The Nordic Wolf and the Water of Life

March 2001

Program Notes

The story for this performance is an original creation by Megan Wells, based on world mythological and storytelling traditions, and shaped and woven in direct response to the music chosen by Jonathan Miller for this performance.  The music has been selected, in some instances composed, and put in sequence by Jonathan Miller, in direct response to the story created by Megan Wells for this performance.

So which inspired what, the story or the song?  We can no longer tell.  From the beginning, each fed, led, and inspired the other.  As the ancient bards always knew, music needs its story, and story needs its music.

The Music of the Story
The repertoire for this performance will be sung in the sequence below.

Tune Language Composer/Country
Danse, ikke grate na
Norwegian Norwegian folktune, with words by Lillebjorn Nilsen;
choral arrangement by Gunnar Eriksson, Sweden (published 1995)

Kung Liljekonvalje

Swedish David Wikander, Sweden (1910)

El Hambo

nonsense Jaakko Mantyarvi, Finland (1996)
Visa om Torn Erik Swedish after an old melody from Ahl, arr. Nils Lindberg, Sweden
The Trials of the Youngest texts and music:  Jonathan Miller, USA

The Cage's Song

Trolls' Shout semi-Nordic  

The Bridle's Song

Giants' Shout Swedish  
Suite:  Loki's Lair    

The Princess's Song

Ring ej mer Swedish Daniel Bortz, Sweden
Sag far jag, ljuva flicka Swedish German folktune in choral setting by Johannes Brahms, with Swedish text by G. Graner
demented German text: Adolph Wolfli;
music:  Per Norgard, Denmark (written 1979-80)
Refrang Swedish text: Lars Hulden;
music: Ulf Langbacka, Abo, Finland (1996)

Sancta Maria

Latin Thorkell Sigurbjornsson, Iceland (c. 1995)

Visa till Faro

Swedish Elisabet Hermodsson, 1976, arr. Gunnar Eriksson
Bossa pa ta Swedish Lars Gullin, arr. G. Eriksson/Stefan Forssen, Sweden, 1986


Welcome And Introduction

It’s my pleasure to welcome you.  If you’ve heard Chicago a cappella in concert before, welcome back.  You are about to enjoy an artistic collaboration which stretches the boundaries of our “music-only” genre into the realm of story.

If you’re coming to hear us for the first time, let me express my sincere gratitude that you have taken the time and effort to be here.  Your efforts will be rewarded, I believe.  If you like this production, we invite you to come back to future performances as well.  Most of our other concerts do not come with storytellers, but all of them feature nine incredible singers making some of the best vocal music this side of the Atlantic.

Some of you more regular patrons may be wondering where my usual dozen pages of translated texts are.  They’re not here this time, although I do provide written notes on each piece and its composer a few pages over.  Because this show is so dramatic in its very conception – which choral music typically is not – I have chosen to omit both printed texts and translations, leaving the work itself to communicate, much as a musical-theatre piece does.  The music has been chosen to enhance the drama.  Sometimes, the drama itself has been shaped to accommodate a song Megan and I thought was simply too cool not to use.

The purpose of the music here is to convey mood, feeling, progression of the story line—not the literary intricacies of the poetry.  (In fact, in two cases the actual meaning of the song’s poem is really quite tangential to the bigger meaning of the myth.)  Rather than have you be concerned about following along the printed translation, therefore, I wish to free your eyes from the tyranny of the printed program altogether, so that you may feast your eyes and ears on what is in front of you.  Anything you need to know to stay with the program will be given to you on stage.


It is a humbling experience to come into the presence of a wizard: one who has such command of her or his art form that in an encounter with them you are left both breathless and adoring, and wanting more (probably tomorrow, after a good rest and a hearty meal).  This program springs from the intersection of my life with two wizards.  They are Chicago-area storyteller Megan Wells, and Swedish choral conductor Gunnar Eriksson.


I first heard Megan Wells tell stories in autumn 1999.  I was immediately drawn in, imagining possibilities for a collaboration.  Spinning a tale, Megan taps quickly into the great themes of our earthly existence.  She can turn on a dime to produce sincere belly laughs of comic relief, much needed amid tragedy or loss or exaltation.

Megan calls myth “time-travel.”  It is part of her story-wizard’s gift to remind us that we are still human, with bodies and fleshly desires, as well as beings who seek transcendence.  I have come to appreciate her gifts and power in ever-greater measure as we have created this program together.

Megan and I agreed early on that we would spin the myth of the Fire-Bird.  Like many myths, the fire-bird story can be found in variants among many cultures.  What’s so amazing for me is that Megan seems to know them all.  I feel about Megan’s command of myth the way people have told me they feel about my scholar’s nose for obscure musicological bits and pieces: (said open-mouthed) “Where do you find this stuff?!”


Gunnar Eriksson is the founder and director of Rilkeensemblen (The Rilke Ensemble), a twelve-voice a cappella group from Goteborg (Gothenburg), Sweden specializing in music of our own time.  He is also assistant professor of choral conducting at the conservatory in Gothenburg and maintains an active international schedule as a guest conductor and clinician.

Gunnar inspires me from a distance, but his presence is always with me.  I met him in the fall of 1998.  I will never forget the two-hour concert that Gunnar’s Rilke Ensemble sang for me and North Park University’s Charles Peterson, in Anderson Chapel, at the end of Rilke’s first American tour.  Just me and Charlie, and two hours of glorious singing, heartfelt advice, and warm camaraderie.  Can you imagine the thrill, or the power, or ever getting over something like that?  Remembering it still brings tears to my eyes – especially the moment when Gunnar asked me to stand up, immerse myself in his thundering bass section, and sing “Danse, ikke grate na” with the Rilke Ensemble.  He said, as we parted that day, “I feel that we are brothers.”  Indeed, I have never found a vocal ensemble more akin to Chicago a cappella than the Rilke Ensemble – both are virtuoso ensembles made up of soloists, which imbue the music at hand with individual passion while remaining committed to flawless tuning, blend, and ultimately, expressing the score itself.  Both ensembles are favorites of living composers, and so on.  Until I had met Gunnar, I didn’t know there was any other group out there like ours.  I am happy that he had been at it for a decade or so before me, and grateful for his generous collegiality.

Gunnar is a true European, more interested in the process than in getting it “right.”  He writes, in his textbook Kor ad lib ("Choir ad lib"), which teaches improvisatory choral techniques:

Once, in 1959, three quarters of the choir took a wrong turn on the way to a choir festival which we were to open.  I remember standing there at the end of the church, trying at the last moment to get together a new choir.

This episode made a profound impression on me, and bad dreams about it persecuted me for years. … a packed hall, an audience full of expectation, and then me, suddenly realizing they’re all waiting for me and my choir.

Even though I had felt more at ease with improvised music than with written music, ever since childhood, it took a long time – maybe right up until this occasion – before I had the notion of a choir as an instrument on which to improvise.

… I seem to remember one of the themes at the above mentioned festival being:  “What do you do with two broken voices and a guitar?”  The question remains, is just as inspiring, and the answer is to be found anywhere and everywhere even today: you just find your way on all sorts of different paths.

And he does follow the path, wherever it is and wherever it leads.  It’s a real gift.  When choral singers – even of the high caliber of Chicago a cappella – are given license to direct the piece, to decide when to come in, then everyone’s face lights up.  We do this repeatedly in the tune “Danse, ikke grate na,” which serves as a musical and spiritual refrain for the entire work.  The singing becomes a group experience, almost tribal, in the best sense of the word.


Inspired by Gunnar’s example, I set out to choose repertoire that would help Megan tell her myth as vividly as possible.  It ended up being like one of those movies where people write a musical.  For many days, Megan would read to me, and I would get a flash of recognition, grab one of my dozen or so Scandinavian choral-music CDs, and play a track for her, wondering, “Is this the right one here?” Sometimes yes, sometimes no.  When it was the right one, both our faces lit up.

When we first started, I literally had no idea that I would be composing original music.  We were not clear exactly how the production would take shape, except with the myth as scaffolding and the music as essential.  But the more we worked together, the more it became clear that original music was needed.

Megan and I quickly developed a common wish to WEAVE the music and text together.  This is where my original incidental music came in:  the cage’s song, the bridle’s and princess’s, the troll and giant exclamations, and the suite we call “Loki’s Lair.”  The effect is now like a story with choral soundtrack, where the music sometimes is the point and at other times a mere enhancement, fading in and out of the foreground as the story demands.  Working for the first time within a dramatic framework, I see how much fun opera composers must have had since the original Florentine productions in the early 1600s.


As fun and funky as we are, Chicago a cappella is still formally classified as a “choral ensemble.”  Choral music tends to take itself rather seriously as A Classical Art Form.  It might offend some purists that we ask some of the 20th century’s best Scandinavian choral works to play a subservient role to a myth.  Rehearsals with Megan, however, have revealed the whole to be far greater than the sum of the parts.  For this show I have been liberated, in large part, from the stringent requirement that the choral music alone create its own sweep and flow to the concert, almost its own story.  This demand on the program is a tall order, and I spend many weeks for each concert tinkering to get it just right.  The Nordic Wolf’s conception of the program flow has been refreshing and exhilarating for me as a musician.  We are already so excited about Nordic Wolf that we are planning to weave a pair of storytellers into our spring 2002 reprise of our spirituals program, “Go Down, Moses.”  May there be many more collaborations between story and song.


I am incredibly proud of these singers, who have done remarkably well with some intricate music and a huge amount of foreign language.  It’s a Swedish myth, so they learned seven text-heavy Swedish pieces in three months.  Tack sa mycket!”

--Jonathan Miller

Founder and Artistic Director


Notes on the Music

Danse, ikke grate na (Dance, do not cry)

The simple, pulsing fragment of text, “Denne jorda,” is the main motif of the piece.  It is repeated in the bass, tenor, and alto lines to create an open musical undercurrent to the baritone solo, which leads into the meditative soprano solo, and a joyous choral ending.

Kung Liljekonvalje (King Lily-of-the-Valley)

This is one of the most beloved of all Swedish choral pieces, on a poem by Gustaf Froding (in turn one of that country’s best-loved writers).  It was published right after World War II by David Wikander (1884-1955), a composer who spent most of his life devoted to the Lutheran Church in Sweden.  Stig Jacobsson has written, “David Wikander worked for many decades as a church musician, and this left its mark on his achievement as a composer.  He was much appreciated as an organist, on account of his sensitive and practical style of playing.  The same qualities are apparent in his sacred choral works, which constitute the bulk of his output.  They are consistent in style, moderate and sometimes archaic, though they were judged modern for their time.  In his hymns and anthems he often reverted to church modes, with an almost ascetic economy. … Wikander’s secular choral songs are distinguished by the rare skill of their part writing, and by a lyrical, romantic and typically Scandinavian tonal language which has helped to make them an indispensable part of our cultural heritage.  Dofta, dofta vit siren, Forvarskvall and above all Kung Liljekonvalje belong to the favorite repertoire of Swedish choirs and have almost acquired the status of folk songs.”

El Hambo

El Hambo is one of the funniest pieces of choral music I have ever heard.  The composer writes: “The text, such as it is, of El Hambo should be pronounced as Finnish, flavored with amusing imitations of the vowel colors of any Scandinavian language except Danish.”

“The hambo is a Swedish folk dance in 3/4 time.  This augmented hambo in 5/4 time is something of a tribute to those folk musicians whose enthusiasm much exceeds their sense of rhythm, and the increasingly desperate punctuations should be interpreted as an attempt to keep the performance in some sort of metrical shape.  The somewhat arrogant title is intended to suggest (rather like La Valse) an apotheosis of the genre, The Mother of All Hambos if you like, or even The Hambo to End All Hambos.

“. … Sources of inspiration for this piece include, surprisingly, genuine Norwegian choral folk song arrangements and of course the Swedish Chef in The Muppet Show.  The text is, or is supposed to be, completely meaningless.  The first three chords of the piece are violin tunings actually used in Norwegian folk music.”

Jaakko Mantyjarvi (b. 1963 in Turku, Finland) studied English and Linguistics at the University of Helsinki, graduating with an FK (=MA) degree in 1991; in 1987, he was accredited as an Authorized Translator from Finnish to English and English to Finnish.  He is currently employed as a translator and computer system manager at The English Centre Helsinki, a private translation company.  He has also studied theory of music and choral conducting at the Sibelius Academy.

As a composer, Jaakko Mantyjarvi describes himself as an eclectic traditionalist:  eclectic in that he adopts influences from a number of styles and periods, fusing them into his own idiom; traditionalist in that his musical language is based on a traditional approach and uses the resources of modern music only sparingly.  Because he is himself active in making music, his music is extremely practically oriented; he is a choral singer, and thus most of his works are choral works.  His major commissions include a work for mixed choir for the contemporary choral music seminar at the Cork International Choral Festival in spring 1999, a work for the combined mixed choirs at the Finnish-Estonian Song and Dance Festival in the year 2000 and a work for choir and orchestra for the 700th anniversary of the consecration of Turku Cathedral in summer 2000.  In autumn 2000, he was appointed composer-in-residence to the Tapiola Chamber Choir.

He wrote me last week: “The success of the piece continues to amaze me.  I suppose I should mention as I have in the past that there is no problem with performing El Hambo in Scandinavia, if that question ever arises.  The Swedes think the joke is on the Norwegians, and vice versa.  No, seriously, I have yet to meet anyone whose national sentiments have been offended by the piece.  Best of luck with your concerts.”

Visa om Torn Erik (Torn Erik’s Ballad)

Nils Lindberg (b. 1933) is a leading Swedish jazz composer.  He is a composer, arranger, pianist, and bandleader; he has arranged music for the likes of Duke Ellington.  He is also influenced by both jazz and folk idioms.  We performed his Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? On our “18 Lips” program last spring, and it has quickly become a favorite.  Torn Erik was a legendary Swedish minstrel of the Dalarna region in the middle of Sweden.  This setting of Torn Erik’s tune bears the alternative title “Seven Pictures of Dalarna.”

The Trials of the Youngest

These six pieces fall into three groups: the solo pieces for cage, bridle, and princess; the quick, testosterone-poisoned outbursts by trolls and giants; and the mostly gentle background music for the journey to Loki’s lair.

The solo pieces are all based on the same original tune, which is modally conceived, like a troubadour melody.  I experimented almost ten years ago with a similar melodic effect when writing original music to a friend’s dramatic adaptation of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, but these new ones are much more to my liking.

The troll piece has a text which is simply a series of Nordic-sounding syllables.  When I wrote it, we were working hard on Swedish pronunciation, and I was just starting to study Swedish in earnest myself, so the clumsy effect is fully intended.  When I liked it so much I decided to use the same music for the giants, I decided the giants had to have real words, so they basically tell the youngest in simple textbook Swedish to “give the bridle up.”

“Loki’s Lair” was written at my keyboard with Megan sitting there in my living room, reading her fabulous script draft to me.  The music was completely obvious to me as she read, so I scribbled it down in pencil and then put it on my music-writing software after lunch.  Technology really does help sometimes.

Ring ej mer (Ring no more)

Daniel Bortz (b. 1943) was taught first at university by Karl-Bircher Blomdahl (1962-1965) and then by Ingvar Lidholm (1965-1968).  Bortz also studied abroad under Gottfried Michael Koenig at the Sonology Department of Utrecht University (electronic music).  He teaches orchestration at the College of Music in Stockholm and is a member of the Royal Academy of Music.

This hysterical, anguished piece is the middle movement of Tre Elegier (Three Elegies).  Bortz is well known for his method of making contemporary style reflect the tonality of earlier periods.  Subjective emotion, with its anxiety and pessimism, has also contributed a great deal towards the declamatory, visionary characteristics which are so typical of his music.

Sag far jag, ljuva flicka (Say, may I, lovely girl?)

This classic German partsong appears in a Swedish book for amateur choral singers which was given to me by Gunnar Eriksson.  It is amusing to find African-American spirituals living side-by-side there with Brahms and English partsongs, as well as traditional Scandinavian folksongs.

Wiigen-Lied (Cradle-Song)

Per Norgard (b. 1932) is the towering Danish composer of his generation.  He has composed more than 300 works, including symphonies, chamber music, choral works, opera, electronic music, ballet, and film scores.  He has received numerous awards, including the Nordic Council Music Award in 1974 and the Sonning Award in 1996.  He has taught and inspired a whole generation of Danish composers.

Norgard has composed for both professional and amateur musicians.  His early models were especially his teacher, Vagn Holmboe, and Sibelius.

Per Norgard’s musical universe is in constant movement; an ongoing process of asking questions and searching for new answers.  He did a great deal of composing to texts of the asylum-confined German poet Adolph Wolfli, the poet for the jarring Wiigen-Lied.  The title is a deliberate misspelling of “Wiegen-Lied,” a traditional genre often associated with Christmas.

This is the first of three movements in a cycle called Wie ein Kind (“Like a Child”).  The sing-song nonsense children’s names and hambo-like (really!), skipping soprano lines in the middle section appear in stark contrast to the violent outbursts by the tenor soloist and eventually by the entire ensemble.

Refrang (Refrain)

Ulf Langbacka (b. 1957) took a diploma in conducting at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Finland in 1987.  He has conducted many choirs in Finland and taught choral conducting in the Sibelius Academy as well as various courses and seminars.  Since 1991 he has been lecturer of music at Abo Akademi University (Finland’s Swedish-speaking university) in Abo, Finland, conducting choirs and teaching music theory.  Choirs under his direction have participated with success in international competitions, most recently the student choir Brahe Djaknar, which won 1st prize in the competitioin “Europe … and its songs” in Barcelona in September 2000, where Langbacka also was awarded a special prize for best conducting.

As a composer he is mainly self-taught and has written mostly choral music for his own choir.  Recently, however, his music has been more widely performed; several choirs in Finland and Sweden have both performed his music and commissioned new works by him.  This testosterone-laden piece is from Tre Erotiska Sanger (Three Erotic Songs) for men’s voices, and it is a completely effective, short work.

Sancta Maria (Holy Mary)

Thorkell Sigurbjornsson is familiar to Chicago a cappella audiences as the composer of Immanuel oss I natt, one of our perennial favorite Christmas pieces, as well as the haunting Mariukvaedi, which we sang for the first time last December.  Thorkell is an accomplished Icelandic composer who received his master’s degree in composition at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.  He lives and composes in Reykjavik.

Visa till Faro (Song to Faro)

Faro (literally, “sheep-island”) is a beautiful, small island off the larger island of Gotland, in the Baltic Sea, about a hundred miles SSE from Stockholm.  Bodil Aksetorp writes, “Many Swedes, particularly the residents of Stockholm, associate thoughts of Gotland or Faro with dreams of summer.  Elisabet Hermodsson, Swedish poet, artist and lieder singer, has published several collections of poems, and she has illustrated, set to music and recorded most of them.”  This song, from 1976, is her most oft-sung work, and can stand on its own.  The tune is the final selection on a truly breathtaking album by the vocal sextet Singer Pur, called Nordisk vokalmusik; it is sung there, as here, in an a cappella choral arrangement by Gunnar Eriksson.

Bossa pa ta (Bossa on the toe)

The original tune is by Lars Gullin (1928-1976), a composer known well for his work in jazz.  The Swedish text is taken from the Song of Songs, roughly meaning “Come, my love, let us go out into the village; the rain is over and gone; let us go out and see if the trees are in bloom.”  The implication is that the lovers have indoors doing a few other things too.
Don’t blink, you’ll miss it!


Megan Wells, storyteller

An award-winning artist, Megan Wells was honored with Chicago’s prestigious Joseph Jefferson Award for excellence in Directing (1986) and two national awards for storytelling (1999), The EdPress Distinguished Achievement Award and Parent’s Choice Gold from Parent’s Magazine.

Megan, a professional storyteller for 10 years, tells steadily in the school and library system and travels to corporations around the country.  Her appearances at Storytelling Festivals include the Rock River, Jungle Tales, Midway Village, Wild Onion, Schaumburg Prairie Center, and Illinois, where she was an “Outstanding Illinois Teller” for 1999.  Her acclaimed tales include her own original version of the Psychye and Eros and King Midas myths, as well as “Fire in Boomtown,” an original tale of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

Megan holds a BFA in theater arts from Illinois Wesleyan University and an MFA in theater arts from Illinois State University.