The Arts

In Norway, a classical composer strives for a new musical paradigm

Lasse Thoresen, well-known in his native country, integrates meditation and music within the complex framework of classical composition; a new CD and a book map out his intended direction.

BERGEN, Norway - Even though he is widely recognized as one of Norway's top composers of modern classical music, Lasse Thoresen has no illusions about what that means in terms of drawing a crowd.

"What is the essence of paranoia?" he joked as he sat in an audience at the Bergen International Music Festival in May, waiting for a concert to begin. "That would be to be sitting in the second row at a new classical music concert and thinking that there is someone behind you."

In a somewhat more serious tone, he explained: "I recognize that the young generation is seeking less and less to listen to classical music. And so I've accustomed myself to small audiences. When I was in my twenties I considered the options of playing jazz or pop music. But I decided it was better to have my compositions played for audiences who came to listen to music rather than to have a beer."

More to the point, Dr. Thoresen is pursuing a lofty goal - one that runs counter to predominant trends in modern music: to create a new type of spiritually inspiring work that reflects what he sees as the religious paradigm for today.

And, indeed, Dr. Thoresen's ability to blend art and religion is at the core of what critics have come to appreciate in his work. Recipient of the 1987 Norwegian Critic's Prize, he was also awarded the 1995 "Work of the Year" by the Norwegian Society of Composers and was selected as the Festival Composer for the prestigious Bergen International Music Festival in 1996. The previous year, one of his compositions was sung by famed Norwegian opera singer Anne Lise Berntsen in the opening ceremony of the NGO Forum at the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen.

“His vision is 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...”

– Mona Lewin, editor, Listen to Norway

"He's not a household name, but only the pop stars are," said Mona Levin, editor of Listen to Norway, a major national music magazine. "But I love Lasse's music. It's ethereal. It has an atmosphere that makes it different from so much of the other music of our time. His music sounds musical to the ear and yet there is a universe of thought and idea and religious feeling behind it."

Music and Meditation

In this regard, Dr. Thoresen's career may well be poised for a new level of recognition. Last fall, a top Norwegian choral group performed a new series of compositions before a spellbound audience in Oslo University Hall, venue until 1995 for the Nobel Prize award ceremonies. The Compact Disk (CD) recording made from that concert has since won praise from classical music reviewers in this country.

In a parallel direction, this summer a British publishing house, George Ronald, will publish an English translation of a book by Dr. Thoresen. Entitled Unlocking the Gate of the Heart, it also deals with spiritual themes, offering an in-depth analysis of the meditation practices suggested in the Bahá'í writings, a field that has been little explored in print.

Spending a few days with Dr. Thoresen offers a glimpse into how the powers of the intellect and the spiritual qualities of the heart can be fused in a singular artistic vision.

"Music and meditation aren't that different," Dr. Thoresen explained. "There is a tradition in the West for music to deal with existential and religious and philosophical questions. And the expression of these ideas through sound is certainly more challenging and profound in classical music than in the tradition of popular music.

"So for me, my life and work have been an exploration process. Not only of sound, but of the correlates of sound in my psyche. The point of art is to show phenomena as they appear to the consciousness, so that you come closer to showing reality as we each perceive it.

“Both art and religion employ ambiguity as their greatest resource.”

– Lasse Thoresen

"Now, if you look to religious revelation, it is also always using metaphors and symbols. And everyone, at each different stage in his or her life, will always find new meanings in these symbols. So, in a way, both art and religion employ ambiguity as their greatest resource," said Dr. Thoresen.

Virtually all of his compositions since 1971, when he became a member of the Bahá'í Faith, have incorporated spiritual themes. The set of compositions on his new CD, for example, which is entitled From the Sweet-Scented Streams of Eternity, is entirely built around words from the holy texts of the Bahá'í writings.

"His beliefs are very integrated in his art," said Åse Kleveland, a former minister of culture in Norway who has long been familiar with Thoresen's work. "In our Scandinavian culture, most people think of religion as something very separate. It is something you do in your spare time. But not with Lasse."

Far from being sentimental or syrupy, Dr. Thoresen's compositions are extremely complex in their melodies, rhythms and scoring, requiring much of performers. The first choral group to attempt the set of compositions on From the Sweet-Scented Streams of Eternity gave up halfway through the task, finding one of the pieces too difficult to learn in the time given.

"It is difficult music to perform," said Peter Tornquist, chairman of the board of the Norwegian Soloists' Choir, which successfully premiered the complete set of compositions last fall. Mr. Tornquist nevertheless believes that the result was worth the effort.

"When the concert was given, it was late at night and the audience was restless and not absolutely happy," he said, explaining that no one knew exactly what to expect. "But from the first moment, and on through 70 minutes of choral music, the audience was absolutely still - no one even rustled a program. And it was absolutely sacred. It was the experience of being able to hear a religious message, one that was without preaching but rather was an artistic statement. There are no clear associations to the musical experiences you have had before."

Dr. Thoresen is modest about his accomplishments, noting that despite the critical acclaim, the actual CD has so far sold few copies. Yet, clearly, he is happy that others have been able to see the connection between spirituality and his work.

"As in all other great religions, there is in the Bahá'í Faith an essence of mysticism," Dr. Thoresen wrote in the notes to Sweet-Scented Streams. "The human spirit must undergo a metamorphosis and be transformed until it reflects divine qualities. Prayer and meditation are important means, and music can be used to further reinforce the effect of the process.

"According to the scriptures of the Bahá'í religion, music is a ladder by which the soul can ascend to attain higher realms of the spirit. My hope is that this combination of sacred texts and music will give the listener an insight into the eternal and invisible kingdom, hidden in the hearts of men."

Life as an Exploration

Through both music and meditation, Dr. Thoresen's life has been an exploration of such themes, a constant search to understand the processes of individual transformation and the role that music can play in advancing them.

Born 18 October 1949 in Oslo, the son of the director of a small printing company who rose from working class roots, Dr. Thoresen says that he loved music almost as far back as he can remember. At the initiative of his parents, 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.

As a child, he was "spontaneously religious." Yet by the time he wrote his first composition, Dr. Thoresen had began to question what he'd been taught. "The atmosphere at my school was very intellectual and I soon became a committed atheist," he said. "And as a young intellectual it seemed somehow illogical to believe in God."

In 1968, however, the year of his graduation, a number of events forced Dr. Thoresen to reevaluate his beliefs. His father had a heart attack. He also went into the military for his required service. And his longtime girlfriend - who had greatly influenced his atheism - left him.

"But most of all, it was the shock of my father dying," he said. "I hadn't understood the reality of death. So suddenly I found myself being an atheist, faced with the understanding that that is the fate of everyone. And this caused me to have an enormous crisis of anxiety and fear."

Having already rejected Christianity, his search for peace of mind took him in alternative directions. He read Greek philosophy, as well as Buddhist and Hindu scripture, and took up the practice of meditation. "This opened a whole new world to me," he said. "I sometimes spent four hours a day in meditation and yoga exercises at the beginning of the 1970s." At the same time, he studied philosophy at Oslo University and music composition at the Music Conservatory of Oslo.

Red Hot Iron

“I sometimes think that we all must have a rod of iron in our souls and, through red hot emotion, you can bend it in a certain direction. And once you have bent it and it cools, it more or less defines the fundamentals of your life.”

– Lasse Thoresen

"During this period, I made two decisions - that the only thing worth living for, really, was eternal life, and that the only vocation I could ever sustain was to compose music," he said. "I sometimes think that we all must have a rod of iron in our souls and, through red hot emotion, you can bend it in a certain direction. And once you have bent it and it cools, it more or less defines the fundamentals of your life. And so I have been stuck with these two decisions ever since."

In 1971, during a summer course on meditation, he heard about the Bahá'í Faith. "I was cooking dinner and I had burned my food in the pan and so I went to a neighbor's flat to see if they had a cleaning brush," he said. "They were holding an introductory meeting on the Bahá'í Faith and I stayed."

He was given a book of the writings of Bahá'u'lláh, the Faith's Founder. "It seemed very much to be a revelation from God," said Dr. Thoresen. "It fit in very well with what I knew of Buddhism and the Bhagavad Gita. And it also seemed to fit the world situation today. Because, being enrolled at the same time in the Red Student Front, I had an appreciation for the world's problems."

Dr. Thoresen soon became deeply involved with the Faith. He made a pilgrimage to the Bahá'í World Centre in Haifa, Israel, in 1975. The next year he was elected as Secretary of the national Bahá'í community of Norway, an unpaid position which nevertheless demands a great deal of day-to-day practical and administrative work. Dr. Thoresen served in that role for three years, until 1979.

During that period he began to have success as a composer. In 1976, his first major chamber work, "The Garden," was inaugurated in the chamber music room of the Oslo Concert Hall, representing his breakthrough as a composer. And in 1979 a multimedia work, Skapelser ("Creations"), was commissioned for and premiered at the 10th anniversary of the Høvikodden Arts Centre. It was later adapted as a TV ballet.

As his career progressed, Dr. Thoresen took a position as a professor at the Norwegian State Academy for Music, where he still teaches. He is known, for example, for his expertise in the creation of electronic music, and, at the other extreme, for his study of aboriginal Norwegian folk music, from which he has drawn extensively for its distinctive rhythms and tonalities.

"His music is a dialectic involving very simple and extraordinarily complex elements," Ms. Levin wrote in Listen to Norway two years ago. "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."

Dr. Thoresen puts it more simply. "My career is really not all that glorious compared to that of numerous other composers and musicians," he said. "I like to explore new fields. I have this interest not only in finding the similarities between things, but the differences between things. In this way, you start to appreciate how diverse humanity is. That becomes an exercise in seeing things from another human's point of view. And I think that is useful."