Classical Music

Tomas Sen Melds Musical Influences and Eras on Listen!

Jeff Thomassen, who performs as Tomas Sen, recently released Listen!, a rock opera which delves in and out of history.
Jonathan Flowers
Jeff Thomassen, who performs as Tomas Sen, recently released Listen!, a rock opera which delves in and out of history.
Denver musician Jeff Thomassen recalls that when he was growing up, he would often absorb music without knowing what it was about — appreciating the sonic landscapes, but not connecting pieces to the times in which they were written or the people who created them. That changed with a music-history course at CU Denver.

Thomassen’s new album, Listen!, released under the name Tomas Sen, explores his fascination with finding a place for music history in the present moment. It's a rock opera with a late-’60s chamber-pop sound and lyrics inspired by a textbook of the same name. Full of harmony and classical influence, the album provides both easy listening and encouragement to dig deeper into the narratives behind the songs.

“I like those kinds of puzzles,” Thomassen explains. “Songs that have this whole backstory you wouldn’t otherwise know just by listening to the lyrics themselves.”

“The whole concept is an asynchronous flow,” he adds. It moves from historical figures that Thomassen admires to his own personal digressions and interludes meant to honor family and friends.

For example, “Joplin’s Dream of Me” chronicles some of the life of ragtime composer Scott Joplin. In both sound and spirit, the song takes the listener back to the 1920s, but Thomassen also plays on the mention of that decade by alluding to the 2020s, noting that the current decade has “been the pits” so far and has left him “in a great big rut.”

The ragtime piece is also a nod to his parents’ love of ragtime music. His father was a touring musician in Canada and the United States before he was born, and both parents enjoyed sharing their passion for jazz, classical, ’60s power pop and ’70s ballads with their son. Thomassen began experimenting with different instruments in fourth grade and never stopped.

He played in high school ensembles and rock bands, and went to college with the intention to study composition. Still, he often felt that the various genres he enjoyed belonged in their own spaces. “I just split it up,” he says. “I would write rock music with some of my bands and then write classical” separately.

With Listen!, Thomassen wanted to bring his musical influences together in one album. “I was trying to capture the essence of both [classical and rock music] in the same song,” he says.

Listen! weaves together Thomassen's varied musical influences. - JONATHAN FLOWERS
Listen! weaves together Thomassen's varied musical influences.
Jonathan Flowers
“Rock music, in a way, stems from classical music,” he says, “though not only classical music.” He sees similarities in the way rock adheres to traditional music theory. But just because rock music incorporates strings doesn’t mean it's trying to reflect both genres equally, he notes.

Listen! relies on a chamber-pop sound that evokes the Beach Boys, Harry Nilsson and the Beatles, but it pulls in echoes of classical composers such as Mozart and Hector Berlioz, as well, and even includes references to Gregorian chants from the Middle Ages.

Mozart makes an obvious appearance in a song titled “Mozart’s Big Show!,” which not only mentions the writing of his last, unfinished composition, Requiem in D Minor, but also mimics some of the work's chords and melodies.

“Symphony Fantastic” alludes to Berlioz’s early-nineteenth-century Symphonie fantastique, which tells the story of the composer's imagined dark love affair with a concert attendee. The symphony is told in five parts that reflect love, passion, an elopement, a murder and hell, Thomassen explains. His own song incorporates those stages and progression of emotions.

“Plainchant in Paradisum” pays homage to Gregorian chants, but the sound was the unintentional consequence of a late night of delirious music making during which Thomassen says he found himself breathing into the “microphone over this harrowing drone organ” for hours.

That type of improvisational connection was fundamental to the creation of Listen! Thomassen describes the album's interplay of instrumentation and words as bricks and mortar alternately layered on top of each other.

“I started the whole project with one song,” he says. “I started with instruments.” Then, in the spirit of twentieth-century avant-garde composer John Cage, he looked for chance inspiration for the lyrics. Listen!, the textbook, was on his desk. He flipped to a random page and began to write.

The rest is now history.

Listen! is available for streaming on Spotify or Bandcamp. To learn more about Thomassen’s work as Tomas Sen, follow him on Instagram or Facebook.