk ballad, my heart stops. When she does so in Swedish – and you can hear her on Fika – I’m in tears.
We all contribute music for the ensemble, that is one of our strengths. Fika features several stunning arrangements of Swedish folk songs by Susie Bishop and Matt McMahon, original works inspired by Scandinavia composed by Matt Keegan and Siebe Pogson, and arrangements of music by Norwegian jazz composer and pianist, Jan Gunnar Hoff, and Swedish jazz greats, e.s.t., that I have completed.
I see Fika as one of the most important musical milestones in my life. It represents both a journey and a destination. We have created a kind of virtual pathway between the Northern and Southern hemispheres. We have also done this through art. The CD booklet features paintings by my friend Nils Gunnar Zander, a Swedish artist who for 25 years has moved between Sweden and Australia while painting the Australian outback. Of collaborating on the CD project Nils Gunnar Zander wrote the following:
‘Five years ago, an Australian musician with a Swedish background searching for Swedish music in Stockholm met a Swedish artist who had spent twenty-five years living in Australia searching for Australian landscapes to paint in an abstract way. Now we meet at FIKA! In Swedish culture, this means we have a coffee break together. Our music and our art have also come together which makes me so happy!’ (Nils Gunnar Zander)
I hope this recording project brings people together and acts to lift listeners’ spirits. That is what fika does, and not just for Vikings.
Founder, Elysian Fields; July 2020
Fika is released on the MOVE Records label. It is available from MOVE Records, Buywell Music and Bandcamp. Stream or download on Bandcamp, iTunes, Spotify, or Apple Music. High Resolution download via High Res Audio.