Sigbjorn Apeland and Nils Okland unload a harmonium from a boat on the island of Lysoen
Sigbjorn Apeland and Nils Okland unload a harmonium from a boat on the island of Lysoen Credit: Berit Hogheim

By all accounts Norwegian violin virtuoso Ole Bull—sometimes called the Norwegian Paganini—was an eccentric man. On a trip to Egypt in 1876 he reportedly climbed the Pyramid of Cheops in Giza and gave an impromptu performance. After achieving fame in the U.S. in 1843 with the first of five lengthy stateside tours he’d take in his lifetime, in 1852 he began trying to build a utopian farming community in northern Pennsylvania, establishing four small towns on more than 10,000 acres of land he’d purchased. He poured his savings into the venture, but it went bust, and in 1857 he returned to his native Bergen.

On another trip to the States in 1868, he met Sara Thorp, 40 years his junior, in Madison, Wisconsin. They were secretly married in Norway in 1870, with a formal ceremony the following year in Madison. In 1872 he bought the island of Lysoen, off the coast of Bergen, and built an extravagant home, topped with onion domes, where he spent most of his remaining years. His final performance was in Chicago in May 1880, and he died a few months later on Lysoen. Bull made no recordings—the phonograph had only just been invented when he died—and though he’s believed to have written about 100 pieces of music, authenticated scores still exist for only ten or so. These days his romantic style is out of fashion, and he’s remembered more for his personal peculiarities than for his art.

On a beautiful new recording called

Lysoen—Hommage a Ole Bull

Lysoen—Hommage a Ole Bull (ECM), violinist Nils Okland and keyboardist Sigbjorn Apeland give Bull’s work a loose, creative interpretation, focusing on the less celebrated facets of his legacy: his interests in Scandinavian folk music and improvisation. Apeland and Okland (also a virtuoso on the Hardanger fiddle, which has additional strings that run beneath the fingerboard and add gorgeous, haunting overtones) play a handful of originals and adapt a few Bull pieces, a variety of Norwegian folk songs, and “Solveigs Sang” by Edvard Grieg, who cited Bull as a model for his own borrowings from folk material.

There’s nothing on this delicate but stunning album that sounds like a Bull performance would have 150 years ago; Okland and Apeland seem to feel that the best way to salute an original like Bull is to be true to themselves. “We don’t claim to improvise as Bull did,” they write in their liner notes, “but we use many of the same themes that he used, and—as with him—our improvisations are often based upon Norwegian folk music.”

Both musicians travel between styles and disciplines that are often seen as mutually exclusive—especially in the U.S., where musicians fluent in both folk and classical (like, say, bluegrass bassist Edgar Meyer) are usually considered anomalies. In European countries, particularly Scandinavian ones, the distance between folk and classical isn’t as wide, at least when it comes to technique.

Both Okland and Apeland have served as director of the Ole Bull Academy in Voss, founded as a folk-music school in 1977. Okland got his start in classical, but it wasn’t until he began studying folk with Hardanger greats Sigbjorn Bernhoft Osa and Knut Hamre that he learned about Bull. He’s collaborated with jazz musicians like pianist Christian Wallumrod and accordionist Frode Haltli (with whom he played at the Chicago Cultural Center in November 2007), and on his own gorgeous records he combines extended techniques, contemporary classical, and folk. Apeland has worked with everyone from electronic duo Alog to folksinger Berit Opheim, and this year he released a solo harmonium record called Glossolalia (Hubro). He and Okland also play in a rumbly, ambient improvising trio called 1982 with drummer Oyvind Skarbo.

“Bull’s style of playing (the romantic improviser) has declined not only in Norway, but throughout the ‘classical world,'” Apeland writes in an e-mail interview. “But he’s still popular because of his beautiful melodies and because of his reputation as an adventurous character. With this recording we don’t have any agenda except from making our own version of the Bull heritage as good as we can.” On Bull’s seriously lyrical “La Melancolie,” Apeland reinforces the song’s sadness with sparse, dilated broken chords, while Okland plays the melody with a raw, almost painful sweetness. But the next piece, “Belg og Slag,” is an improvisation, with Apeland creating swells on harmonium and Okland hammering the bridge of his violin with a bow to create a striated series of staccato double stops.

The duo took the unprecedented step of recording the album in Bull’s home on Lysoen; Apeland used Bull’s recently restored grand piano as well as his old harmonium, and on a couple of pieces Okland played the master’s 1734 Guarneri del Gesu violin. But though they steeped themselves in Bull’s milieu, played his music, and even borrowed his instruments, the results belong completely to Okland and Apeland—and to the present.