Sunleif Rasmussen – Surrounded


Sunleif Rasmussen

– CD-1278 BIS 2002



Surrounded (2000) – Commissioned by the CAPUT Ensemble

  1. Molto energico – Cantabile
  2. Cantabile – attacca
  3. Energico – Tranquillo – Cantabile – Meno mosso

Arktis (1998) for mezzo-soprano, clarinet, harp, percussion and cello. Texti: William Heinesen

  • Andante

Mozaik / Miniature (1999) for flute, clarinet, violin and piano

  • Capriccioso – Animato e lontano – Animato e espressivo – Meno mosso

Tilegnelse (Dedication) for mezzo-soprano, flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, percussion, harp, guitar, viola and double bass. Texti: William Heinesen

  • Con brio

Trauer und Freude (1999) for wind quartet, string quartet, píanó / harpsichord and guitar

  1. Tranquillo – Incalzando – Leggiero – Dolce, meno mosso – Inquieto
  2. Lugubre
  3. Leggiero

Helene Gjerris, mezzo-soprano, studied with Kirsten Buhl Møller at the Royal Danish Conservatory of Music, and made her debut in 1997. Since then she has been active within the field of contemporary chamber music, giving premieres and making radio recordings of several works written especially for her by Danish composers. She has made international appearances on tour with the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. Helene Gjerris also sings opera and made her debut at the Danish Royal Theatre in the title role of Car-men. She is furthermore much in demand as a soloist in oratorios. In 1999 Helene Gjerris received the Gladsaxe Music Award and in 2000 the Danish Critic’s Award.

Sunleif Rasmussen
Art music from the Faeroe Islands is a relatively new phenomenon. The fact that the Faeroese composer Sunleif Rasmussen was awarded the Nordic Council’s music prize for 2002 for his first symphony, Oceanic Days, has certainly helped to place it on the musical map of Scandinavia. Sunleif Rasmussen is unique in being the first, and so far the only, composer from the Faeroe Islands to have received his professional training at a conser-vatory. For the last 10-15 years, Faeroese music has been notably romantic in style. Both modern improvised, rhythmic music as well as art music have been backward-looking. Musicians and composers make use of and investigate the tradition of hymns, ballads and folk melodies, which are the only traditional music on the islands. This is heard in practice in new music by the use of intonations, modern variations and the use of ancient melodies. In this way Faeroese musicians link up with a long tradition in Scandinavia and, in certain cases, a Nordic sound and a consciousness of history.

With roots in improvised music – principally jazz – as a young, experimental musician Sunleif Rasmussen also came into contact with the new art music. A seminal work was Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring which today, as at the beginning of the 1980s, must be reckoned as classic new music. But Rasmussen’s development since that time has been all the more extensive. During the years 1990-95 Rasmussen studied composition at the Royal Conser-vatory in Copenhagen under Ib Nørholm and electronic music under Ivar Frounberg. During this period Rasmussen became acquainted with spectral music, which originated at the IRCAM in Paris, and various works by its foremost proponents such as the French composer Tristan Murail (b. 1947). These compositional principles and the new French voice now became an aspect of Rasmussen’s compositional style and were first heard in the works: Som den gyldne sol (1993) for piano and processor; Landið (The Land) for soprano and orchestra (1992-93) and Eitt Ijós er kveikt for organ and tape (1993). He makes use of various compositional principles from spectral music with an evident expansional effect, especially in his larger orchestral works. It was also at this time that he found his system of composition – that of introducing various traditional Faeroese themes in the music by subjecting them to specific spectral or serial techniques. Making use of folk music in new art music can lead to a sort of traditional folklore – in other words, the music intones traditional melodies – but Rasmussen takes considerable trouble to ensure that the melodies cannot be heard in the finished composition In his technique of composition it is, in fact, only the relationships between the intervals of a melody that are significant. These have an overall influence with regard to the form and duration of the music, both in the way the movements adhere to each other, and with regard to the individual movements. The harmonic overtone spectra are also used as a medium for deriving the timbral and melodic material in the work, in that each tone of the original melody is transposed up into the spectrum of harmonics using serial techniques. The intervallic relationships in the original melody are used to produce characteristic rhythmic segments which are used isorhythmically: that is, they are repeated, turned backwards and forwards, and permeate the entire composition. His compositional method is therefore a sort of quotational technique in which several of the music’s parameters are determined by the chosen melody. The melody assumes the status of an Ur-theme for the composition, the tonal source from which all the music arises. The original traditional theme is brought to life in entirely new circumstances in Rasmussen’s music. Some of his art is, thus, an abstraction from Faeroese vocal culture.

In Surrounded (2000) for sinfonietta he makes use of the first phrase of the Norwegian folk tune Kringsat af Fiender (Surrounded by Enemies) which, of course, highlights the title. The sense of the title is also applied to the way the orchestra is positioned, with the string quartet of the sinfonietta surrounded by the rest of the ensemble. The strings thus assume a central role as the solo group. There is a constant dialogue between the members of the quartet and the rest of the instruments, from harmonic ensemble playing and imita-tion to disharmony, opposition and struggle; a process that is reminiscent of the old con-certo grosso. Surrounded consists of three movements, a long central movement that is sur-rounded by two shorter movements. The second movement leads directly (attacca) into the third. The music takes its point of departure from a characteristic sonic exposition using deep pedal points with constellations of sounds above them, and from here there is a con-tinuous dynamic increase until the middle of the second movement, whereupon a diminuendo begins, leading towards the work’s brief third movement.

The Faeroese author and artist William Heinesen (1900-1991) has a central place in Rasmussen’s literary interest. This has left its traces in vocal as well as instrumental music, particularly in song texts and in ideas or programmes for music. The title of Rasmussen’s first symphony, Oceanic Days, is taken from Heinesen’s poem Det er endnu en af disse Oceaniske dage (It is another of these Oceanic days). Heinesen is also responsible for the texts to the settings of Tilegnelse (Dedication; 1995) and Arktis(The Arctic; 1998) for mezzo-soprano and small ensemble. These are complete movements of a work in progress which is intended to comprise eight movements to texts from Heinesen’s collection of poems Panorama mod regnbue (View towards a rainbow ;\912), from the section entitled Thi natten kommer (For night falls). The music of these works is notably static, perhaps most obviously in the latter work. In Tilegnelse, it is the melody, the vocal part, that leads the rest of the music. The ensemble accompanies with imitations and timbral constellations of the strophically varied melody, and thus mirrors the music of the song. But Tilegnelse is introduced by a different, billowing music that appears again in the middle of the move-ment. This music belongs in another substantial work by Rasmussen, the orchestral piece The Song of the Sea, which is a noisy celebration of the ocean. The static element in this song is very apparent in Arktis in which the ensemble’s music consists almost exclusively of slow timbral planes, orchestrated mainly for bells, harp and vibraphone. In this move-ment, too, we can hear how Rasmussen prescribes that the musicians should hum con bocca chiusa while they are playing. This, along with the sensitive accompaniment, emph-asizes the resigned mood that is found in Heinesen’s text.

Mozaik / Miniature (1999) for flute, clarinet, violin and piano was commissioned by Nordic House on the Faeroes and was premiered at Nordic House on Iceland. The music in this work consists exclusively of material from the first movement of the symphony Oceanic Days, which is based on an old Faeroese hymn and a folk-song. Ascribed to Vagn Holmboe is the view that material that is written for a larger musical medium, for example a symphony orchestra, should be of such quality that it can also be used in a string quartet. This seems to be what Rasmussen has sought in Mozaik/Miniature. ‘Mozaik’ here refers to the pieces of a symphonic movement while ‘miniature’ refers to the fact that the compass of the movement as well as the duration of the work are much reduced in relation to the symphony. Further, it has been necessary to restructure the numerous musical figures. For instance, the theme which is heard at the beginning of the work, played by the piano, is in the symphony played on the clarinet. The form of the work, just like that of the symphony, is characterized by a constant alternation between the folk-song and the hymn; constant alteration between fast and slow tempi and shadow-like and echo-like harmonic tech-niques.

Trauer und Freude (Sorrow and Joy; 1999) for wind quartet, string quartet, piano/ harpsichord and guitar was written for and dedicated to the Faeroese ensemble Aldubaran. The pre-compositional material for this work is the first phrase of the hymn Sorrow and Joy as it is notated in the hymnbook.

Sorrow and joy are our constant companions,
Fortune and misery make up a pair,
Success and failure follow each other,
Sunshine and showers attend our dominions,
The gold of the earth is nothing but dross
While heaven is filled with sanctity’s bliss.

In his overall conception Rasmussen has made use of the dialectics of the verse. The first movement: sorrow and joy (slow-fast), the second movement: sorrow (slow) and the third movement: joy (fast). In the first movement, fortune and misery or adversity are con-trasted with each other in a sort of sonata movement with two contrasting thematic ideas -one of them, a chilling choral, is characterized by its lyrical mournfulness, while the second is a movement of complex clusters. There is a lengthy section in the middle in which previous material is combined, often in complex, rhythmic stretti and this is followed by a varied repeat of sorrow and joy in which the thematic contrasts are also combined into a sort of synthesis. The second movement expresses sorrow with a calm and slow chorale which is set in motion by a powerfully struck pedal point. Here, too, he makes great use of glissandi in sighing movements, often combined with the work’s rhythmic motto, which can here be considered to assume the sense of the rhythm of doom. This movement, too, concludes with a return to the starting point – the chorale – in a shortened version. The third movement – joy – is the lively part of the work and provides a virtuoso finale. The rhythmic motto of the work is brought to life in a spirited movement. The scale-like prin-cipal theme is played in octaves by the piano and harpsichord, a characteristic orchestration that runs through the entire movement. Just as the musical material of the work is derived from an ancient melody, here too it is a matter of old, traditional forms, surely chosen to reinforce the importance and dialectics of the title. This, therefore, is a work that is characterized by an utterly modern idiom that works, both in meaning and musical form, in formulating classical problems. The material of Trauer und Freude also forms the basis of Hjól Caccia (1999) for two guitars and the vocal work Brotið (1999) for bass voice and piano. Here the material is served up again, in the same way as the relationship between the symphony Oceanic Days and Mozaik/Miniature.

© Hans Pauli Torgard 2002