"original, brilliant and voluptuous music with rythmical drive"
"grand and gripping, with hallucinating power"
Between reason and intuition.
There is more to composing than skilfully and intelligently arranging
notes above, below and next to one another on a sheet of music
paper. Whether the composer likes it or not, it also involves
surrendering to dreams and memories. The composer is naked: the sounds are inalienably his - they reveal a part of his innermost being. Each composition is a self-portrait.
For Klas Torstensson those dreams and memories are, without a
doubt, inseparably bound to his native country Sweden - a land of
rugged beauty with its silent, empty and mercilessly desolate
icescapes and with the enigmatic and bewitching poetry of the
northern lights. Indeed many of his pieces seem to evoke that ancient
Swedish landscape, most notably Barstend IJs (1986), The Last Diary
(1994), the stunningly moving opera The Expedition (1999) and the - metaphorically and literally - dazzling Lantern Lectures Volume III - Aurora Borealis (2001).
However, when the young Klas Torstensson came to the Netherlands
in 1973, he would have rejected the term "evocations of nature" for
being too romantic. At the time, composing was for him, first and
foremost, a cerebral activity (finding formal solutions to theoretical
problems in music) even though he did let practical considerations
(such as the possibilities and technical prowess of a specific musician
or group of musicians) colour those abstract, formalistic principles.
Because theoretical problems in music often point to multiple
solutions, Torstensson has created "families" (his term) of
compositions such as Licks & Brains (four movements) and Lantern
Lectures (five movements). But cross-links can also be found
between say: Solo (1988) for bass saxophone and the orchestral work
Stick on Stick (1990); Stick on Stick and Urban Songs (1992); Stick on
Stick and Bowed vowels, the seventh
movement of Lantern Lectures V - Self-portrait with percussion
(2006); and between The Expedition and Lantern Lectures.
could be expanded quite effortlessly, given that Torstensson produces
work whose essence is unchanging (just like his revered Varèse and
Xenakis, their predecessors Wagner and Bruckner, and the visual
artists Mark Rothko and Francis Bacon); and this essence has bound
Torstensson’s entire output into a unified whole.
It is typified by his formidably developed feel for dramatic timbres
and textures, and his love of extreme contrasts. This gives rise to
music which fluctuates between intense motion (nervously repeated
rhythmic figures, often sounding like a signal, or wild, glowing,
volcanic eruptions of sound) and total stasis, in which the sounds
appear to freeze. But there is also a more lyrical side to Torstensson.
This manifests itself in his vocal works, first in Urban Solo (1991),
composed for the soprano Charlotte Riedijk, and later on (at an as yet
unprecedented level) in his opera The Expedition.
Torstensson worked on The Expedition from1994 to 1999. It is a
magnificent synthesis of all the technical and expressive possibilities
explored earlier in his career. Despite its chilling subject -S.A. Andrée
and his crew’s ill-fated effort to reach the North Pool in a hydrogen
balloon - this opera is a warm-blooded drama about life and death.
Torstensson wrote the libretto himself and based it on Andrée’s
Diary, which he read at the age of 10: "The story has haunted me ever
since." The expansive quality of opera in general invited Torstensson to
include stylistic references in his own opera which he had, until then,
deliberated avoided. Without spoiling his wonderfully unruly style, he
wrote a perfectly accessible score, which, partly because of the
masterful use of electronics (the rustle of the northern lights is an
experience in itself) soars above most contemporary opera scores.
The final aria of the opera (a lamentation for soprano with orchestral
accompaniment) is remarkable, too, for its Pucciniesque (tonal!)
vocal melody and the intermittent strings in parallel movement, which
dominate the vocal line during eight successive suspensions.
Since the completion of The Expedition, Torstensson has become
more inclined to let his own musical intuition guide him and to
express the "sensitive" side of his nature in his music. His beautiful
song cycle In großer Sehnsucht (2004) for soprano and piano trio
(sketches of "tragic women" like Frida Kahlo and Rosa Luxemburg)
already bears witness to this as does his Self-portrait with
percussion, whose fifth movement Almglocken (a dark, solemn
chorale for wind instruments) rings with the echoes of Mahler’s
cowbells - paying homage to Anton Webern. One wonders what else
the future has in store.
(Translation: Imogen Cohen/Muse Translations).