The nyckelharpa--a Swedish folk instrument with a 600-year history--is an unwieldy keyed fiddle related to the hurdy-gurdy. Played with a short bow, the standard version has up to 16 strings--three for melody, one for drone, and the rest for resonance--and 37 wooden keys that, when pressed, hit the strings and act as frets. Sounds like there's a lot of potential there, doesn't it? The repertoire featured on Byss-Calle (Northside), which celebrates Sweden's most famous practitioner of the instrument, is all traditional, but the six members of the Nyckelharpa Orchestra, including Olov Johansson of Vasen, Johan Hedin of Trio Patrekatt, and Niklas Roswall of Ranarim (all important modern Swedish folk groups) breathe new life into the material with inventive arrangements. Playing a number of variants--including the altnyckelharpa, the tenornyckelharpa, the moraharpa, the kontrabasharpa, and the silverbasharpa, all of which feature different types and numbers of strings and keys--the group can produce a gorgeous swarm of sound, multiplying the instrument's inherent depth with elaborate contrapuntal arrangements. Many of the album's pieces feature only two or three players at a time, but when all six perform at once the combination of deep drones, filigreed arpeggios, and pretty melodic lines is startling. Most of the pieces suggest the precision and grace of a top-notch chamber music ensemble, but some stuff defies categorization: "Brostugan," a duet performed by Hedin and Johansson that's named after one of the 30 pubs in Byss-Calle's hometown of Alvkarleby when he was alive (1783-1847), has a truly spooky coda that's all tiptoe stabs and swells and makes great use of silence. Wednesday, April 18, 7 PM, Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington; 312-744-6630.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Thomas Nylund.