Composer Lasse Thoresen has mainly lived in Norway, but has travelled around the world by ear. Through his interest in "the world of ear", he has been inspired as much by ethnic music as by classical music or modernism.
With his omnivorous ears, Lasse Thoresen spans extremes. His music is a dialectic involving very simple and extraordinary complex elements. His vision is conceived and formulated in a holistic combination of harmonies, calculated with the help of mathematical formulas, and emotional and spiritual undertones that often come from folk roots – oral traditions, chorales, Gregorian chants.
His purpose is to produce music which gives the ear a chance to organise impressions. Different styles are no obstacle; Thoresen is independent of styles and compositional methods. He doesn’t break with classical music, but draws on our musical heritage and puts it into a universal, contemporary context. His long-term interest in electrophonic music arose from a desire to listen. He wanted to research the internal physiognomy of music, sculpt a sound object rather than produce the combinations of pitch which are otherwise typical of western music.
He wants to expand the western sound ideal. “In the West, we have limited the ear by adjusting it to the equal temperament. We have developed harmony and increased the focus on pitch. I am concerned with the unusual intervals and pitches that are found in much ethnic music”, says Thoresen, who in spite of always having had his ears wide open, has not always based his work on Norwegian folk music. In Les trois régénérations (1986), he used archaic folk music models for the first time, thereby becoming the first Norwegian composer to integrate the unequal temperament of folk music with written, western art music. After extensive studies of microtonal intervals in Norwegian folk music, he programmed his computer to play these intervals.
“My meeting with ethnic-oriented musicians was an ear-opener. Oral tradition involves very elementary structures as well as incredibly sophisticated sound surfaces. Thanks to phonograms, the oral/aural qualities are now widely appreciated. Consequently, everyone’s way of listening had changed in the last thirty years. More people hear more.”
Thoresen’s own folk music was the Bach, Grieg and Beethoven he played as a child – written music. He has progressed from traditional classical music to modernism via the sadly ignored Norwegian composer Fartein Valen, who possessed a folk music spirit even if it found no programmatic expression in his music. “Yes, but after all he was a spirit!” Valen defended Grieg, when his older colleague was maligned at a meeting of the Norwegian Society of Composers.
“Valen did not believe in the critical modernism that prevailed on the continent, where the primary aim was alienation, fragmentation and negotiation, but in organic modernism. He did not deny the classical ideals, but developed them and found other means of expression. Valen was sincere. I also reacted critical modernism, but there were parts of it I wanted to use. I spent almost fifteen years incorporating them into my music, which is representative of what I would call organic modernism since it is basically affirmative in its expression.”
Lasse Thoresen (1949) began to play the piano at the age of seven. His teacher, who understood his potential, persuaded him to attend classes in theory and harmony, listen to records and read scores. At eighteen, he played Bach’s D minor concerto with the Oslo Music Conservatory orchestra, played and analysed Fartein Valen, and composed his own first works in Valen style.
In adolescence he already sensed that music was a way of investigating the potential of consciousness. As a twenty-year-old, when his father died in his arms, Lasse Thoresen experienced a serious crisis. He knew that the spiritual and the religious would play a central role in his life, and that he would be a composer. Those were the only certainties at a time when life otherwise had no meaning.
“I began to orient myself in a spiritual direction, towards yoga and meditation. I finally found a home in the Bahá’í community, says Thoresen, who has written a book on meditation in a Bahá’í context entitled Nøkler til forvandling (Keys to Personal Transformation).
“The keys make the mysteries more accessible. A change in our way of thinking can disclose existential mysteries. Music can help us to change the frequency of our consciousness. For me personally, music is a form of worship and a constant investigation of the potential of my consciousness, and I have tried to investigate as many musical and mental universes as possible.”
The first new universe was sonology. After studying under composer Finn Mortensen and passing the diploma examination at the Oslo Music Conservatory in 1972, his next stop was the Institute of Sonology in Utrecht, Netherlands, where he studied electrophony and composition under Werner Kaegi. Pierre Schaeffer, the father of concrete music who included locomotives and saucepans in his music, was a source of inspiration during his student years, when Thoresen studied Traité des objets musicaux extensively.
Schaeffer, who died last year, spent the first couple of years after World War II in self-imposed exile in Algeria, where he helped to establish French radio broadcasts. He collected Algerian folk music, had it recorded, and played it on radio France. “He understood the importance of conserving ancient traditions and deeply appreciated the value of oral tradition. An oral tradition is often so complex that it is impossible to transcribe exactly.
The electro-acoustic medium has opened up a world where we hear sonic qualities better than before,” says the composer. “For example, we are able to appreciate the way sound is produced in studio, the depth of sound image, the timbral qualities of transients. Then you realise that meaning is communicated not only through pitch but also through breathing, minute deviations from strict periodicity, timbre.”
He speaks with quiet enthusiasm and smiles frequently, illustrating his words with lively mime and body language, CDs and tapes of his own and other people’s music, sudden digressions. A colleague describes him as sensual. A mature appetite for life and a child-like quality co-exist in him, the child in him keeps all his musical boxes going, he is interested in playing games, but also in planetary thinking. These contrasts primarily make Lasse Thoresen a fine colourist with an intensely expressive style in whom you also sense something restrained which, when it emerges in music, is glowing, liquid, like a metal alloy.
For twenty-five years, Thoresen has struggled to conquer modernism, to give it meaning and structure. Now he has shown it is possible. For ten years he ran a sonology project with composer colleague Olav Anton Thommessen. Now they are reaping the rewards – in the sense that they teach and their theories are respected. They are respected by students too; Thoresen and Thommessen are the daddies of the new generation of composers, the ones who call themselves “Definitely Pling Plong”.
But Thoresen’s own development has also advanced. He is constantly on excursions to other universes. In recent years, he has also established projects in spectral music and folk music. It is not least the rhythm of archaic Norwegian folk music that has been crystallised in his musical language. As an example, he mentions the Norwegian springar rhythm. It is in 3/4 time, but the length of the three beats is unequal. Nor are there any equal subdivisions; the beats are awash with trills and anything else you care to mention!
“When I write for a large ensemble, I have to simplify. When the Oslo Philharmonic played Carmel Eulogies, commissioned for their 75th anniversary in 1995, they thought it was one of the most difficult things they had played that year. For me, the work was a summary of the problems I have been working on for several years; the integration of spectral chord structure with the unequal temperament of archaic folk music.
‘Does it have to be so complicated?’ sighed the musicians. For me, it has to do with the aesthetics of the music, with the way I think music. If folk musicians can do it, the Philharmonic must be able to do it too,” says the composer with a playful smile - adding that Norwegian folk musicians seldom play together! For his orchestral music, it is important that the conductor is able to indicate the underlying musical pulse rather than just acting as a metronome and administering the orchestra.
The title refers to the Tablet of Carmel where Bahá’u’lláh describes Mount Carmel as a woman who receives the spirit of God. This union produces the basis for a new order in the world with Mount Carmel at its centre. Lasse Thoresen's symphony is in two movements in which the idea of centricity - the movement towards and away from the centre - is important symbolism. The composition, which is an instrumental work, transfers metaphors from Bahá’u’lláh's text to musical structures, which again function as a metaphor for the listener.
The basis for Lasse Thoresen's current musical thinking is spectromorphology. He found access to this through Oriental music, in the wake of computers and electronics which provide opportunities for research into the internal physical structure of sound.
“I am fascinated by Japanese music! Through it, I have, for example, learned a great deal about the structure of vibrato in the course of a single sound, about how abrupt, complex sound objects can be used in a logical phrasal design. Thus, commissioned by the ISCM in 1990, is my most exotic piece. It is strongly Japanese-inspired and spheric, with a Norwegian cattle call in the background.”
Lasse Thoresen suddenly hits the table so that the room shakes, demonstrating in different ways how we can alert the listener's attention to a maximum of concentration focused on a short event.
“Japanese and Indian music are clear opposites. Indian music is endless, flowing. Japanese music has other ideals of presence. It cultivates the vigilance of the warrior.” Asian music is one of Lasse Thoresen's “crazes”. Modal thinking is another. He finds the same thinking in the pitch organisation of Indian raga, Arabian maqam, Persian gushe and Gregorian music.
“Mode really means “way”. The way you treat the pitch, not only in constructing scales, which has been the overriding concern of western music theory, but which movements you make in the scale, with which dynamic and above all which expression. A western composer like Messiaen, who was influenced by oriental music, defined music in this inclusive way. He was inspired not only by oriental modal music but by birds. They also have their mode.”
Tibetan and Mongolian music have keen another of Thoresen's Asian “crazes”. “In this case it's a matter of appreciating the possibility of hearing overtones in sound - and that again leads to the spectral,” says Thoresen, who has been interested in spectral music for many years, particularly since he found a recording from a small Zen Buddhist monastery in Japan where the monks strike a bell, pick out two partials from the bell sound and ring parallel in that interval. “I am constantly overwhelmed by the incredible capacity of human beings to develop,” he says.
Lasse Thoresen has been appointed festival composer for this year's Bergen International Music Festival and has written a whole concerto of sacred a capella choral music for it. At Grieg’s home, Troldhaugen, the young pianist Torleif Torgersen will be playing a programme on the theme of natural meditation, including Grieg's Skovstilhed (Woodland Pence) and Thoresen's Solspill (Sun Glitter), where you hear the sun glittering on the sea and rippling through the air. Carmel Eulogies will be performed, and the Finnish Lahti Ensemble will be playing his Chamber music.
The composer himself is planning a series of concerts of his own and other people's favourite works with himself as presenter and interpreter of the programme. He has gained approval for an Indonesian wayang (shadow play) accompanied by a gamelan orchestra. At Troldhaugen, Thoresen is giving a concert involving dialogue on stage with a Hardanger fiddler and a Sami joik chanter.
The above type of presentation and interpretation may possibly give the erroneous impression that Lasse Thoresen is a computer who ripples and glitters through a hard disk. His philosophy is quite different and is formed in his extended consciousness.
“After all, what is essential, in music and in life, is not to be found in the forms, the external appearances. The real meaning is something you do not see, it is something from which you create. I create in my ear something that does not yet exist externally, but which has probably been present all the time. You can't just live life reactively on the basis of the external things that happen to you, but on the basis of what you yourself create from your own sources. These sources are in the universe. They don't come from outside, but lie within us. They come from the heart.”