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Interview in Fanfare (US) with Sunleif Rasmussen by Martin Anderson

June 30, 2021

Martin Anderson

Interview with Sunleif Rasmussen in Fanfare by Martin Anderson.

The Danish label OUR Recordings, run by the guitarist Lars Hannibal and recorder player Michala Petri (former husband and wife, and still happy business partners), has just brought out one of its most musically satisfying releases yet: Territorial Songs (6.220674), an album of five pieces for recorder by the Faroese composer Sunleif Rasmussen (b. 1961)—who, with fairy-tale neatness, is now also the man in Michala Petri’s life. Territorial Songs comprises a recorder concerto of that name (2008–09), Flow for recorder and string trio (2012), Jeg (“I”) for recorder and chamber choir (2011), Sorrig og Glæde Fantasi (“Sorrow and Joy Fantasy”) for solo recorder (2011), and Winter Echoes for recorder and 13 solo strings (2014). The soloist, of course, is Michala Petri, supported by a range of musicians: Henrik Vagn Christensen conducting the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra in Territorial Songs, the Esbjerg Ensemble in Flow, the Danish National Vocal Ensemble under Stephen Layton in Jeg, and the Lapland Chamber Orchestra under Clemens Schuldt in Winter Echoes.
An exchange of emails set up a Skype conversation with Sunleif Rasmussen, which I began by asking where exactly he was—the view from the window behind him was certainly spectacular.
I live on Sandoy [to the south of the main group of islands], where I was born. I bought this house seven years ago from my father’s brother—it’s actually my grandparents’ house.
So you knew it as a child, I suppose.
Yes. Back to the roots.
Can we first spend a little time to locate the Faroe Islands culturally? I would imagine from what I know of Faroese that you find yourselves somewhere between Norway/Denmark and Iceland, that it has something of both cultures.
Yes, that’s right, both cultures.
Does Faroese allow you to understand both Icelandic and Norwegian?
Oh, yes. Norwegian I understand very well, even the old-Norwegian bokmål, especially reading. And I lived in Norway from 1979 to 1980.
And how do you think of yourself? I am a Scot: I have a British passport and think of myself as a Scot, but I don’t see any conflict or tension between those two. Do you likewise have a Danish passport but think of yourself as Faroese?
We have Faroese passports as well as being Danish citizens, but I think we can also apply for a Danish passport, an EU passport.
Are you part of the EU or not?
We are not part of the EU; we have never been. We were not in the referendum in 1973. It was because of the fishing policy. Greenland voted in, and then voted itself out again.
There were Icelandic composers before Jón Leifs came along, but it was he who crystallized the idea of an Icelandic sound in music. Have you had a similar phenomenon in Faroese music—a composer with similar ambitions, a key moment in Faroese culture (in poetry, for example)? Indeed, have you had anything to do with that?
I have most certainly! I’m the first Faroese person who got to the conservatory. And, like Jón Leifs, I’ve written the first Faroese symphony, the first opera, and so I regard myself as being in the same family as Leifs in Iceland, only 80 or 90 years later.
I used to know the composer Kristian Blak quite well, although we’ve not been in touch for a while, and he used to tell me about the concerts he put on in the sea caves on the Faroes—which he called “Concerto Grotto,” of course.
That was here on Sandoy. And he’s still going strong, although he’s now in his mid-70s.
At one point when I lived in Paris, I had a big dinner organized and so invited Kristian since he was in town. When he arrived, I teased him that the way he walked was as if he had just stepped off a boat in a Force 8 gale—there was something about the way he moved. And there is something of that in your music. There’s something slightly off-kilter; the rhythms don’t quite fall where they should. And Kristian often has a mischievous glint in his eye—you can tell that he is thinking about something that he shouldn’t be thinking about. And there’s a similar quality in your music; there’s a grin behind the façade.
That’s true. I do it on purpose, because I don’t like regularity.
Where does that come from?
I don’t know. Maybe from being on the sea so much.
Well, listening to the first movement of Flow, for example—it moves like Kristian walks! I wonder if that might indeed be something distinctly Faroese. I can tell when a Scottish composer reminds me of Scotland, and I wonder if that’s something that has a kind of local quality or flavor.
Yes—this uncertainty, like the waves, which have their own lives, without asking; and the weather here, changing all the time, has its own life. It’s unpredictable. And the unpredictable is very Faroese, actually.
And that unpredictability is certainly true of the music. The waves and the weather and so on, they’re all composed of patterns, but they’re patterns that don’t coalesce. And that is reflected in the music, where there are also patterns which don’t coalesce.
Yes, and that I have done on purpose. I’ve been very aware of the condition of uncertainty that we are living under, every day, actually. I was at a funeral the other day, and when we walked from the church to the churchyard, we experienced the four seasons in half an hour. It was snow, it was rain, it was sun; sometimes windy, sometimes still. That is also what I find fascinating—that you never can predict anything.
Do you see yourself as part of any European trend or school?
Not any school, but I see myself as a European composer, yes, and influenced by European composers as well. When I was studying, I met Ligeti and Penderecki and Lutosławski, composers I admired for various things.
But there’s an outsider’s quality to your music, too—the European composers it reminds me of are more people like Nordgren. You can hear that it has European roots, but has grown up somewhere else.
Yeah, yeah, that’s done on purpose as well. I remember when I was studying in Copenhagen with Ib Nørholm, he always asked me why I didn’t take inspiration from the sources we have here—the kvæđi [ballads] and the chants and the hymns in the churches. There are so many melodies that only exist here and appear in a certain way. I resisted that for a long time, but he kept going and asking me. And then I invented, up until my First Symphony, which I wrote in 1995–97, a technique where I could use these melodies but invent another kind of material out of it. These melodies became a kind of DNA for the piece, for all the rhythms, for the harmonies, melodies and stuff like that. But that was a very heavy way to do things. I did my compositions from 1994 to 2000 with that technique, but then I changed it. I moved back to the Faroe Islands in 2001, and I asked myself: Why hide this? Why not just let it go? Since then I have generated material and scales and so on from these sources, not hiding them.
Is there something characteristic of Faroese music like the Icelandic tvísöngur, the singing in parallel fifths?
No, we don’t have that. But we have these kvæđi and the chain-dance. There’s some 60,000 verses of that.
Holmboe loved that, didn’t he?
Yes, he did. He used it quite a lot in his music.
He mentions his fascination with it in his book Det uforklarlige (in fact, as Toccata Press I published the English translation of it, as Music – the Inexplicable).
In fact, in that book he mentions two musical things where he got into a trance—Romanian music and the Faroese dansiringur. That’s another important thing in making my music unpredictable, the chain-dance and the melody of the ballads. The rhythm in the dance goes in six beats, and the melody goes in seven beats. So there is always a change in meter. That is something I’m quite aware of in my composing! I’ve used it now for many years, up to my Second Symphony, actually, which was premiered in 2015.
[Rasmussen later sends me a link so that I can hear and see it for myself: youtube.com/watch?v=7PjYURqtbqQ—where you’ll notice that the dance itself introduces another complexity, progressing with two steps forward and one step back.]
Is it something which began as a device but has now become a natural part of your voice?
Yep.
It’s time we talked about the new album. The fact that you and Michala are a couple must have made it inevitable that you would compose for recorder.
When she was on the Faroe Islands, in 2006 or 2007, with Hannibal, I was not here, but she had mentioned to her father’s wife to ask me to write this piece. And then I got two commissions as composer-in-residence for the orchestra in southern Jutland, to do a piece in 2008 and a piece in 2009, and so I asked them if the second piece could be a recorder concerto for Michala, so that I could write the piece that she had been requesting for some years. But our relationship didn’t start until a year after the concert premiere, something like that. We met here on the Faroe Islands (she was visiting her father) before I started writing and she showed me various techniques on the recorder, and the character of the recorder. I didn’t know that much about it, although I had written one piece, for recorder, accordion, and violin, in 2004, or something like that [Acvirre, in 2008, as it happens]. She showed me various ways of playing the recorder. I fell especially in love with playing and singing on the recorder, which transforms it into almost a new instrument.
It gives it an almost electronic quality, doesn’t it, a kind of fuzziness.
Yes, yes, yes! And then we worked together: I sent her something, and she played it for me. While she is singing higher than she plays, it gets a softer tone; and when she sings lower, it gets a kind of distortion, like a distorted guitar. I really like that sound.
And the recorder isn’t just an instrument; it’s a family of instruments. You could almost cut through glass with the sopranino recorder, but the bass recorder is more of a flavor than a sound.
It’s very mysterious. And that’s what I like about the recorder family—the members are so different.
Does this album contain the sum total of the works you have written for recorder?
No, we had to choose, with difficulty, since we were already at 73 minutes on the CD and we couldn’t take more. I have written one more solo piece, also variations on a theme by Carol Nielsen, the melody called “Jens Vejmand.” Do you know that? [He sings.] It’s his most famous song. So not all that I have written came on the CD. I have recently written another piece for her, in a series of pieces I am writing with older instruments but in a new environment. There’s one musician on the stage, but then there are pre-recordings with three loudspeakers. I wrote a piece for the harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani; it was premiered in London, oh, three years ago, I think. After the summer Michala is going to come here to record the pre-recorded things. Then I will write a piece for gamba as well, for a German gamba player called Hille Perl. So there’s more to come!
Let’s talk about your Territorial Songs. Birdsong is such a concentrated resource that I am amazed that composers haven’t made more use of it. When it’s warm enough, I usually have the balcony door of my study open, and the energy of the birdsong outside, even in central London, is a source of constant amazement. We had a pair of wrens nesting here last year, and this tiny little thing can unleash an absolute torrent of music! [Before our talk I sent Rasmussen a poem I wrote last summer:
4am once more, and again blackbird reveille.
The miracle: a bird no bigger than my hand
Can cast out these tendrils of lace-light, glass-hard song,
Liquid, polyrhythmic code, spider-silk strong,
That plots out parks and squares and gardens
With glistening wires of sound; in the distance
Rivalrous reveilles mark off the world, off into the dark
In an expanding quilt of juggled trills and rivulets
For as long as there is land,
Whereafter one infinity melts into another.]
That was written with the sense of infinite loops as you could hear the blackbirds further and further away, less and less audible, as these territorial markers unfolded—as infinite as a Per Nørgård score! Birdsong is music to begin with, but there’s also all sorts of things you could do with it in music, and yet I don’t know of many composers who have used it, other than through imitation, rather than as a resource the way you have done in this piece.
That’s maybe true, actually, because I’m not that interested in imitating one to one, like Messiaen did, and Per Nørgård has done in some pieces. There were many more birds here on the islands when I was a child, and I have in my ear [the time when] we were sailing with a boat and coming nearer and nearer these high cliffs where they lived. When the birds heard the motor getting nearer and nearer, they flew out from their nests and made a huge cacophony.
Fulmars and guillemots and kittiwakes…
…and puffins.
The thing about birdsong is that it is essentially violent rather than pretty—it has a violent message—and there’s an inherent violence in much of the music in this piece.
Yes, that was also on purpose. There’s a lot of aleatoric music in the score, so that the musicians take their own territories. What you can’t hear so clearly on the recording is that I’ve taken the flutes out of the orchestra and placed them in the hall. They appear, as far as I recall, in the third movement for the first time. It’s amazing because the hall opens, the whole thing opens, when the flutes are playing out in the space. So I have worked with territories, and with musicians taking their own territories. In the fourth movement, there is only the soloist and the brass section that are still playing together with the conductor—the others find their own places in various ways. That was my idea for these “territorial songs”—it is that each bird or each “bird family” takes its own territory to sing its special songs: “These are our songs, and here’s the place where we are supposed to be.”
But you’ve not tried to imitate any particular birds, have you?
No.
What have you got in your in-tray at the moment?
I have been working on a piece for a long time. It’s really a crazy idea, but I had some friends who were in Chernobyl, and they showed me some pictures of destroyed pianos that were there. Some of them played on them and showed that to me. And then I got the idea of making a piano concerto—of going there to sample these sounds and put them on a keyboard, to make a totally new instrument from the sound of destroyed pianos in Chernobyl. I was there in October 2019 to record, and to film as well, because my goal is to make a picture that goes on while the music is playing. It will be a huge project. I think I will finish it next year.
Is it intended for any particular orchestra?
There were negotiations with some orchestras, but, of course, they were frozen when Corona came. They are going to take them up again now. But it will certainly be conducted by John Storgårds. So that’s a huge, crazy project!
Will it be a big work as well?
Approximately half an hour. But everything surrounding it is very big, because I have extended percussion instruments beyond the usual—much iron, industrial percussion instruments that I take in. There will be loudspeakers up on the roof, on the stage, and somewhere else, so that the keyboard sounds come from various sources.
Maybe you could call the album The Territorial Piano! Martin Anderson
Fanfare Magazine Archive of CD Reviews: Sunleif Rasmussen, Marking Out His Territory (fanfarearchive.com)