Composition in the Faroe Islands

Composition in the Faroe Islands has developed rapidly over the last couple of decades. Historically, music has always played a major part in Faroese culture, with ethnic ballad dancing, hymns and rhymes, which for centuries have been inherent parts of people’s daily lives. These traditions also have a unique position in European music history as they until recently have been preserved only by oral communication. Consequently, the melodic material from these ballads, hymns and rhymes has no known composer, contrary to the lyrics, where you can find original scripts as well as transcripts dating back several centuries and documenting one aspect of the strong artistic heritage in this small island society. 

Faroese composition in its form of contemporary artistic expression is a fairly recent phenomenon with the earliest works dating no further back than the late 19th century. These works, often in the form of strophic songs, were inspired by the rising nationalist movement, which peaked in the late 40’s and during which period the Faroese written language was also established. The first known instrumental composition is a short piece for organ, composed by Jógvan Waagstein (1879-1949) in 1932. The pioneer of Faroese instrumental composition is however the internationally acclaimed writer William Heinesen (1900-1991), who during the 1950’s wrote a cantata as well as two pieces for solo viola and piano respectively. These pieces are still performed on a regular basis and have been an inspiration for following generations of Faroese composers.

In regards to jazz, rock and other popular music the level of activity in new composition was low until the late 1950’s. Up until then, the majority of music played was cover tunes and it wasn’t until the 1980’s that the Faroe Islands’ music scene saw a significant amount of new works being created within those genres. 

The first works following William Heinesen’s afore mentioned compositions were written in the 1970’s by Pauli í Sandagerði (b. 1955) and were predominantly pieces for solo piano. The 1970’s also saw the first compositions of non-strophical choral music by Bjarni Restorff (b. 1955), who is still one of the most significant composers of choral music in the Faroe Islands.

In 1984 Faroese composers were invited to attend a workshop in writing music for chamber orchestras. The workshop was arranged by Vestjysk Kammerensemble (The Chamber Ensemble of Western Jutland in Denmark), which was at the time hosting and performing a series of concerts in the newly opened Nordic House in Tórshavn (the capital of the Faroe Islands). The initiative was met with enthusiasm and subsequently a group of composers and musicians organised a number of concerts with 20th century music, where the majority of the pieces performed were written by Faroese composers, who had attended the workshop. These included Pauli í Sandagerði (b.1955), Sunleif Rasmussen (b. 1961) and Kristian Blak (b. 1947), but others were soon to follow. It is interesting to note that several of the composers of these first pieces for chamber ensemble and otherwise for classical instruments, had a background in jazz or rock – some are still active in these genres as well – and were new to artistic expression through written scores.

Inspired by the workshop in 1984, Faroese composers instigated, what could be deemed as an education-initiative for themselves. They arranged for regular visits by tutors from Iceland (composer Atli Heimir Sveinsson) and Denmark (composers Svend Aaquist and Karl Aage Rasmussen) as well as they established a practice of distance tutoring, where the participating Faroese composers could get feedback on their work in progress. This scheme, which ran over approximately 10 years, helped create and establish the healthy and encouraging environment for new composition, which is characteristic of the Faroe Islands today.

The first major presentation of Faroese composition abroad was at the St. Magnus Festival on the Orkney Islands in 1991, where young Faroese musicians performed works by Kári Bæk (b. 1950), Atli Petersen (b. 1963), Sunleif Rasmussen, Kristian Blak and Pauli í Sandagerði (b.1955). The visit to this internationally recognised festival, which takes place in an island society much like the Faroe Islands, but with a population half the size, sparked thoughts of having a similar event at home. There was already collaboration in place between the composers and the Faroese National Gallery regarding a concert series in 1990 as well as an annual concert in connection with the opening of the Spring Exhibition. Over the next couple of years, this relationship was developed further and in 1992, the first Summartónar festival for Classical and Contemporary music was held. The festival has seen numerous premiers of Faroese compositions and has since the beginning been a meeting point for international performers and composers. The festival also saw the formation of the first professional ensemble on the Faroe Islands, which today works under the name and critical acclaim of Aldubáran. Together with Summartónar, Aldubáran is essential to Faroese composition and musical life, as it is a platform for new music, and since the development of these two institutions, works by Faroese composers are heard and performed more and more internationally by both Faroese and non-Faroese artists. Faroese composers also frequently get commissions from outside of the country.

Young composers are now also starting to enter onto the Faroese music scene. Andras Olsen (b. 1978) and Tróndur Bogason (b. 1976), who studies composition at the Royal Danish Conservatory, are two examples of this. Tróndur is the second Faroese person to study composition. The first one was Sunleif Rasmussen, who in 200??? received the Nordic Council’s Music Prize for his symphony ‘Oceanic Days’, which is the hitherto greatest recognition of Faroese composition and a major achievement for a culture with such short history of notated music.

Jazz became popular in the Faroe Islands in line with in the rest of Europe. As early as in 1923, there was a Faroese band called Jazzband Triumph.  Up until 1975, when a jazz club was founded, the jazz that was played on the Faroe Islands comprised mainly of standard world repertoire. The jazz club laid the grounds for jazz composition and not longer after, it was founded, the first recordings with compositions by Ólavur Øster, Kristian Blak, Jóhannus á Rógvu Joensen, Sunleif Rasmussen and Edvard Nyholm Debess, were released. The club, named Havnar Jazzfelag, was very active during the late 70’s and early 80’s, organising several concerts a week and promoting international artists at least on a monthly basis. 

In this environment, a new generation of jazz musicians grew up, including Leivur Thomsen, Arnold Ludvig, Rógvi á Rógvu and Magnus Johannessen, who also started releasing records with their own original material in the 90's with Holger Laumann & Plúmm, Green Gate and more recently, Magnus Johannessen's MAGNUS in 2010, Kim Kristensen's ALDA MAGNA with some of Leivur Thomsen's compositions and Arnold Ludvig Sextet's VOYAGES in 2013, all on Tutl Records.

This resulted in a diverse jazz scene on the Faroe Islands with a healthy balance between standard jazz repertoire and original Faroese jazz music. In 1983, the jazz club lost its venue and from 1984 and through to 2004, the activities of the club were concentrated into an annual festival, ‘Tórshavnar Jazz, Fólka og Blues Festival’ (Tórshavn’s Jazz, Folk & Blues Festival), which then provided the opportunities for composers in the relevant genres to showcase their work.

This festival is now integrated into Summartónar – the Faroese composers’ festival.

Since the early 90’s new musicians and composers have made their entrance into Faroese music from a very young age. These include Heðin Ziska Davidsen, Búi Dam, Mikael Blak, Brandur Jacobsen, Eivør Pálsdóttir and Benjamin Petersen, who all have shown a natural individuality and whose compositions, because of their involvement in several different genres, are often a fusion of two or more genres in one.

Faroese jazz, world and folk artists have toured throughout the world and have shown that it is possible for musicians to have the Faroe Islands, despite it being a very small society, as their base. 

The ethnic music of the Faroe Islands is made up of ballads, hymns and rhymes (link). These music forms are all sung a capella and apart from some recently written ballad lyrics, these forms are by nature a part of Faroese tradition and they are a cultural treasure not only for the Faroe Islands but for European music history and heritage in general. 

From reports by Jens Christian Svabo (1746-1824), who was a fiddle player, we know that instrumental folk dance music has been played on the Faroe Islands since the late 18th century, but even so, up until the 1970’s there was no distinct Faroese playing style and there were no local tunes. The repertoire consisted of tunes from Scandinavia and the British isles. Spælimenninir, a folk band, was formed in 1974 and pioneered the creation of new Faroese instrumental folk dance music and through them a large catalogue of Faroese waltzes, reinlenders, jigs, reels etc. has been established. Ívar Bærentsen, who is one of the musicians in Spælimenninir, alone has written several hundred tunes – some of which have also been adopted by artists from around the world. Other composers of folk tunes are, to mention a few, Pauli Hansen, Jakobina Hansen, Kristian Blak, Angelika Nielsen and Kim Hansen. 

Folk songs only became popular on the Faroe Islands in the late 19th century – approximately 100 years after the instrumental folk music. Danish, Swedish and Norwegian lyrics were common, but some songs were also translated to or rewritten in Faroese. In the early 20thcentury, Jógvan Waagstein, Peter Alberg and Hans Jacob Højgaard among others began writing songs for social gatherings (højskole). Most of these songs were also arranged for choirs and composer Knút Olsen, who has written extensively for choir, still writes songs in this folk style. 

In the late 1960’s, the group Harkaliðið with singer Annika Hoydal started arranging traditionally unaccompanied Faroese ethnic songs for band. They also wrote a large number of new songs – some in cabaret style – and altogether took Faroese vocal folk music in a new direction. Later, especially the troubadour Kári P. started writing socially and politically critical songs and thereby adding another dimension to the folk scene.

Since the 1980’s among the most active songwriters have been Ingun Simonsen, Pauli Hansen, Kári Sverrison and Óli Olsen. The two last ones wrote the majority of the music for folk group Enekk and Kári Sverrision is one of the most significant songwriters, arrangers and performers in the ethnic/world music genre – both in regards to new and traditional material.

Two young and internationally acclaimed artists, who should also be mentioned, are Teitur and Eivør. They both write in English as well as Faroese and while their English material – especially in the case of Teitur – leans more towards popular music; their Faroese material is predominantly in a folk music style.

The Faroe Islands are no exception from the rest of the world, when it comes to popular music. Bands were formed in the 50’s to play at dances and the songs they played were mainly American and British pop songs. A few people such as Simme and the Faroe Boys in the 60’s wrote their own rock and pop songs, but generally bands would play cover tunes for both concerts and dances.  

Petur Mohr Reinert and Ronnie Nielsen from the bands Paragraf and Devon were among the first people to release albums with their own material and this happened as late as 1984. From the mid 80's people like Eyðun Nolsøe, Steintór Rasmussen and Terji Rasmussen with bands like Frændur, Terji & Føstufressar and Moira have had great successes with original popular albums. 

Since then, however, there has been an enormous activity and creativity on the popular music scene. Nowadays, most bands write and perform their own songs. Among active songwriters today are, to mention but a few, Lena Andersen & Niclas Johannesen, Unn Paturson & Rógvi á Rógvu with RUN, Anna Iachino & Arnold Ludvig with MonkeyRat, Jóhannus á Rógvu Joensen, Heri Joensen, Brynjólfur, Niels Galan, Mikael Blak, Uni Árting with 200, Jón Tyril, Øssur Johannesen, Líggjas Olsen with Frostfelt and Uni Arge. These composers and songwriters generally work with a certain band and will often compose collectively within the band. 

Composers, who have formed bands in heir own names and with themselves as front person, include Petur Pólson, Benjamin Petersen, Lena Andersen, Høgni Lisberg, Guðrið Hansdóttir, Bárður Johannesen and Kristleif Zachariasen.