Sunniva Brynnel is a Swedish-born composer, singer and pianist whose musical accomplishments span folk and jazz music, often intertwining the two. Following extensive musical study which includes Pop music in Sweden and Gaelic music in Ireland, she later graduated from Leeds College of Music in 2012 with a first class degree in Jazz music. She now lives in Boston, USA, where she is studying a Masters in Jazz at The New England Conservatory, whilst working as a professional musician and also being news editor and journalist for Swedish folk-roots magazine, Lira.
In the third episode of our folk series, we get Sunniva’s take on folk music, mixing genres, and how the international folk scene differs from Britain…
Q: How would you define the term "folk music"?
S: For me, folk music is music that is passed on aurally through generations. It does not defy being notated, but for me sheet music is a mere tool for memory in the context of folk music. Often I don’t even remember the name of a tune, only from whom I learned it (by ear) and in what situation. It’s like nice snapshots in time of musical moments shared!
Q: What inspires you to create music within this genre?
S: I grew up with Swedish folk music, and was later surrounded by Irish, English and American folk music, so I didn’t have much choice other than to create music in this style! It comes out of me by osmosis. I can then make conscious choices with the help of compositional tools as to how folky I wish the piece to be, or how jazzy.
Q: Given that you intertwine elements of jazz and folk into your musical style – why do you feel these two genres work so well together?
S: This is something I have thought about many times, but we shouldn’t presume that the styles work well together. For some people they don’t mix well. To my ears, Swedish folk music and jazz harmony mix well for a few different reasons, one being that a lot of our traditional melodies are in melodic minor – a mode that contemporary jazz harmony leans heavily upon. We also have many traditional tunes in 3/4 and 4/4 with triplet subdivisions, and I think that helps in meeting with the jazz tradition. Lastly, we have a long tradition – since the middle of the 20th century – of Swedish jazz musicians fusing jazz and Swedish folk. So, that path has been well prepared for my generation!
Q: Do you draw on any inspiration from the wider folk tradition?
S: I love learning tunes from other cultures and I find that this is a great way of meeting and hanging out with new people. However, there was a point when I had to limit myself and actually start deciding which sounds I was not drawn to. Otherwise I would be trying to do everything, and there just aren’t enough hours in this lifetime to master every style.
In terms of how folk music is being fused with more contemporary styles such as electronica or pop for example – sometimes it excites and inspires me and sometimes not. It depends on how well it is being executed, and whether its sound happens to resonate with me at that particular point in my life.
Q: You’ve been involved in folk music in various communities internationally – including Gothenburg and Boston. How does the folk scene in these places compare to Leeds?
S: Here in Boston where I am now, I would say that the folk scene is fairly similar to what was going on in Leeds when I lived there. Although the pub session scene in Britain and Ireland, where I also lived, cannot be compared with anything outside of it! Swedish folk music is not commonly played in pubs in Sweden, but rather at house sessions, festivals and other get-togethers for folk players. The latter type of event is called Spelmansstämma, and we do have a lot of these in Sweden, especially in the summer. I would say that there is a general appreciation of folk music in all of the countries I’ve lived, but perhaps most of all in Ireland.
Q: Within your career as a writer and news editor for a folk-roots magazine – are there any artists who have really caught your inspiration?
S: Too many to mention! At the moment I’m listening a lot to Swedish/Norwegian group Rydvall Mjelva, who are great. I have also loved British folk band LAU for a long time.
Leeds College of Music launches BA (Hons) Music (Folk) in Sep 2017
More info on Sunniva Brynnel, here
More from the Folk Series: #1 Gilmore & Roberts | #2 Sif Jacobsen & Caitlin Stubbs