Elysian Fields – The Scandinavian Project

An interview with electric gambist and band co-founder, Jenny Eriksson

Since their first performance three years ago, Elysian Fields, Australia’s only electric viola da gamba band, has carved out a growing reputation for performances that blur the boundaries between jazz, chamber music and world music.

On May 24 Elysian Fields will launch their Scandinavian Project which features Scandinavian jazz and folk songs alongside new music inspired by the Nordic World. Electric viola da gambist and band co-founder, Jenny Erikson, one of Australia’s leading classical music exponents of the acoustic viola da gamba, and this country’s only electric viola da gambist, talks about the project.

Where does your interest in all things Scandinavian come from?

My grandfather, Knut Axel Eriksson, was a Swedish sailor, He arrived in Melbourne in the 1920s and met and married my grandmother, an English immigrant. He never went back home. A relative of his wrote to us every year in English which kept the contact up. In the 1980s, when I was studying the viola da gamba in Holland,’ my husband and I made the trip to Sweden for the first time and met all the relatives. We got on immediately. None were professional musicians, but they played folk music and sang in choirs. On that first trip my cousin and her husband, who both play folk fiddle and sing, often got their instruments out and we just sat around and sang. They have been very encouraging of me. I’ve since been back several times and gave my first professional performances there in 2017.

Is this the first time you’ve played Scandinavian music?

Not at all. A few years back I created a similar project with my acoustic group, The Marais Project. We put together a concert then recorded a whole CD called Smorgasbord!, which consisted of Swedish baroque, jazz, folk and popular music. One of the highlights was doing our own version of a ballad by e.s.t called ‘Thoughts of a septuagenarian‘. Our lute player in The Marais Project, Tommie Andersson, is Swedish and before coming to Australia he had a deep interest in Swedish folk music. He did most of the arrangements. The CD sold well and was in the Top 20 in the national classical charts for several months. It also got played quite frequently on Swedish national radio,

What is different for you playing with a jazz-orientated as opposed to a classical group?

Firstly, the whole feel of the band is different to French baroque music which is my bread and butter. Except for me, and to a lesser extent, Susie, the other band members are all jazz musicians so there is a jazz feel and nuance to everything we do. Secondly, all the repertoire is different to anything I have done before. And, scarily, I’ve had to get used to doing gigs on one-and-a-bit-rehearsals, for example. The timbre or tone colour of Elysian Fields is also unique due to the inclusion of the electric viola da gamba. I feel that the due to its ancient history the gamba kind of anchors us in an indefinable way in baroque and early music although we do swing.

Where do the rest of the band fit in to The Scandinavian Project?

We have several Scandinavian connections. Matt Keegan studied in Sweden, vocalist Susie Bishop sings fluently in Swedish and bass player Siebe Pogson is 1/8th Swedish. We’ve been doing covers of Scandinavian jazz artists like e.s.t., guitarist Matt Norrefalk and Norwegian pianist Nils Gunnar Hoff almost from the start. Since Susie Bishop joined us we’ve added some Swedish folk songs. She is very good at languages, has a Swedish boyfriend, and has visited Sweden several times so she is very enthusiastic about what we are doing. We’ve given Matt McMahon honorary Swedish citizenship, so he does not feel left out!

What can the audience expect?

First of all, not many Australian groups explore the music from far northern Europe. So expect some new sounds. Secondly, we are a band that mostly performs original charts by our members, so we are not simply doing a homage to Scandinavian jazz. Weve created new music as well. For example,Matt Keegan has written two pieces reflecting his time studying in Sweden;Siebe Pogson has composed a collection of songs titled ‘The Tragedy, The Journey and The Destination’;Matt McMahon is arranging Swedish jazz and folk song charts.In addition, I’ve made some arrangements of some of my favourite Swedish and Norwegian jazz charts. We are also going to delve in folk music. Few people know how beautiful Swedish and Norwegian folk song is. Those short summers stimulate lots of fast fiddle tunes while the long, fearsome winters means there is plenty of time to write sad, mournful ballads!

I hope this will be the first of many musical side trips to Scandinavia.

Elysian Fields is:

Susie Bishop – voice and violin

Matt Keegan saxophones

Jenny Eriksson – electric viola da gamba

Matt McMahon – piano

Siebe Pogson –bass guitar

Dave Goodman – drums

Elysian Fields play at Foundry 616, on Thursday May 24.