Monday 9 September 2013

Daniel Bjarnason - Over Light Earth

Daniel Bjarnason - Over Light Earth HVALUR18CD
This fascinating new disc does not sound like conventional orchestra music, though the composer Daniel Bjarnason has a classical background and it was recorded by the Reykjavik Sinfonia. But the disc is very much a collaboration with  Valgeir Sigurdsson and Ben Frost, and recording engineer Paul Evans. The recording was made using multi-tracking and close miking, and the final piece on the disc Solitudes is reworked with electronics by Sigurdsson and Frost.

Icelandic born Daniel Bjarnason studied piano, composition and conducting in Reykjavik, going on to study conducting at Freiburg University of Music, Germany. He has been commissioned to write a new orchestral work for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and Gustavo Dudamel, to be premiered in December 2013. He has also worked in the new Sigur Ros album, Kreikur, and wrote the score to the feature film The Deep. His work Over Light Earth which opens this disc, written for chamber orchestra, was premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Adams.

The first thing to be understood is this disc in no way attempts to reproduce the sound of an orchestra playing live. Instead the disc's creators use the orchestra as source material, in a distinctive and ultimately rather seductive way.

Over Light Earth was inspired by works by Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, of the New York school of painters. The two movements (Over Light Earth and Number 1, 1949) are named for paintings by Rothko and Pollock respectively.

The first movement, Over Light Earth, opens in an eerie, rather film-like atmosphere, with long held notes contrasting with the percussiveness of the piano. Textures develop, hints of drama alternate with moments of stasis (those long held notes again). The piece develops slowly, but when the climax comes the thundering bass is amazing. By contrast, Number 1, 1949 is a rather lively and characterful piece, though still rather edgy and more than a hint of modern jazz. Again textures are fascinating with the alternation between busy-ness and then stasis. Again we have a very heavy bass line and an energy which reminded me of the work of Louis Andriessen.

Emergence is a three movement piece: Silence, Black Breathing, Emergence. The first movement again gives suggestions of stasis, albeit with unsettled hints, with the second movement this develops into an unsettled texture, with rather an eerie not to it. The fundamental rhythm of the piece is lively with a strong impetus and small melodic fragments. The ethereal third movement continues hinting at fragments of melody, but slower moving chords underneath develop and build.

Bjarnason on this disc has a very distinctive voice, and though his music reminds me of many things, he synthesises into a clear voice of his own. This disc's willingness to manipulate the sound of the players in the studio gives strong links with voices as disparate as John Adams, Louis Andiresson and many other voices from the 1970's.

Solitudes is an early work of Bjarnason's, in fact his first piano concerto. It is reworked on this disc with electronics, but Bjarnason uses a technique of muffling the piano strings which not only creates links with John Cage's prepared pianos, but brought to mind also Nancarrow's pieces for player piano.

Solitudes is in seven movements: Holy, Dance around in your bones,  Echo and pre-Echo, Selge Ruh, T'aint no Sin. Needless to say, this is not a piano concerto in the 19th century sense, and the instrument functions more like a 18th century concertino instrument, with the composer himself playing the piano part.

The first movement opens high in the register, fragments gently developing, but a mood of still slowness. The second movement brings the prepared piano to the fore with a very striking change in sound-world Rhythmically impulsive, the busy piano part is heavily bass driven. The short third movements is ethereal with occasional threatening chords which leads to the fourth movement where gentle piano chords receive occasional interruptions. A big climax reminded me of Kodaly, then the music descends into fragments again. The lively final movement gives the piano prominence and it was here that the material reminded me of Nancarrow.

In all the works on this disc it is not so much the music's melodic material that is so striking as the way Bjarnason uses different textures. He clearly has a very distinctive ear and after hearing this disc I would be very interested in seeing how his music develops.

The disc is released on 30 September
Over Light Earth - new music by Daniel Bjarnason; Reykjavik Sinfonia/Bjarnason
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 09 2013
Rating: 4.0

Daniel Bjarnason - Over Light Earth
Daniel Bjarnason - Emergence
Daniel Bjarnason - Solitudes
Reykjavik Sinfonia
Daniel Bjarnason (conductor, piano)


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