One of the aspects of contemporary music from Iceland that i find most fascinating is its tendency to position itself at extremes, rooted either in slavish convention or daring unorthodoxy. It’s a polarity that’s revealed itself again in some recent releases of Icelandic music, the results of which have been similarly polarising, by turns intriguing or irritating.
The latter, unfortunately, comes from Kjartan Sveinsson: a 35-minute work entitled Der Klang der Offenbarung des Göttlichen described as “an opera in four acts”. The first thing to say about the piece is that it’s definitely not an opera, at least not in any meaningful sense of that word. Despite being originally performed with theatrical sets “rooted in German romantic clichés” – though without any on-stage performers – i’m really not sure what justification, purpose, or indeed necessity there is for seeking to call it an opera. Henryk Górecki might perhaps have called it a symphony, and i say that not simply because it’s true but also because it’s hard not to hear the work as a simplified sibling of Górecki’s Symphony No. 3. In fact, it’s not really a symphony either; there’s no reason to think of it as being anything other than what it actually is: a small scale cantata for choir and strings.
The association with Górecki arises from the fact that, like parts of his Third Symphony, the way that Kjartan constructs all four parts of Der Klang der Offenbarung des Göttlichen is through similar, though very much simpler, processes of cycling repetition. The first movement, for strings alone, is arguably the best and most successful example of this mainly due to the fact that, as it begins the piece, by this stage one hasn’t become tired of it. Slow and sombre, even a touch funereal, its hymn-cum-dirge processes with a sense of partially numbed, perhaps even dumbfounded, melancholy. For a time it’s somewhat affecting, but the music then undergoes something that occurs in all four movements, in which Kjartan steadily ramps things up, piling on the octaves, pumping up the volume, presumably in the desperate hope of attaining something climactic. It’s hard to convey the extent to which, not only does this process fail, repeatedly (all the more so due to how harsh the upper strings sound in this recording), but comes to sound unbelievably crass, empty and above all phony. Passion and loudness are not synonymous.
The same thing occurs when the choir joins in, articulating texts from Halldór Laxness’ mystical novel World Light. The words go round and round and round, now a hymn-cum-chant, splashed with varying quantities of ostensible light and shadow but one can’t escape the feeling that it’s all skin-deep, conveying at best a kind of ‘calculated emotion’. These movements’ inevitable climaxes lack any sense of power or authenticity; on the contrary, it’s as if the volume dial had simply been cranked up in order to bludgeon us with mere decibels. There are, here and there, brief periods when its basic lyricism can be modestly affecting, but ultimately the heavy-handed, empty calorie blankness of Kjartan’s musical language robs it of being anything but the most superficial imitation of something approximating a feeling. It’s all the more galling considering the work’s ambitiously overblown title translates as “the sound of the revelation of the divine”. A much more perfect description of the music can be found in the accompanying booklet, where it mentions the atmosphere created by the original theatrical sets: “a non-narrative of pure-hearted banality”.