The Probing Intellect Of Jens L. Thomsen

CLASH travels to the Faroe Islands to meet this remarkable composer...

Hypnotic acoustic landscapes are not exclusive to music venues or recording studios. Surroundings not conventionally associated with music can offer, or be shaped to produce, sound to similar effect. 

Living somewhere remote the lack of distraction, of decadent indulgence in big city life, encourages a different engagement, a search for audio in other spaces. The geographic solitude might fuel a heightened sense of invention, the development of a novel skillset and process of working. 

Supremely mesmerising, the harmonic life in the Faroe Islands is irresistible to visitors, the noticeable quietude visitors are met with on arrival is serene. A modestly sized airport, Vágar is a place where a greeting by sheep easily seems a common occurrence and is a reflection of what happens to this group of writers. 

An absorbing hang out with Faroese, half Danish composer, producer and sound chief Jens L. Thomsen is about to begin. It will be three delightful days of rich, sensorial discovery. The unforgettable encounter becomes an exploration of a culture that feels unlike most places, but similar to some, resembling Scotland, Norway and Iceland.

Jens L. Thomsen’s impulse is to engage with his surroundings, to let elements such as nature, climate and architecture inform art, and technology. “I see myself as an ecological sound artist,” he tells our group. “I want to interact with the environment that I make the music in.” 

Thomsen believes that a given climate shapes people and culture and the example he provides resonates. It suggests that Faroese people’s voices are influenced by the sea and sheep, a suggestion that’s hard to shake off, with no need to.  

His parents met in Viborg, Denmark. Studying at two schools next to each other they moved to the Faroe Islands in the 1960s. His father worked as a farmer there. “I remember we had this compressor that would create the pressure needed to make it sound like a drone,” he says. “I’d always use it as a drone and sing over it. In many ways a lot of my work is based on that.”

With a growing understanding of the technology and science behind came a passion for composing. Discovering it early, his interest intensified, he came to understand how to further this knowledge, later delving into anything and everything from German electronic music, KrautrockAphex Twin, Massive Attack and Tricky to John CarpenterTangerine DreamWilliam Basinski and many more. A partner in music duo Orka, with Francine Perry, he also continues to add to a long list of local band and artist collaborations. 

The distance, the isolation evidently deepened curiosity and resourcefulness. Later on time was spent in London, he studied, built a diverse approach to production. While being in London, the Notting Hill Carnival became a huge fascination, which he adored. “I’ve been to eleven carnivals,” he enthuses. “I’m so into the sound systems. As for system culture in general that’s something UK – and Scandinavia – knows how to do.”

Being in a position where he can enjoy the commissions secured, each work is a standalone challenge, an immense opportunity as an artist. Translated as vein in English, ‘ÆÐR’ is the title of a recent undertaking. Tackling modernity and freedom in the post-war era, it was commissioned for Eysturoyartunnil, a twelve kilometre long subsea tunnel. It opened in 2019 and is the largest of its kind there. An installation of substance, the special sound design is a live audio installation where his EP is broadcast around the clock on FM radio for every driver and passenger going through it.  

It is in fact the very first time a composition is permanently broadcast using this technical solution, it allows transmission and is integral to each traveller’s interaction. “As far as I know it’s the only one in the world,” he interjects. “It’s unique. I think that triggered me and made me want to do it.”

Awareness of the extraordinary nature of the specific task in hand made him seek out the approach to match. Normally, when a new tunnel opens there, people are allowed to walk through and discover it. “It’s weirdly poetic, a before man, before machine kind of thing. I actually wanted to plant speakers throughout, that was my plan. I was pretty excited about that.”

His approach is to place himself in the non-musical setting with the aim to make music out of what’s there. “When I looked I saw it had copper wires, they would carry the FM signals for radio, for five or six radio stations.”

Reaching out to the Project Lead, he discovered a spare station. “I asked, can I have it? He said let’s discuss, he was a bit sceptical at first.” For commissions of this type a percentage of the work has to serve the purpose of art and not just be for business, technology or finance, as is the case in other countries. His idea was agreed. 

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Working closely with Project Design Manager and Architect Ósbjørn Jacobsen, the two invested time and effort, they were keen to give the impression that the tunnel was more than a construct. “We wanted the building to speak to us, we dug down, the full spectrum was needed. I wanted to give it a voice, everything is based on it, how it’s constructed.” 

Founded on the idea of observing stagnation before something tangible happens, he studied audio content and recorded it, while digging and drilling took place. Sound is as much about when there is little or none, as when it’s more noticeable. An idea John Cage embraced with ‘4”²33”³’, a composition from 1952, performed in the absence of any deliberate audio build up. Going through Thomsen would time each drive. “It’s generative,” he says. “It changes every time you hear loops, the main structure is based around one trip.” 

“It’s about listening to our environment for those minutes,” he considers. “It was in that vein, or philosophy, I’d listen to the ‘voice’ of the tunnel, when it’s resting.” The roundabout outside depicts chain dancing, which is the traditional Faroese dance. For the chanting he used granular synthesis. The method divides a sound sample into tiny segments, so-called grains, they are manipulated to fabricate new ones. Before extraction of timbre, singing in this instance, was taken and used for the sample. 

In the event someone drives through the tempo of the piece makes the lights seep through the roof. The lights play a part in the composition and enable the opportunity to ‘hear’ the lights in passing. It’s all part of the set up.

His love of drones adds an eerie dimension. Voices representing the national chain dance are heard, but are they are genuine? An introduction of a fifth note creates a dissonance. Emotionally the listener receives a gut feeling that something is up. There’s a sense of alarm, it’s unnerving, with no idea of what’s about to unfold. 

There is more to it. Thomsen has considered the idea of travelling in time. “Everything is going faster and faster. The way we consume art and music, with social media you’re blasted with stuff. Everything is going faster, I wanted the piece to slow you down.” 

This participation is only possible in motion. It’s illegal to stop in the tunnel, the combination of continued motion and sound are quintessential. “All the melodies, the sequences are generative,” he states. “The reason is that most channels out there are news based ones to catch your attention. By using this there are no repetitions, it lets you slow down, it makes you go faster.”

The probing intellect, instinct and creativity of Jens L. Thomsen look set to keep things vibrant through a broad range of commissions that enable the design of new audio adventures. Real sound is everywhere and it should keep the producer full of inspiration, so his vision can stay lit, in the years to come.  

Trip made possible by Atlantic Airways. For other info on Faroe Islands visitfaroeislands.com. Atlantic Airways starts flying directly to the Faroe Islands from Gatwick this summer

Words: Susan Hansen
Photo Credit: Gwenael Akira Helmsdal Carré 

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