Lasse Thoresen


Lasse Thoresen, professor of composition at the Norwegian State Academy of Music, is one of Europe's outstanding contemporary composers. He has had works commissioned by all the major Norwegian Philharmonic Orchestras and the French National Radio, among others. He was the music festival composer/composer in residence for the 1996 Bergen International Music Festival in Norway.

I would say that most classical or "serious" music is a language -- a nonverbal language -- in which profound meanings can be found. I would say that in the music of the great European masters -- Josquin, Monteverdi, Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, Brahms, Messiaen, to mention some of my favorites -- one can really find mysteries embodied in metaphors of structured sound. These composers communicate through a language that requires that the listener be willing to exert himself. The language has to be learned; more or less concealed meanings have to be found and interpreted. It is like the Bahá'í writings : they are not something you understand without making an effort and diving into them. Music -- like the writings -- rewards your efforts by revealing meaning after meaning, delight after delight, though not until you have given it devoted attention for some time. When people feel they understand a piece of music -- particularly one without a text, for example a symphony or a sonata, they have proven themselves capable of understanding a nonverbal message.

Music can thus be a means for developing an individual's capability for understanding nonverbal messages. This capability is essential for any religious individual, since the holy writings tend to express their meanings through symbols and metaphors, images rather than abstract concepts. Bahá'u'lláh uses a very poetic language by which He evokes wonderful images and inner vistas. In order to understand these images and draw on the spiritual power they can release, we must first of all call forth these images from our imagination -- using our inner senses rather than the outward ones. Thus, when Bahá'u'lláh speaks of "rustling of the Divine Lote-Tree and the murmur of the breezes of thine utterance in the Kingdom of Thy Names," He suggests auditive impressions that we can imagine internally.

In order to evoke the spiritual potential of these images, in this case sound images, we have to dive into them mentally, listen to them, penetrate them, ultimately dissolve them in the clarity of understanding. We have to find out, though not necessarily explain intellectually, why exactly these sound impressions, these images, were chosen as metaphors by Bahá'u'lláh. Of course, to divine the meaning of these images ultimately becomes a very subjective and personal thing. Yet, the process of finding these personal meanings should be cultivated, as it stimulates the spiritual development of the individual. Art can play a vital role in this development, since the arts work with nonverbal symbols and images within the subjective, personal sphere.

All art appeals to the senses and communicates through the senses. Art, however, is a means not only of refining the senses but of transcending them. By transcending them, I mean that one goes from one's external senses -- that is, from listening with the physical ear, seeing with the eye, etc. -- to one's internal sense, that is listening and seeing with the mind and soul, and with our imagination. Our external senses are the tools of the soul for developing an inner vision and an inner audition. In this way, experiencing an artistic discipline and working on our external senses, can lead in the end to a transcendence of the external senses and a development of the faculties of the soul, particularly the faculty of inner vision. This is one of the most exciting and important aspects of how music and art in general can help us spiritualize ourselves.

Music is nonverbal, symbolic language that allows us to understand spiritual dimensions that go beyond words. The understanding of music helps us in our understanding of God 's Revelation, because the revealed word also contains nonverbal dimensions of expression. Music is of vital importance in mankind's spiritualization, as it may aid us to transcend our physical senses and to develop the faculties of the soul.

True music teaches us some of the alchemy of God's names. It shows us how certain of God's attributes can be visualized, be made audible and tangible. What is a merciful gesture? What is a wrathful gesture? What is justice, beauty, and so on? All of these can be made visible for us in a music that at the same time induces this gesture in us and makes us experience that gesture physically or mentally. This helps us to identify ourselves with and to adopt these qualities.

I think that a spiritual artist has potentially much to contribute in our current situation, as he represents a few feathers on the wing of religion that `Abdu'l-Bahá says has to be developed in order to balance the wing of science . Scientific discovery has become predominant in shaping the way we in Western civilization perceive the world. Often our world, therefore, is lost in numbers and calculations, and we forget to regard it in a spiritual and symbolic way. The Báb , Bahá'u'lláh, and `Abdu'l-Bahá often use images and symbols taken from nature. As far as I can see, they were concerned with nature in a way that is more phenomenologic than scientific. They turned simple perceptions into metaphors for spiritual reality. They did not concern themselves with the scientific explanations of these perceptions.

For example, the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh often talk about the rising sun, and this image is a very central and archetypal one in our Faith. From the scientific point of view, we know that the sun does not rise. It is our planet that spins, so that the sun becomes visible. However, the perceptual illusion that the sun rises is enough for the Manifestation to be able to use it as a metaphor and a symbol for spiritual reality. The Báb goes so far as to affirm that this symbolic reality is the sun's essential reality. He says: "Verily, the sun is but a token from My presence so that the true believers among My servants may discern in its rising the dawning of every Dispensation."

The artist today can play a vital function in making the phenomena we experience around us appear to be the wonders that they really are and in helping us unravel their symbolic and spiritual potential. In doing so, he (or she) strengthens a spiritual perception of the world, and counteracts a tendency reinforced by contemporary science to regard the world exclusively as material.

As a Bahá'í and an artist, my ideal is of course to convey some spiritual insight through my music, hopefully without my own ego too much in the way. To purify the mental sources of inspiration, to open the right channels, so to speak, one has to submit oneself to some spiritual discipline, and the Bahá'í Faith has offered me many means and opportunities to do that. It still does -- this process never ends. I choose to listen to my inner voice, knowing full well that it is not always reliable or divine, because at the same time I am practicing spiritual disciplines to purify myself as a channel. I accept the imperfections in my inspiration and in my composition because I accept my own humanity and the dynamic evolution of spiritual qualities.

"From the sweet-scented streams of eternity..." a concert of choral music composed for the Bergen International Music Festival in May 1996, was the realization of a dream I have had for over 20 years: a concert of vocal music and texts based on the holy scripture of the Bahá'í religion. The Bahá'í Faith emerged in the last century in the Middle East and is an independent world religion which builds on unity despite color, race and creed. During its first century it has won millions of followers from all corners of the world. In accordance with its motto 'Unity in Diversity', the universal spirit of the Bahá'í Faith is finding different expressions while it adapts itself to the forms developed in various cultures. My challenge as a Western composer has been to choose musical elements from the European and Norwegian traditions' sacred vocal music which I feel lend themselves to express the spirit and content of the chosen texts. I therefore feel as if I am both an ambassador for the European culture with regard to the Bahá'í community and a spokesman for a religion that is relatively unknown to most Western listeners. Therefore, through my choice of musical styles, I have tried to reflect the different European sacred traditions as seen from my personal view point in the 20th century.

Like all other religions, there is a core of mysticism in the Bahá'í Faith: the human spirit has to be transformed and perfected until it can reflect all the divine attributes. Prayer and meditation are important factors in this process, and music is capable of enhancing them. According to the Bahá'í writings, music is a ladder by which the soul can ascend to the realms on high. My hope is that the combination of music and holy scripture will give the listener a glimpse into the eternal and invisible world which is hidden within the human heart.

The Bergen concert opened with the Oslo Philharmonic Chamber Choir singing "From the sweet scented streams of eternity". This piece was written for four choirs which were placed around the audience. The tones of the melody are influenced by Gregorian tradition while the text, written by Bahá'u'lláh, is characterized by metaphors which point to mild, harmonic and natural surroundings (such as water, fruits, meadows, gardens, doves, breezes). The sound from the four choirs embraced the audience as if they had found themselves in such surroundings and created a peaceful and meditative atmosphere.

Another element in the concert was Anne-Lise Berntsen's performance of three sacred songs ("Hellighvad", unaccompanied songs with Norwegian texts) in a style akin to archaic Norwegian folk music, which employs unusually rich ornamentation.

After the intermission, Anne-Lise Berntsen sang two sacred songs with English texts. Following two shorter songs performed by the choir, the concert finished with a long choral piece based on the long healing prayer by Bahá'u'lláh. The prayer starts with a series of invocations of God by his many names. The original text in Arabic has a suggestive rhythm and resonance and I therefore chose to let the choir sing in Arabic. The piece culminated when the healing prayer itself was performed in English by Anne-Lise Berntsen, accompanied by the choir.

The first portion of this interview was excerpted from "Ladder of the Soul: An Interview with Lasse Thoresen," with Trym Bergsmo, which was originally published in The Creative Circle: Art, Literature, and Music in Bahá'í Perspective, edited by Michael Fitzgerald and published by Kalimat Press, Los Angeles (1988).


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