Sunleif Rasmussen

The Faroese composer Sunleif Rasmussen, more than anyone, has put the small wind-swept Atlantic islands on the musical map of the world.

He is presented at Nordic Music Days with two different works: 5 Faroese Songs and 3 organ chorales.

In 2002 he was the first Faroese ever to win the Nordic Council’s Music Prize for his Symphony no. 1 Oceanic Days. In many ways, Sunleif Rasmussen’s aesthetic approach gives meaning to the concept of Nordic music.

Sunleif Rasmussen was born on Sandoy – ‘Sand Island’ – and the Faroese landscape and culture both play an important role in Sunleif Rasmussen’s music; not in the sense that the music paints the fury of the elements, the omnipresent Atlantic Ocean or audibly draws on Faroese folk music and mythology. The references and associations are far more subtle. The national melodic material is split up into its smallest fragments and most of all have the function of musical building blocks.

To see and hear more of Sunleif Rasmussen:



Nature is an important framework of understanding and thinking for music and aesthetics. In the symphony Oceanic Days percussion and electronics are placed around the audience. Sunleif Rasmussen himself describes the underlying idea as follows: “The audience is like a group of islands at the center of the events, surrounded by sound.”

In the period 2008-2009 Sunleif Rasmussen was composer-in-residence for the South Jutland Symphony Orchestra and in the period 2009-2010 for Ars Nova Copenhagen.

A long succession of prominent orchestras and ensembles are at present commissioning and playing works by Sunleif Rasmussen: the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Helsinki Philharmonic, the Lapland Chamber Orchestra, Theatre of Voices and the Danish National Vocal Ensemble.

The succession of conductors and soloists who have performed Sunleif Rasmussen’s music is also impressive: John Storgårds, Paul Hillier, the recorder virtuoso Michala Petri, the singer Bo Skovhus and others. 

How did you find music? I guess growing up on the Faroe Islands it was not loads of composers hanging around?

I have been interested in sounds from nature as far back as I can remember. I was always listening to the birds, the different sounds of the waves, the sound of the wind and the sound of the wind ringing in the grass, etc. etc. So, for me, the sound was the first source of music.
Later when I was a boy I listen to Classical music on the radio, and at that time I also began to listen to modern pop and rock music, and when I was about twelve I joined a local band playing the pop and rock music at that time. At the age of thirteen, there was a school teacher who learned me a little about how to read music.
When I was eighteen I actually went to Norway to the “Folkehøyskole” in Skjeberg. There I got lessons in piano and music theory for the first time and began to write music. Here I also heard a Symphony Orchestra for the first time. The Oslo Philharmonic I think it was. It made such an impression on me that I didn’t sleep for several days.
This is the short version of how I got familiar with composers and the music world.


Do you have any thoughts on music’s role in our identity? Do you think of your self as a Nordic man?

I think that music has a strong role in our identity! That’s why composers always have been interested in or being inspired by folk music from their own area or country. I can name composers like Grieg, Stravinsky, Bartok, Kodaly, Crumb, and many others.
I see myself as a person from the Faroe Island of course, and I have a strong Nordic identity. I have written a Nordic Hymn called “Nordika”, and I have written a Nordic Mass for Mixed Choir and Orchestra called “Nordisk Messe” where I use the text from the normal Mass, but the six parts in the Mass are sung in six Nordic languages; Norwegian, Danish, Finish, Faroese, Icelandic and Swedish.
And of course, I also have a European identity.

You have all your education from Nordic countries. Did you never feel the urge to go somewhere else to seek inspiration?

Yes, I have all my musical education in Norway and mostly in Denmark. That said I have always been interested in music from all over the world, and I have met folklore musicians from different places in the world like Tunisia, India, Russia, Kazakhstan, Israel, just to mention some places, and have always had conversation with them about their music, and of course been inspired by them. You cannot hear this directly in my music, but somehow it finds its way into my musical thinking.

There is a lot of nature in your music. Is nature important to you?

Yes, my way into music or sounds was through nature, and this has followed me ever since. When you are on the Faroe Islands, nature is always very present in one way or another. But when I am other places I also get inspired by nature. Even if we don’t have forests in the Faroe Islands I’m very much inspired by it, and when I’m in big cities, I have a habit trying to exclude traffic noise and try to listen to the bird songs instead. It gives me a feeling of safety.


The festival theme is «truth?». Can music be true?
Is this something you are struggling with in your compositions?

Yes of course music has to be true, and it has to be composed of a deep feeling of sincerity. I’m always struggling with being true to my self when I write music, and in that respect, I believe and hope that the music also will be true!

5 Faroese Songs

“5 Faroese Songs” I see as my opus nr. 1. “Tell me, why the world is pretty” is the first melody I wrote at the age of 14. “Tell me, why the world is pretty” is the first poem by Karsten Hoydal published in the nineteen twenties. Karsten was the brother of my grandmother. At the beginning of the nineties, I found this melody and made a choir arrangement of it. The other four pieces are composed at the beginning of the eighties long before I enter the Royal Danish Conservatory in 1989. In these choir pieces, you can hear the quite melancholic mood that often still is a part of my music.

3 organ chorales

“3 Organ Chorals in memoriam Kjartan Hoydal” was written in 2016 for the Danish Organ player Poul S. Jacobsen. These chorals are based on melodies composed by the Faroese composer and Dom organist Jógvan Waagstein. In 1946 he composed the first Faroese instrumental piece, a piece for organ called “Paraphrase”. It was supposed to be premiered by him in Oslo Cathedral on a convent for Dom Church organists from the Nordic countries, but eventually, Jógvan became ill and the Dom organist in Oslo premiered the piece.
The mood in the three Chorals is inspired by the poems.
During the writing process of this piece, a very good friend and relative of mine died. He was the son of the Faroese poet Karsten Hoydal who I mentioned in the program note for the “5 choir pieces”, and I dedicated these Chorals to his memory.