Andalag – Solo and Ensemble Works
Andalag – Solo and Ensemble Works
Sunleif Rasmussen is the undisputed pioneer of Faroese classical music, and this album features some of the Faroe Islands’ most talented performers, the new music ensemble Aldubáran and violist Jákup Lützen. Recorded in Tórshavn, the music they present here pivots on Rasmussen’s deft harboring of momentum and energy, his gift for transformative textures, and his closeness to the unique musical traditions and landscapes of the Islands themselves – one of the most beautiful, distinctive and nature-rich archipelagos on earth.
Waves and Chains
by Andrew Mellor
No country in Europe had to wait until the twenty-first century to produce a fully professional, internationally recognised composer. No country except the Faroe Islands, that is, which makes Sunleif Rasmussen a remarkable and unique figure. He was born in 1961 on the island of Sandoy, into a nation with an intrinsic and pervasive music tradition but little in the way of formal musical infrastructure. Rasmussen learned notation from his grandmother and a local teacher and absorbed the tunes of the Faroese folk tradition and hymnal by osmosis. As a teenager, he was sent to learn the basics of music theory in Norway, and in 1988 made the journey to sovereign Denmark, where he studied composition with Ib Nørholm at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen.
Rasmussen remains a dynamic figure on his country’s music scene. In addition to the New Music ensemble Aldubáran (the Faroese word means ‘little wave’), the archipelago of mountainous islands now hosts a professional symphony orchestra, a prolific record label and a series of music festivals. The composer has been responsible for the country’s first opera and its first Nordic Council Music Prize, awarded in 2002 for his Symphony No. 1, Oceanic Days (the first symphony by a Faroese composer).
That work, like many that came before and have arrived since, used deconstructed or refashioned elements of Faroese folk and psalm tones as the base ingredients for a large, pointillist canvas which charts gradual transmutation and transformation. While the distinctively Faroese elements of the music were mostly concealed in that score, they have increasingly come to the fore in Rasmussen’s works. ‘I used to hide them – I didn’t want to be another Bartók,’ the composer says. ‘Since the Symphony No. 1, I have been happier to let them have more prominence.’
By ‘prominence’, he doesn’t necessarily mean obviousness – real-time statement or development. Sometimes, as in the works included here, themes are plotted over a large expanse or traced over busy iso-rhythmic activity. More often than not, they are found in the long line, emerging only with perspective. Rasmussen likens the process to the frequent sailing trips he takes around the islands of Sandoy, Skúvoy and Stóra Dímun. ‘When you are on the water, things change slowly,’ he explains. ‘You may know how a particular island looks, but when you sail around it, you experience entirely different perspectives on the same place and you hardly notice it happening. That’s what I try to express in my music.’
Fanfare Lontane (2009)
The concept of apparently knowing a familiar place for the first time, as the poet TS Eliot put it, is realized with Nordic directness in Rasmussen’s Fanfare Lontane (distant fanfares), written in 2009 for an Aldubáran tour to Switzerland. It takes existing material heard in other works from the same year (Prelude for Brass and the outdoor performance of the Ólavsøka cantata in 2009), re-contextualizing it via a dialogue with newly composed music heard on separate instrumental groups. A trio of two trumpets and trombone is played ‘lontano’ (‘from afar’ – specifically, in this case, in a corridor at Hoyvíkar Church in Tórshavn where the rest of the ensemble was in the nave) throwing various shades of light on the wind quintet present with us, and vice versa.
The base material is a motif from the cantata: a minor third stepping up and then down, itself launched from a fourth below (it is repeated at ascending pitches). That forms the DNA for all three movements, the first ‘agitated and rhythmic’, followed by mournful chorale in which the chattering brass trio is pulled gradually into the slower, foreground current and even given some harmonic agency. A complex but clear third movement, again marked ‘agitated and rhythmic’ and of classic Rasmussen pointillist build, tries to bind the materials together before a trumpet is left alone, chiming a single note nine times. ‘As a child I was in church every Sunday with my grandparents, not understanding anything that the Danish priest was saying,’ recalls Rasmussen. ‘Then the bell would ring nine times; I would close my eyes and feel a sense of relief.’ The number 9 is detectable as a hallmark in many of his scores.
Andalag #5, #7 (2012, 2013)
Andalag is a modular collection of movements that has occupied Rasmussen since 2011 and is still growing. In Faroese, the word ‘anda’ can mean spirit or breath, while the word ‘lag’ can mean layer or melody. Thus ‘andalag’ can refer to spirit-layer, spirit-melody, breath-layer or breath-melody; in everyday Faroese, to feel ‘andalag’ is to be in a spiritual mood but the word can also refer specifically to a melody infused with some feeling of spirituality.
In accordance with the ‘anda’, all works are for wind instruments (of which the Faroe Islands have produced some fine exponents in recent years). In addition to the two quartets for flute, clarinet, French horn and bassoon featured here, when the set is complete it will comprise eight duos half the length of those quartets and an octet twice their length – all forming an integrated set that can be raided for its variously configured constituent parts or presented complete over the course of an hour.
All the music is built on two motifs that provide a touchstone for the listener and grow in prominence depending on how many works are played; the task for the composer was to ‘figure out a way of developing the material differently each time.’ The theme is spelled out in octaves in Andalag #5. The piece sets out with unanimity – an aerated, patient gaze towards some horizon from all four instruments – before dismantling itself into partisan conversation. The theme is more immediately discernible, sung out against avian twittering typical of the composer, at the start of Andalag #7. But polka-dotted gestures from flute and clarinet are more than decoration and context; they become particles to be accelerated and decelerated, powering the movement up in speed and pitch before it deflates downwards in retrograde. This is a musical device common to Rasmussen and his Danish and Icelandic predecessors Carl Nielsen and Jón Leifs, respectively. But it surely has something to do, in its energizing freshness and changeability, with the wind and water that blow around the comparatively greener, flatter island of Sandoy.
Viola Sonata No. 1 (2016)
That very device is used again in the second movement of Rasmussen’s Viola Sonata No. 1, written in 2016 for the Faroese viola player Jákup Lützen, a former member of Claudio Abbado’s Mahler Youth Orchestra who currently occupies a viola chair in the Copenhagen Phil. Lützen started his musical education in Rasmussen’s Tórshavn music theory class, and commissioned the sonata for his debut concert following studies in the soloist’s class of the Royal Danish Academy of Music. ‘I knew he had a good ear, and I also knew he is a very good singer,’ says Rasmussen. The latter fact had a direct impact on the score.
Still, ‘the instrument makes the form of the piece’, according to the composer, which is evident from the first movement that climbs slowly up from the viola’s depths to its heights, using the open strings C-D-G-A as staging posts (some notes are intentionally pushed sharp or flat, just shy of quartertones). Its principal motif steps up four notes and down one, then ratcheting up and repeating – a modular component similar in size, shape, adaptability and minor tonality to those found in Faroese folk song and chain dance tunes. Here, it climbs not just up but down again as the movement retreats from its heights. A series of wave-inducing judders jump-starts the second movement. The music that follows alternates between statements of the first theme and rapid semi-quaver elaborations of it.
The oscillating third movement is anchored on the C string, against which the violist sings, on assorted vowels and again ‘lontano’, an elaborated variation on the theme which steps downwards rather than up. That duality, from a single source, is echoed in the fourth movement where a relentless and somehow animalistic col legno tapping (played with the wood of the bow) takes root, only for a variation on the first theme to be playfully plucked-out underneath it as a rhythmic and harmonic mirror image. The bow is called upon for a flourish, before the final movement. Here, wave upon wave of V-shaped arpeggios pick out the theme at their lowest and highest points – the latter climbing down through it, the former climbing up, both sometimes operating at the same time. The tunes we know, unchanged yet transformed.
Andrew Mellor is a Copenhagen-based classical music correspondent for several international newspapers and magazines and a regular contributor to BBC Radio 3