In conversation with Eli Tausen A Lava
My name is Eli Tausen á Lava, and I am a composer and pianist from the Faroe Islands. I have just earned my bachelor’s degree in music composition from the Malmö Academy of Music, which is part of Lund University in Sweden. Starting in September, I’ll be pursuing a master’s degree in music composition at New York University, where I’ll be studying with Michael Gordon, co-founder of the contemporary classical music collective Bang on a Can.
Growing up, I was surrounded by music. Both my mother and paternal grandmother were amateur singers and guitarists, while my father exposed me to many different kinds of music and introduced me to my first digital audio workstations and notation programmes. Though I’m no longer religious, every Sunday of my childhood was spent at the local Pentecostal church, where music played a vital part in the service.
Despite this generously musical environment, I didn’t really develop an interest in music till I was around 14 years old. As a teenager, inspired both by singer-songwriters like Lady Gaga and classical composers like Frédéric Chopin, I taught myself to play the piano and started writing songs and small pieces — something I quickly discovered I had a talent for.
In 2015, I started studying composition with Faroese composer Sunleif Rasmussen at Musikkskúla Miðnám, a three-year advanced preparatory music course at the Tórshavn School of Music. When I was accepted into the Malmö Academy of Music in 2018, I continued my studies under the guidance of Swedish composer Rolf Martinsson, while I attended regular seminars with the likes of Luca Francesconi, Bent Sørensen and Staffan Storm.
Portrait of Eli Tausen á Lava
In 2019, the Spanish-Danish woodwind duo Aura Duo commissioned and performed the piece Ocean in Motion (2019) at the Summartónar festival in the Faroe Islands. Shortly afterwards, Aura Duo commissioned another piece and asked for it to be based on something important to the Faroese people. My mind immediately went to the tale of the seal woman, which all Faroese people are familiar with, and many know by heart.
However, I had no idea how to go about writing the piece. Many months went by where I didn’t write a single note of what would later become Søgnin um Kópakonuna í 10 Myndum (2020, The Tale of the Seal Woman in 10 Pictures). During this period, I started working at the post office of the Faroe Islands. As fate would have it, the cafeteria at the post office was adorned with ten drawings by Faroese artist Edward Fuglø depicting ten scenes from the tale of the seal woman. Looking at Fuglø’s drawings every day, it didn’t take long for the idea of ten short movements, one for each drawing, to occur to me.
Tales of seal folk, or selkies, exist in the Faroes, the Northern Isles, Ireland, Iceland and Norway. Most of the tales are centred around female selkies being forced to live as humans when their sealskin is stolen. The selkies always eventually regain their sealskin and escape from their human captors. However, what’s unique about the Faroese tale is that the seal woman returns as a terrible troll seeking revenge over the village of Mikladalur, cursing the men of the village to be lost at sea or fall from the cliffs. In the Faroese tale, the seal woman can be seen as a personification of the merciless Mother Nature, who will enact revenge upon the islands if she is wronged.
The Faroese tale of the seal woman can be read in its entirety here.
Ideas for visualisations of the Faroese Folk Tale.
Around Christmas 2019, I got my hands on Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies, a set of cards intended to help artists overcome creative blocks. Oblique Strategies are comprised of over 100 cards containing sentences like “Ask your body” and “Don’t be afraid of things because they’re easy to do”. Today, Eno and Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies are a central part of my creative process, but Søgnin um Kópakonuna í 10 Myndum was one of the first pieces I ever wrote using the cards.
I drew some Oblique Strategies and sat down at the piano to improvise music to Fuglø’s drawings, deciding beforehand that I would accept whatever musical ideas came up. I had long struggled with writing music, getting stuck frequently, but using this new approach, composing became easy again. While Ocean in Motion took me nine months to complete, Søgnin um Kópakonuna í 10 Myndum, which is equally long, was finished in just one month.
This really showed me how important openness and intuition are in the creative process. Since then, every single piece has been composed using this approach, and Eno and Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies have found a permanent home on my work desk.
Nordic Viola Performance
In 2021, Katherine Wren of Nordic Viola contacted me about including Søgnin um Kópakonuna í 10 Myndum in the Sagas & Seascapes programme for the Orkney International Science Festival. I was, of course, very happy for Søgnin um Kópakonuna í 10 Myndum to be included in the festival, and Aura Duo very generously allowed Nordic Viola to give the digital world premiere of the piece — it was originally meant to be premiered in the Faroe Islands in 2020, but Aura Duo’s visit in the Faroes was postponed and subsequently postponed once more in 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In July 2022, Aura Duo was finally able to give the live world premiere of the piece at the Summartónar festival in the Faroes.
Now, Søgnin um Kópakonuna í 10 Myndum is once again part of the Sagas & Seascapes programme and will be performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August. What I find particularly delightful is that while my music was created in response to Edward Fuglø’s visual art, Orla Stevens has now created visual art in response to my music — bringing it full circle.
As artists, we are always responding to the world around us. Now, I can’t wait to see how the good people attending the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August will, in turn, respond to my music and Orla’s art.
To View Eli's full folio please visit: www.elitausenalava.com
Thanks to the Association of Faroese Composers for funding support, to travel to Edinburgh for the Performance at the Fringe.
Sleeping Seal, Still from Sagas & Seascapes video performance
We are so excited to screen the film with live music for the first time in Edinburgh and hope to welcome you there from 15th-17th August at 8:30pm.
You can book tickets here.
There will be a relaxed performance on 17th August which also has audio description and social distancing. If you can’t make it to Edinburgh, then the original digital show will screen from the Scottish Storytelling Centre’s website at 7pm on 18th August, followed by a zoom Q & A with the creators at 8:30pm.
Eli Tausen A Lava, composer of 'Søgnin um Kópakonuna í 10 Myndum' (2020)
'The Tale of the Seal Woman in 10 Pictures'