Stian Carstensen & Trifon Trifonov

Bath International Music Festival 2011


If you were looking to cast a musician in a film about Bulgarian wedding music, the chances are that you wouldn’t automatically choose a Norwegian. Although it features tunes played at a tempo that will cause dancers to work up a sweat, Norway’s folk music tends to be measured, almost sedate by comparison with the dizzying tempos and compound time signatures that fuel Balkan folk dancing, and Norwegian jazz, although it doesn’t all progress at a glacial pace by any means, is the very essence of cool.


So much for stereotypes. There is a video on YouTube that shows why Stian Carstensen, even at eleven years of age, might have been destined to become besotted with Bulgarian metres. At the time this clip was filmed for a Norwegian television chat show, Carstensen had been playing the freebase button-keyed accordion for about eighteen months. Yet he sounds like a seasoned virtuoso, racing effortlessly through a fairly involved set piece that doubtless would have impressed his classical examiners.


A few years later, as a teenager, Carstensen realised that his chosen instrument had one serious drawback: it didn’t impress the girls. So he transferred his musical ability from buttons and bellows on to frets and guitar strings and joined a heavy metal band.


It’s not for a Bath International Music Festival programme note to speculate on the extra-musical success or otherwise of such a strategy. We do know, though, that Carstensen was, and remains, a master of the guitar, just as he is of the kaval, the bagpipes, violin, mandolin and banjo – and if you ask his sometime musical partner Ernst Reijseger, who once pondered aloud how to play one of Carstensen’s pieces on the cello and was given an instant demonstration, you’ll find yet another instrument in Carstensen’s arsenal.


Carstensen had begun playing accordion at the age of nine. He’d studied with his father at first and then taken classical lessons, which resulted in his touring America in his early teens as a squeezebox prodigy, and at the same time he became interested in jazz. His father, who played double bass as well as accordion, played jazz standards with him and once the initial rush of heavy metal fever had passed, Carstensen began to play jazz again, eventually gravitating towards Trondheim Music Conservatory’s jazz course with guitar as his first study.


Trondheim has been the hatchery for many significant Norwegian jazz players, trumpeters Nils Petter Molvaer, Arve Henricksen and Mathias Eick, pianist Tord Gustavsen, saxophonists Tore Brunborg and Trygve Seim and percussionist Thomas Stronen to name but a few, and the band Carstensen formed in 1991, Farmers Market, as Bath audiences know, takes its rightful place among them.


Carstensen’s original plan, for Farmers Market to play free jazz, took an abrupt left turn the day he happened across the sheet music for a Bulgarian folk tune in 11/16 time. His band mates were equally intrigued and the band practised long hours to be able to play this incredibly involved music. Carstensen was especially smitten and having found the natural progression for his eleven year old self’s wizardry, he morphed into a Balkan-style accordionist, visiting Bulgaria to study the local folk music and inviting singers and musicians from the famous Le Mysteres des Voix Bulgares to join Farmers Market on tour. The resulting album, Speed-Balkan-Boogie, recorded at Molde Jazz Festival in Norway, gave the band a spectacular recording debut in 1995.


A change was in store, however, and it would lead to the formation of the brilliant duo that is performing for you tonight. Back in 1995 Trifon Trifonov’s two main interests were continuing as one of Bulgaria’s most respected saxophonists, with a busy schedule of weddings all over the country, and tending the small farm in Katonitza, just outside Plodiv, where his family live and grow peppermint and peanuts.


When Havard Lund, Farmers Market’s saxophonist, announced that he was leaving the band, Carstensen and his colleagues decided that his replacement had to be Bulgarian. Their auditioning technique was far from conventional. They contacted a friend, Borislav Zgourowksi, asked him to record some saxophonists around Bulgaria and got him to play the results down the phone. When they heard Trifonov, they were knocked out. Zgourowksi was dispatched to Trifonov’s farmhouse with instructions to phone Carstensen – in those days it wasn’t possible to phone Katonitkza from Norway – and Carstensen and Trifonov jammed with each other down the line for an hour. The job, if he wanted it, was Trifonov’s and a month later he arrived in Norway to join Farmers Market.


Carstensen and Trifonov’s partnership has continued apace since that initial telephonic session and their shared interest in Trifonov’s indigenous music is being added to all the time through a sense of musical enquiry. As well as working with Ernst Reijseger in the intervening years, Carstensen has recorded with Norwegian jazz luminaries, bassist Arild Andersen, drummer Jon Christensen and guitarist Frode Alnaes, worked with Django Bates and Iain Ballamy, studied Appalachian traditional music at first hand in bluegrass country and appeared as the circus band accordionist in the 2005 film MirrorMark, ensuring that there is always something new to add to the Balkan traditions that he and Trifonov stretch and celebrate with such thrilling expertise.


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