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Composer Portraits: Klas Torstensson

“For me, variation is one of the most important compositional techniques. The point at which a new variation starts is the ‘reset’ point. It is the point at which we recommence with a (relatively) blank slate.” 

                        —Klas Torstensson


Born in 1951 in the small Swedish town of Nässjö, Klas Torstensson studied in his native country, went to Utrecht in 1973 for training in electronic music, and settled permanently in the Netherlands. By his own account, his early models were Varèse and Xenakis, even if repetitive elements characteristic of his later music already function in his earliest published work, the percussion sextet Redskap (Gear, 1976). He then formed an association with the Asko Ensemble. Invited to write for Hoketus, a group strongly associated with Louis Andriessen, he produced Spåra (Tracks, 1984), in which highly energized, pulse-driven lines for varying groupings of saxophones, guitars, and keyboards are in frangible relationships with each other and with unpitched percussion. Amid the spurts and hesitations of this music, new interventions – as at one point from panpipes – can act as “triggers,” to use his own metaphor. The piece demonstrates those qualities Torstensson found attractive in minimalism – earthiness, proximity to the jazz and rock music of his 1960s youth – but shows, too, his disruptive, questioning attitude.

Altered repetitions, urgent maneuvers in the bass, disjunctions – these all became determining features of his music, works of the next few years including Licks & Brains for saxophone quartet (1987) and Koorde (Chord, 1990) for two pianos. Soon after this came a turn to vocal compositions, often with sampling technology. Urban Songs (1992), for soprano, large ensemble, and electronics, was written for the Ensemble InterContemporain and followed by an opera, The Expedition (1994-99), on the subject of a misguided Swedish attempt mounted in 1897 to reach the North Pole by hydrogen balloon.

During this same period, his handling of large instrumental forces became more refined as such resources became much more the norm in his output. Between 1999 and 2006 he wrote a series of five Lantern Lectures for the leading new-music ensembles of Vienna, Montréal, Stockholm, and Amsterdam. Then came A Cycle of the North, comprising three orchestral scores: Fastlandet (The Mainland, 2007), Polarhavet (The Polar Sea, 2008), and Himmelen (Heaven, 2012). More recently, he has been concentrating again on more compact groups, whether of voices, in a book of madrigals for Queen Christina on period texts, or of instruments, as in tonight’s pieces.


Composer’s Note

The two instrumental quartets Sönerna (for saxophone, trombone, guitar, and percussion) and No slash (for violin, cello, piano, and percussion) can be played after each other and/or simultaneously. When they are played together, the title becomes Elliott loves bebop.

The works were commissioned by the ensembles SON (Stockholm) and Either/Or (New York), and were financed by the Swedish Arts Council and the Performing Arts Fund NL of the Netherlands.

Each of the three parts has a duration of about twenty minutes.

“Elliott,” from the title of the double quartet is, of course, Elliott Carter, the American composer who by many was seen as the main representative of the more or less academic, “European,” uptown music culture in New York. Even though Carter himself did not want to belong to any school, when you listen to his music, you can hear that it has its roots in the “serial,” intellectual European music tradition of the 20th century – “modern music,” as we popularly called it.

(I met Carter in the Netherlands in the early eighties, when the Asko Ensemble – with which I was deeply involved – performed several of his compositions.)

That Carter actually loved bebop is pure speculation on my part. As we all know, “bebop” was the improvisational style Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and others developed in the 1940s. Carter often heard these musicians in the theaters on 52nd Street; in an interview, he said “I was a real jazz fan then,” and so I have taken the liberty to retroactively make him a bebop-lover.

The other titles may need an explanation: “sönerna”  is Swedish for “the sons.” Every member of  Ensemble SON has a name ending in “son,” and so does the composer. What could be more appropriate than to give the first piece the title Sönerna?

The title of the second quartet refers to the fact that Either/Or has a slash in its name. When I wanted to register this new piece with my publisher, it turned out that slashes are not to be used in their operating system. Thus No slash. 

-Klas Torstensson


Sönerna for saxophone, trombone, guitar, and percussion (2016)

Out of breath noise on sax and trombone, Sönerna begins with a typical Torstensson riff: a driving unison line in regular sixteenths, syncopated, stopping and starting, with the percussionist on vibraphone. The line always gets going from a downward fourth, slipping in position within the middle register, and it generally hits problems when it comes to that interval again, falling apart or starting all over. When it rises to a climax, it stops for other things, which may be beyond expectation. Alternative kinds of music are introduced, including a whole phase where the players are more independent, sometimes wholly so. The line breaks back occasionally, and carries this first movement to its finish.

Following without a pause, the second movement is at first white-note music, set on oscillating fifths on vibes, the other instruments playing repeated notes, scales, and patterns, sometimes within larger repeating units. Harmonic clarity breaks down, then is restored for a second half integrating complexity into clarity.

Again with no pause, the third movement finds a new driving unison line, this time powering on, through the usual “resets,” to the extraordinary close.


No slash for violin, cello, piano, and percussion (2016)

The different instrumentation implies a different tradition (and there is a different percussion setup, with egg shakers – a Torstensson favorite – and suspended cymbals being the only instruments used by the players of both quartets). Fourths are again determinative at the start, but in octaves, at a much slower felt tempo, and with harmonics from the strings. Fermatas intervene and irregular repetitions take over, and there is then a switch to a unison line of a familiar kind, at which point it becomes clearer how this piece relates to Sönerna, if not entirely so.

One thing of which there is no doubt is the identical division into movements. The second movement even begins identically, and stays that way a long time, though not the whole time.

As for the third, no explanation needed.


Elliott loves bebop (2016) for double quartet

Both halves of the object having been presented, it might seem obvious how they will fit together….

“Carter’s first and second quartets are bebop pieces.” (David Harrington, Kronos Quartet)


Introduction and Program Notes by Paul Griffiths