Musical Renaissance in the North Atlantic

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| DMT Årgang 69 (1994-1995) nr. 01 - side 22-25

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Musical Renaissance in the North Atlantic - Eighteen specks in the ocean, between Iceland and the Shetland Islands, are home to the 45.000 Faroese. For centuries these isolated Norse have enjoyed a rich oral tradition, managing to preserve some 80.000 ballad verses and other old songs. Today, good ballad singers still enjoy respect for their skills


By Kristian Blak

It is often said that Fairopean musical instruments were unknown in the Faroe Islands before the mid-nineteenth century, when the Danish trade monopoly was lifted. While this is not completely true, we know of no musical works composed in the Faroes before that time, apart from the ubiquitous ballads and other traditional folk music.

The late 1800s saw a boom in all forms of western European culture. In music, the period marked the founding of choirs, concert and dance bands all over the Faroes. Although many of the innovators had experience gained in other countries, primarily Denmark, the Faroes provided the fertile soil for their work.

Faroese composers of contemporary music have begun winning recognition through concerts and radio performances at home and abroad. For decades, however, composition was strictly limited to vocal music, stanzaic songs, often arranged for choir. Prominent composers of this genre were Jogvan Waag-stein (1879-1949) and Hans Jacob Hoj-gaard (1904-1992). Waagstein did write a small piece for organ, but otherwise there are no known instrumental compositions before the late twentieth century.

The Faroese author and graphic artist William Heinesen (1900-1991) was a pioneer of formal musical composition. Heinesen came from a musical family. His brother, Stig, studied the clarinet and was appointed to the Royal Danish Orchestra (Det Kongelige Kapel) in Copenhagen. In 1955, Heinesen composed Variations on a Faroese Hymn for solo viola. Later, he wrote a piece for piano, Norske Løve, as well as two choral works. Although Heinesen did not consider himself a serious composer, he generated musical ideas with which his contemporary, much younger, musical colleagues worked and further developed.

Many years passed before other Faroese compositions were heard. In 1973, young Pauli 1 Sandagerdi (b. 1955) wrote several pieces for piano. These works were somewhat unpolished, but served to announce a new generation's will to manifest itself in the world of composed music. 1984 was an epochal year for young Faroese composers. At a workshop with Denmark's Western Jutland Chamber Ensemble, held in Torshavn, Faroese composers were given the opportunity to work on and hear their own instrumental compositions played. This gave a real push to Faroese composition, marking the beginning of serious work for both myself (b. 1947) and Sunleif Rasmussen (b. 1961).

Other composers who have made their debut during the last decade are Bjarni Restorff (b. 1955), Atli Petersen (b. 1963), Kari Bask (b. 1950), Edvard Nyholm Debess (b. i960), Hedin Meitil (b. 1963) and Bjarni Berg (b. 1954). Since 1984, the Faroese Composers Society (F0T) has worked purposefully towards making possible the performance of works by its members. F0T has established a close collaboration with both Faroese and foreign musicians and ensembles.

Music is, in most cases, written to be performed by one or more ensembles in a concert presenting several Faroese composers. For example, F0T members will have the opportunity to write for string quartet and to hear their pieces performed in concert in March and June 1995, in connection with visits to the Faroes by the Moyzes Quartet from Slovakia and the Arion Quartet from Denmark. Also, each year since 1992, F0T has arranged Summar-tonar, a festival of classical and contemporary music, in which members1 works play a significant role.

Internationally, individual Faroese composers have had their pieces performed in many contexts. As a group, in 1991, we participated in a joint concert at the St. Magnus Festival in Orkney, followed by concerts in Copenhagen and Aarhus. Faroese composers have been represented at the Myrkrar Musikkdagar (Dark Music Days) festival in Reykjavik, Iceland. This activity at home and abroad has further encouraged new composers.

Indeed, it appears that a new "younger" generation has emerged since 1991- "Younger" not in the strict chronological sense, since there are many who "discover themselves as composers" later in life, often in conjunction with workshop-concerts, just as in 1984.

But at present, there seems to be a new group of young people in their twenties, who are showing real interest in formal composition. There are currently 10 participants in an instrumentation seminar which meets over the course of a year, under the direction of Sunleif Rasmussen. Most of these young people, like most of the above-mentioned composers, are also active jazz and rock musicians and writers.

Classifying contemporary Faroese composers stylistically, one can, with a certain degree of caution, place Bjarni Restorff, Atli Petersen, Kari Ba:k and Edvard Nyholm Debess in a group relating to European composers in the years between the two World Wars. Their music reflects a sense of clarity and an interest in folk music. Pauli 1 SandagenSi could be included, although his output, which is considerably greater, differs especially with regard to melody and harmony that demonstrate impressionistic tendencies as well as a touch of church mode rooted in Faroese traditional music.

As mentioned, after the first few attempts at serious composition in the 1950s, a long period elapsed before new composers were heard from, at the beginning of the '80s. During this time, however, a great deal of music was composed, or arranged, by foreign composers for performance in the Faroes. Notably, the Danish composer Vagn Holmboe (b. 1909) has written choral pieces based on Faroese poems.

Holmboe's works are often performed by Faroese choirs. It is highly likely that they have served as inspiration for almost all young Faroese composers, both of choral and instrumental music. Hedin Meitil, Kristian Blak, Sunleif Rasmussen and Bjarni Berg differ stylistically among themselves, but all have written music in newer styles, probably because they were exposed to, and became interested in, these forms during their formal musical education.

Berg and Meitil have, as part of their as yet limited production, composed expressive and minimalistic pieces. Sunleif and I, like Pauli 1 Sand-agerSi, respectively have turned out a whole body of works, including many for symphony orchestra, chamber ensemble and choir. Stylistically, my own music spans a wide spectrum, and cannot be consigned to any school of composition. You will hear a pluralistic inspiration from both Europe and America and, almost always, a connection to traditional Faroese folk material.

Sunleif Rasmussen has, through his education in the Danish composers' milieu, achieved both a technical competence and broad knowledge of current trends in the international world of composition. While Rasmussen's music does not belong to any particular school, one can describe him as a composer who has left the confines of serialism to concentrate on emotional expression.

Although the active Faroese composers differ from each other, several characteristics are common to most of their works. Almost all make use of visually expressive titles reflecting the Faroese landscape: sky, ocean, stars, clouds, etc. The visual inspiration in a so visually pressing landscape has a natural place in the graphic and poetic arts, and it also inspires Faroese musical composition. A few examples: Heyst vib Frostndtt (Autumn with Frosty Night), a 1993 woodwind quintet by Edvard Nyholm Debess; Undirlysi (Light From Under Clouds Over the Ocean), a string quartet (1992) by Kristian Blak; Vetrarmyndir (Winter Pictures), a woodwind quintet with piano (1991) by Sunleif Rasmussen.

A common denominator of many Faroese works is the composers' use of ethnic music as a starting point. There are three basic forms of traditional Faroese music. While all three are vocal, they have some fundamental musical differences. Kvæoi (ballads used for chain dance) are usually diatonic, often in church modes and rhythmically steady. The rhythm shifts, however, between three and four beats to the measure. Since the basic rhythm in the dance itself- that is, the movement of feet - is fixed, having six beats in each period, an exciting polyrhythmic tension naturally, though unconsciously, arises.

Hymns are often chromatic with "floating" intervals and rhythms. Skjaldur are songs or rhymes sung for children. They are often pentatonic and sound ancient, both in their imaginative lyrics and their melodies.

Most Faroese composers use melodic or rhythmic quotes or, simply, melodies or rhythms colored by ethnic music. Pauli 1 Sandagerdi's music has, in general, roots in traditional folk music. While Sandageroi does sometimes work consciously with arrangements of traditional material, connnections to Faroese folk music are clearly evident in his so-called free compositions, too.

To name some examples of works with direct roots in Faroese ethnic music: Tivils Døtur, a choral piece by William Heinesen, is composed in " skjaldur style. Sunleif Rasmussen later used this piece in his Fantasi yvir Tivils Døtur (1990) for clarinet and French horn. Atli Petersen, in Kvæoi fyri Pinnabrenni (1987) for trombone and harpsichord, has borrowed elements from traditional dance-ballads. Bjarni Restorff, in Nu flyer jeg til din Naade (1983) for choir and chamber orchestra, and myself, in Clarinet Concerto (1990), have baseci compositions on traditional Faroese hymns.

Most Faroese composers are still essentially self-taught, though all have some formal education in music. Only Sunleif Rasmussen, who is currently studying composition at the Royal Danish Conservatory of Music in Copenhagen, has received extensive instruction in composition. There are no music academies in the Faroes, nor is regular instruction in composition offered at any Faroese school. Since 1984, however, F0T has arranged courses in instrumentation, orchestration, and composition using foreign, especially Scandinavian, composers as teachers. To name three, Atli Heimir Sveinsson from Iceland, Karl Aage Rasmussen and Svend Aaquist Johansen from Denmark.

The future looks promising. Already during the coming year, concertgoers in the Faroe Islands will be hearing more brand-new Faroese works, some from brand-new Faroese composers.

Composer Kristian Blak is a key figure in the musical life of the Faroe Islands. He is artistic director of the "Summattonar" festival in Torshavn.

Translated by Sharon Weiss

Årgang 69/1994-1995, nr. 01