The unique expressive make-up of Torsten Rasch’s music seems to have been determined by an equally unique double displacement. Born in Dresden in 1965, where he was a boy chorister in the renowned Dresdner Kreuzchor before studying composition and piano at the town’s university, Rasch left Germany just a year after reunification. Still in his mid- twenties, he moved to Japan, and built his early career at both a geographical and an aesthetic remove from the West as a composer of music for television and film soundtracks - he has completed more than 40 such scores to date.
The pressure valve of that remove burst in 2003, when his massive orchestral song-cycle Mein Herz brennt, written the previous year to a commission from the newly-founded Dresdner Sinfoniker, stormed on to the German classical stage with performances in Dresden and Berlin and an award-winning Deutsche Grammophon recording. And if the years of patient success behind the screen mean that Rasch had achieved proficiency before acclaim to a degree unusual for a classical composer, then they may also explain some of the qualities that were most striking when his work did begin to reach out to concert audiences – his fluency, his assurance on the largest scale (many of his works last upward of half an hour in duration), his uncanny ability to spin a vivid and personal sound-world around the ghosts of others. The other voices which inhabit Mein Herz brennt are many, and widely various. There are the lyrics of the German metal band Rammstein, which Rasch transplants into a late Romantic orchestral language of convulsive expressivity. There are the echoes of Mahler, Strauss and others which provide that language with its points of stylistic reference and yet combine with the German actress Katharina Thalbach’s macabre narration in a new blend which is both terrifying and astonishingly original.
Collaboration – a familiar concept to any film composer – is still the central impulse, but the collaborators now are absent or long dead and Rasch is the master of ceremonies who brings them back to life. The more familiar forms of collaboration have remained a thread in his work, too: he assisted the Pet Shop Boys on their soundtrack for Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, screened live in Trafalgar Square in 2006, and worked again with Thalbach on adapting a play by her late partner, the East German dissident writer Thomas Brasch, into Rasch’s first opera, Rotter, in 2007.
A second operatic venture, commissioned by English National Opera and premiered in the darkened spaces of a large disused office building in London’s Docklands in July 2010, saw Rasch working together with the theatre company Punchdrunk to bring together the worlds of opera and radical theatre in an ‘immersive’ adaptation of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi.
Meanwhile, two chamber works for purely instrumental forces content themselves with the straightforward generic titles of Piano Trio and String Quartet No 1 - the past re-voiced in a different, less theatrical way. But even in the realm of chamber music the crowding in of other voices, ghostly echoes, continues: Die träumenden Knaben, premiered in autumn 2009, presents a text by Oskar Kokoschka in the form of a melodrama for reciter and the instrumental line-up of Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire, while at the same time taking on the formal outlines of a Baroque suite.
Rasch’s characteristic dialogue of past and present, self and other, again makes something new out of a journey into several histories, and at the same time shows the past too in a different light, talking back to its ghosts with bristling confidence. © 2010 John Fallas