Sunleif Rasmussen and the nordic identity
by Henrik Friis
In many ways Sunleif Rasmussen is a pan-Nordic composer. Born in the Faroe Islands in 1961, he has lived in Norway for a period, and today he shuttles between Copen-hagen and his native islands. He also has a close association with Finland and Finnish musical life, among other ways through a close friendship of many years with the con-duc-tor and violinist John Storgårds; a musical friendship of which this CD and the CD from 2007 “Strings Against Strings” with Storgårds and Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra are shining examples. Rasmussen speaks more than a handful of the related Nordic languages, and is a great believer in the shared Nordic identity nourished by the common linguistic basis. His youth did not in fact point in the direction of a life as the absolutely most prominent Faroese composer. There was no musical training on the island of Sandoy when Sunleif Rasmussen was growing up. So he learned to read music from his grandmother. At the end of the 1970s he went to Norway to attend a music college outside Oslo, and it was there that he first heard a symphony orchestra play live – an overwhelming expe-rience, among other reasons because the programme consisted of striking masterworks from the twentieth century: Le Sacre du Printemps by Igor Stravinsky and Romeo and Juliet by Sergei Prokofiev. At the same time he drew great inspiration from the great jazz pianist of the time, Keith Jarrett, and the tenor saxophonist Jan Garbarek, and in fact it was as a jazz pianist – with a single CD on his conscience – that Sunleif Rasmus-sen developed musically in the 1980s. At that time he was back in the Faroes, before moving to Copenhagen in 1988; the next year he began studying composition at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in the capital with Professor Ib Nørholm – and later electro-acoustics with Ivar Frounberg.
Shortly after his studies, in 1995-97, he wrote his best known work, the first symphony, Oceanic Days, for which he received the Nordic Council’s Music Prize as the first and so far the only Faroese to do so. Over the years he has also received grants from the Léonie Sonning Music Foundation and the Danish Arts Foundation, and in 2011, as the youngest recipient ever, he won the biggest culture prize of the Faroes, the Mentanarheiðursløn landsins.
In the works in the 1990s as today, Rasmussen found his music in natural pheno-mena, much like the Romantics of the nineteenth century. In the same way as the Romantics he did so in a deliberate search for ambivalent, complex expression – in Rasmussen’s case with a point of departure in Faroese melodies. But while in the 1990s these melodies were only present in the hidden composition work as a basis for serial and spectral principles – where notes and sounds are thoroughly and systematically orga-nized to make the music highly composite – the folk music is heard much more directly in the musical expression today. Intervals that are very prominent in the folk melodies, and modal harmonies, form certain quite central aspects of the musical DNA on which – in what is actually a classic mode of composing – he builds in as many ways as at all possible.
The earliest works on the CD – the wind quintet Cantus Borealis from 1995 and the sextet Vetrarmyndir (Winter Pictures) from his early study years in Copenhagen – both give us a good sense of Rasmussen’s love of evocations of nature and at the same time the intense drama there can be in such evocations.
Vetrarmyndir begins as misty landscapes of well blended wind sounds, but quickly absorbs more and more impulses to move towards a truly complex, extremely -rhythmic weave of striking figures. Notes in varied quantities confront one another so that it all rocks and rumbles. Midway through the piece the music thins out and flows with dense melodies before the rhythmic play is ignited again. The pattern is repeated: tonal agitation that leads to rhythmic wildness. The autograph in the music says ‘Keyp-manna-havn 1991’, and we must suppose that it was the raging of nature in that region – that is, peaceful Copenhagen in Denmark – that provided the germ of the music. But the degree of drama might also suggest that memories of the Atlantic climate around the Faroes also played a role. For it is violent.
Cantus Borealis (Song of the North Wind) is closely related – in both tempe-rament and the complexity of its sonorities. Quite specifically, the musicians blow tone-lessly from time to time in their tubes so the wind soughs. More abstractly, one feels the power of the wind in intense, powerfully coloured sounds that move slowly from side to side. One characteristic of the whole texture of the music is the small, flickering, un-stable variations with which the notes are constantly decorated. Trills, turns, the colour-ings that arise when a wind player overblows the instrument powerfully and makes it snarl. The notes are as ephemeral as the wind. But despite all the violence, this is also a highly poetic and fragile type of wind music. Fine, meticulously built-up harmonies with just one or two instruments that move slowly up and down. It all ends, naturally enough, with a powerful expiration.
Four Gardens also has plenty of instability in its sounds, but, as in the other works on the CD from the last ten years, the form is very clear. The four movements are decidedly and essentially different, among other reasons because the instrumentation is different for each movement, with the piano in all four as the constant factor. The gardens of the title refer to the roots of the music in Rasmussen’s critically acclaimed chamber opera after a short story by William Heinesen, The Madman’s Garden, which had its premiere as the first ever Faroese opera at the Nordic House in Tórshavn in 2006; a story of the Fall of Man staged as the path of two teenagers towards adult life. The first movement is pure piano music which actually sounds like furiously fast jazz with small rhythmic displacements in two minutes of dense confusion. The second movement is the exact opposite, cool and inscrutable wind music with small motifs that are repeated again and again in a very slow development towards the sharp drama of the third movement for three strings – before the fourth movement weaves powerful sounds from the whole gamut of piano, wind and strings.
The three duos with the title Andalag are parts of a larger complex of music written by Rasmussen over the past three years, one that still, according to plan, lacks a couple of compositions. The Faroese title plays on several meanings. Literally translated the title mans ‘breath’, but anda, as well as meaning ‘breathing’ also means ‘spirit’, while lag means both ‘layer’ and ‘melody’. The title in other words quite specifically describes the wind players who sit breathing into their tubes and creating music, and quite abstractly the poetic creation that takes place in the composition of melodic layers one above the other. When all the works are finished, the Andalag cycle will consist of eleven wind works: eight duos of four minutes each, two quartets of eight minutes each and an octet of 16 minutes; for flutes, clarinets, bassoons and horns.
The music is simple and easy to follow. There are two melodic ideas behind all the works, which most Faroese, according to Rasmussen, will recognize from a sea of national songs. Andalag #1 begins out of nothing with a clarinet note that slowly breaks through. And then the music is in progress. Like the initial formulation of a mathe-matical problem, three notes turn around one another, alternately in the clarinet and in the flute; a problem that is solved in the rest of the piece in close composition that moves up and down, quickly and slowly, powerfully and faintly, but in a constant -coupling of the two winds. In Andalag #3 it is a small, characteristic figure in the horn with a grace note and a fall that we follow on a wild tour around the staves. Andalag #11 on the other hand stays completely calm. A flute and a bassoon play above and below each other and form musical sounds, while the flautist sings wordless notes through the instrument.
The Andalag works follow a rigorous plan, and in this sense are a good example of the purgation of the forms one encounters in Rasmussen’s recent music. The ideas are clear and are carved out concisely in the movements – often quite squarely in an alternation with dreaming poetry. Just like the most recent work on the CD – Motion/Emotion, -finished in 2011, commissioned by Lapland Chamber Orchestra and John Storgårds. Five movements: one kept in pure motion, one fluid and singing, another one of dancing, purling rhythms, a movement that begins delicately and with no pulse, and a last movement that ends in an absolutely tight pulsating finale.
Henrik Friis, August 2013