Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen

b. 1969

Danish

Summary

Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen was born in 1969. He is trained in both cello and composition, educated at the Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus, Denmark. As a composer he studied with Karl Aage Rasmussen, Bent Sørensen and Olav Anton Thommesen at the academy. In addition, he received lessons from Henryk Gorecki and Poul Ruders.   Agerfeldt is very interested in the affinity between music and the human mind and he does not believe in giving up the traditional musical foundation of tonality and counterpoint whilst at the same time being very careful in his choice of musical material. Composers like Witold Lutoslawski and Alban Berg, who, even in applying twelvetone-techniques have "tonality lurking around the corner” as Agerfeldt puts it, have had a profound influence on him.

Agerfeldt's music is often described as an original fusion of humour and seriousness. His background as a cellist can be heard in his works through a very concrete sense of instrumental technique and an ever-present awareness of the fact that his music is to be played by musicians which manifests in a sense of phrasing and articulation that applies to more than just his handling of the cello.

His major works include the opera The Picture of Dorian Gray (2013), for which he received the Musical Drama Prize of the Danish State’s Art Foundation as well as the Carl Prize, and orchestral and ensemble works like Der Wind Bläset Wo er Will (2011) and Die Himmlischen Heerscharen (1998).
Critical Acclaim
...Which Danish composer writes music that is thumping like a power station? Unavoidable in its monstrous simplicity? Who is at the same time sculptural and down-to-earth in his art? The correct answer is Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen - Thomas Michelsen, Politiken

Biography

Music and manners 
Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen has composed and played cello since he was a boy. He studied both subjects at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Århus, but today lives exclusively by composing. Whereas it was once the norm for composers of scored music also to be performing professional musicians, it is now relatively rare. This development has undoubtedly been significant for the nature of music, for better and for worse. Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen is no longer an active cellist, yet he is still a musician to the depths of his soul. His music would not be as it is if he had not come from an instrumental tradition and upbringing. In Agerfeldt’s music one senses an elementary joy in – and fascination with – the basics of musical expression: the notes, the way they are formed, and the progressions of which they form a part.
Looking at the art-music avant-garde in general, it is at present characterized by a search for new, often ‘cross-medial’ forms, a decided technological focus and an attempt to break the mould of the traditional concert framework. Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen’s primary focus, on the other hand, is chamber and orchestral music. Where others make much of cutting their ties with the past, Agerfeldt acknowledges an affinity with the preceding generation of composers as well as his formal and stylistic affiliation with the classical music tradition. He does not strive to break the mould; that is not important to him, because it does not stand in the way of what he sees as his project. On the contrary it is the precondition for the expression of his ideas. Agerfeldt’s artistic ambition is solely musical.
In other words Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen does not seek out the spectacular. For him it is the traditional musical phenomena that are in play. The essential thing is the music and its own inner life; the ideas are musical, and he does not build up conceptual and intellectual constructs around his idiom. Agerfeldt’s position in contemporary music can in this respect be compared to the painter’s in visual art: a materially oriented approach to the creative process. For Agerfeldt the connection between the human mind and music goes through what one could call the traditional musical foundations: tonality and melody, metre and rhythm, the basic structural musical idea etc. His project is about constantly rediscovering the nature of music, so to speak, shedding light on it from new sides and thus actualizing it.
Agerfeldt’s attitude to his work and to music and its history is typified above all by respect and humility. As we know, rebellion requires the arrogance to reject and to claim that one’s own answers are the right ones. Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen is conse­quently neither ‘patricide’ nor rebel; on the contrary his musical relationship with the older generation of composers and his teachers is highly respectful. His great models include the writer Max Frisch and the composers Witold Lutoslawski and Per Nørgård. They are centrally placed in his artistic universe, he grew up with the idioms of these artists, he has quite physically had their music in his hands as a child and as a young man and has in a way grown together with them. In his music the old ideas are revita­lized and fertilized by a new age and by the temperament of the composer Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen.
Agerfeldt himself describes the rejection of the "fundamental musical disco­veries” as bizarre, thus emphasizing his own basically traditionalist attitude. But respect­fully as he treats the nature and history of music, Thomas Agerfeldt is equally aware of the absolute meaninglessness of reproducing others’ music and idioms, and he firmly opposes a nonchalant, eclectic attitude to history. He is a composer who perpe­tuates a traditional tonal and formal language, but he oes so conscientiously and in his own way and thus represents a kind of subtle innovation where the surprising and original are in the detail. The music is very much the result of listening, indeed almost of ‘playing forth’, and this gives it a presence which for a time negates the importance of the discussion of new departures versus tradition. You feel you are in good company with Agerfeldt’s music; it is not music with sharp edges, but it is not smoothly rounded music either. It is itself.
Agerfeldt thus seems to be torn between the demand for renewal, experiment and technology on the one hand, and ‘the conservative ear’ (or heart, if you will)on the other. Such an unresolved dilemma can sometimes be artistically fatal,but for Agerfeldt it appears to be an important part of his actual driving force. He himself describes his project in general terms as an attempt to create music that is recognizable without being retrogressive, where ‘the reactionary in all of us’ is stimulated and brought into play again by at reatment of the material that exhibits both the will to experiment and sheer curiosity.
This is a fundamental dialectic in Agerfeldt’s music, and may stem from the fact that he is both a musician and a composer. In many ways one can see his music in the light of a conflict between the two sides of his artistic growth and personality: the Performer with his intimate and almost unshakable relation to the tradition, and the Creator with his wish to renew and experiment. These two contrasting approache sare united in his work and result in music which on the surface is friendly and euphonious, but which nevertheless does not become sleek and inconsequential, because it is intelligent and constantly activates the listener’s curiosity and wonder. The music is in a sense always about his own path forward. The listener is invited into a narrative where the content and the building-blocks are purely musical; one follows the music as it un­folds note by note, bar by bar.
The intelligent in Agerfeldt’s music could also be called clearness of vision. Although the music is varied and sometimes also goes to extremes, it remains sober and never approaches the pretentious or vulgar. However, humour is an important part of Agerfeldt’s universe. The adroitly instrumented courses of several works are interrupted by alien elements such as squeeze-bulb horns, ukuleles or mouth organs – odd instruments which are often ascribed tragicomic characters: comical because of their indecorous sounds in the context, tragic because they come to appear solitary and inhibited. And the role of these instruments is probably the closest one comes to drama in Agerfeldt’s music. In these situations it is no longer just about notes, structures, craftsmanship, but about kinds of people.Outsiders who try a little too eagerly and vainly to fit in.
According to Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen, though, music is about as remote from reality as one gets. For him it is an important part of the motivation for working with music that it is the art among all others that has the least to do with reality, and he describes compo­sing as a striving for a Utopia. In his music he establishes a parallel world that is brighter and better ordered than reality, and which can function as a kind of refuge from a soiled world. Art – in this case music –must have a Utopian quality for Agerfeldt; it must be able to present a place where one would like to be. If there are disconcerting elements in his music, they are only hints, and usually to be understood as a playful element rather than existential gloom.
This is not to say that he does not have an eye for the folly and general misery of the world – on the contrary. He simply does not see music as a battleground. It is abstract by nature and thus unreal, and for that very reason music can and should present an alternative, a Utopia.
Is this an expression of escapism? Perhaps. At all events Agerfeldt stands in oppo­sition to those who seek out the problematical and consistently drill where it hurts. For him music is just that – music, a tonal powerhouse that hums along and produces life-giving energy: in music special laws apply – regularities which in Agerfeldt’s works are very much invented and set up by himself. These laws can be prodded, challenged or displaced, but never beyond the limits of their own musical nature. The self-appointed musical laws are challenged, but not exploded. Questions are put into the music but not to music as such.
After all, every Utopia is also an idealistic dream, or even an ultimate goal, and Agerfeldt’s thinking is not so very remote from reality that its lacks a considerable ethical dimension. He describes himself how various ways of being musical stimulate the listener to think in certain ways. As a result, for Agerfeldt it is an artistic-ethical guideline to compose his music so that it supports the humanist worldview that is his ideal at as many levels as possible. This results in music that is typified by ambiguities, curiosity and mutability, and which makes demands on the listener, and it encourages an active, positive attitude to life. The ethical dimension is also reflected in Agerfeldt’s approach to the material, in his respect and humility, and in his openly listening and playful way of composing. The assumption is that such an openness and positive atti­tude will rub off on the audience and their relations with others. Agerfeldt’s music is not aesthetic, but ethical, and this in itself is kind of ethical statement: Agerfeldt wants to stimulate the realization that elevates the spirit, rather than to cultivate the seduction of aestheticized and spectacular art.
Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen’s music ranges from ethical and historical weight on the one hand to humorous and playful lightness on the other. And this is perhaps what is most characteristic of it: that it is full of paradoxes; clear and distinct, yet elusive and fleeting.

Niels Rønsholdt

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