The Arts

Award takes note of composer's embrace of a diversity of cultures

REYKJAVIK, Iceland — Since his breakthrough as a composer more than 30 years ago, Lasse Thoresen has been searching for a musical language that brings the world’s diverse cultures together.

Now, one of his innovative vocal works has been acclaimed for the commonalities it finds between the ancient and the modern, as well as between musical styles around the world.

In ceremonies in Iceland on 3 November 2010, Prof. Thoresen was presented the Nordic Council Music Prize, which comes with an award of 350,000 Denmark Kroner (US$56,000), for his piece, Opus 42.

“This strikingly beautiful piece reveals the common denominators in ancient and ultra-modern sounds, drawing our attention to the similarities between Scandinavian folk traditions and the music we might find in, say, the Middle East or India,” wrote the Adjudication Committee for the Prize, which includes members from Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. “It represents a renewal not just of Nordic vocal music, but of score-based vocal music in general.”

Prof. Thoresen explained: “There are scales very similar in Scandinavian folk music to things you can find in the East. Neither of them elaborate harmony in a very developed way as was done in western classical music.”

Opus 42 also incorporates the traditional overtone singing of Mongolia, in which the singer manipulates the resonances created as the air travels from the lungs to the mouth and nose.

“That takes a few years to learn,” said Prof. Thoresen. “For singers to do that, they must have quite a new oral training. So as a part of this project, a system of training was developed to master these techniques.

“I think it is important to regard cultural differences as a resource and not as a threat,” he said. “Even if you cannot escape from your own cultural conditioning, in some ways you can embrace other cultural sensibilities and reflect them in your own cultural context and produce an example of fruitful coexistence of cultural differences.”

Opus 42 is a collection of four vocal pieces, titled “Sun Prayer,” “Funeral Psalm,” “Heavenly Father,” and “Dual Doodles.” The first was commissioned by the Bergen International Festival, the other three by the Osa Festival, which brings together Norwegian folk and classical musicians. The work has been performed by a Norwegian vocal ensemble, Nordic Voices, which the composer believes to be the only group in the world that can cope with the demands he places on his performers.

Born in Oslo in 1949, Prof. Thoresen has loved music ever since he can remember. He began taking piano lessons at age seven; by 15 he was an accompanist for his school’s choir; and at 16 he had composed his first piece. In 1971, he joined the Bahá’í Faith.

As his career progressed, he took a position as a professor at the Norwegian State Academy for Music. In May 2001, his oratorio Terraces of Light was performed on the occasion of the inauguration of the spectacular garden terraces around the Bahá’í Holy Places on Mount Carmel, Haifa, Israel.