Sacred Sounds and Ritual Soundscapes in Historical and Contemporary Scandinavia

Research project hosted by the University of Helsinki, funded by the Kone Foundation (2023–2026)

I am part of a research group hosted by the University of Helsinki, Department of Cultures, about sacred sounds and ritual soundscapes in Scandinavia. The group consists of six researchers, included the leader Riitta Rainio.

The project will explore ritual rocks of historical and contemporary Fennoscandia from a previously overlooked perspective of acoustics. The hypothesis is that the ability of these rock formations to reflect sound played a key role in the ritualization of the associated sacred sites as well as in the formation of their sonic rituals.

The ultimate aim of the project is to create foundations for a new transdisciplinary field termed Cultural Echology that seeks to understand the agency of sound reflections – echoes, reverberation or resonances – in shaping human perception, cultural concepts and practices as well as engagement with the environment.

My part of the research is to study modern ritual uses of rocks, caves and other places where the natural acoustics is an important part of the practices. One example is Kirkhelleren, a concert venue at the Traena Music Festival, Nordland County. In this cave – with brilliant acoustical properties – archaeologists have found traces of human activites going thousands of years back.

Ringing stones, Norway and Scandinavia

Documentation and analyses of ringing stones

A ringing stone (Norw. klokkesteinsyngestein or klangstein) is a large stone block or slab, which produces a metallic or ringing sound when struck with a smaller stone, and which can be connected to folk tradition or prehistoric contexts. I have worked with ringing stones for a long time. Some years ago I had a joint project with the Swedish music archaeologist Cajsa S. Lund on Scandinavian stones, (initially supported by The Foundation for Swedish- Norwegian Co-operation). We had a poster presentation on ringing stones at the 7th Symposium of the International Study Group on Music Archaeology, Tianjin, China, in 2010. With Jarle K. Øvrehus I wrote an article on the ringing stone at Aga, in Hardanger, Western Norway, published in the yearbook Hardanger 2013.

From 2021 I started a project of recording the entire material of ringing stones in Norway, in cooperation with Magma Geopark – a UNESCO Geopark based in Egersund. Our project is supported by the Arts Council of Norway and Norwegian Centre for Traditional Music and Dance. The project results in this website.

Roots and routes of the Jew’s Harp in Asia

Historical and organological project, in cooperation with Leo Tadagawa, Japan

The Jew’s harp is a musical instrument with deep roots in the cultures of Asia. Neither musicologists nor archaeologists have paid much attention to this instrument, and there is much undiscovered and unresearched material, especially with regard to its ancient history, including the way it spread in the cultures of Asia. This is a new joint project with Leo Tadagawa, a Japanese performer and researcher of the Jew’s harp. It aims to rectify the scholarly ignorance in this field, and investigate the instrument’s earliest period in Asia. The project will search for, document and examine a variety of sources, and locate the distribution, routes, and cultural significance of the Jew’s harp from the early Bronze Age (or earlier) up to ca. 500 CE. In 2013 I got a travel grant for a pilot project called ‘Jew’s Harps in China and Mongolia’ from The Institute for Comparative Research in Human Culture in Norway.

Political singing, supporter chanting, and battle cries

Book on singing as weaponry and identity marker (2021)

I receved scholarships from the Fritt Ord Foundation and the Non-Fiction Writers and Translators Organisation (NFF), to write a book about singing as weaponry, identity marker and agent in conflict. In the book I discuss many examples, including group singing in popular social movements, protest singing and much more. Among other things, I write about the singing tradition of the labor movement, the ‘singing revolution’ in the Baltic states and terrace chanting in football. The latter is based on my work on Norwegian supporter chanting in 2008 and 2009, commissioned by The Norwegian Collection of Folk Music, which then belonged to University of Oslo. I made sound recordings at the home matches of all the teams in the Norwegian Premier League. In an article (in Norwegian) about battle songs and revolutionary songs (‘Det e’ vi som e’ best. Kampsanger i politikk og idrett’, Sangen om Norge. Norsk populærmusikk gjennom 75 år) I write about supporter chanting. My book – Sang som våpen. Historier om sangens slagkraft – was published in 2021 by Ford Forlag.

Lyres, Scandinavia

Reconstruction of medieval lyres from iconographical and archaeological sources

I have worked with lyres as an instrument builder and a researcher. In 1997 I wrote an article about two bridges from the excavations of medieval Oslo (PDF, Norwegian text). One of these was probably a lyre bridge. In 2000 I published an article from a conference in Klaipeda, Lithuania, where I presented early lyres from Scandinavia (PDF). I have made a few copies of the instrument depicted at the carved stave church portal on Hylestad Stave Church, Setesdal, from about 1200, and I am currently working on reconstructions, through experimental instrument building, of several lyres found in depictions on wooden and stone artefacts from Norway, ca. 1100–1400 AD.

Soundscape Fjellstrand

Documentary sound recordings of a modern acoustic landscape, Nesodden, Norway

This is an ongoing project with the aim of documenting an acoustic landscape. The village of Fjellstrand in Nesodden (Akershus county) is the geographical framework for the project. This is my home place, which offers several interesting soundscapes, both man-made (boat traffic on the Oslo fjord, social dance parties etc.) and natural (forest, ocean, brooks mm.). My plan is to publish some of the recordings on different web pages, and produce a sound file that presents the soundscape of Fjellstrand throughout a calendar year.

The music culture of the Romani people

Research project funded by the The Research Council of Norway, hosted by The Norwegian Collection of Folk Music, University of Oslo (2007–2009)

Some years ago I participated in a project about the music of the Norwegian Romanies (taters/travellers). It was part of a program funded by the The Research Council of Norway, and localized to The Norwegian Collection of Folk Music, University of Oslo. Read about the project here (from the University of Oslo, in Norwegian). From the project, two articles in English were published, one in 2008: ‘Development of Musical Style and Identity Among the Romani People of Norway’ (in R. Statelova et al. [ed.], The Human World and Musical Diversity, pp. 141–145 [Sofia: Institute of Art Studies – Bulgarian Academy of Science]) and one in 2009: ‘National Heritage and the Norwegian Romanies’, co-authors Mary Barthelemy and Atle Lien Jenssen [in Z. Jurková and L. Bidgood [eds.], Voices of the Weak: Music and Minorities, pp. 94–102 [Prague: Faculty of Humanities, Charles University]).

Archaeological jew’s harps in Europe

Doctoral dissertation (University of Oslo), based on research grant funded by The Research Council of Norway (1997–2001)

In 1997 I got a scholarship from The Norwegian Research Council to investigate the archaeology of the jew’s harp in Europe. The research resulted in the doctoral thesis Jew’s Harps in European Archaeology (University of Oslo, 2004). It was revised and published in 2006 by Archaeopress, Oxford, as part of the series BAR (British Archaeological Reports), International Series (No. 1500, ISBN 1 84171 931 5). It is a comprehensive survey of excavated jew’s harps throughout Europe, and has become a standard work within this field of research. The book can be ordered from BAR publishing. You can read more about the project at this Musark-blogpost.