The Sono Luminus label’s ongoing commitment to Icelandic music continues with Moonbow, a new album featuring five works by Gunnar Andreas Kristinsson. Hitherto, my only contact with Gunnar’s music has been via his 2013 release Patterns, showcasing a variety of his earlier output for piano and organ. That album had left me – and continues to leave me, based on listening again recently – frustrated, seeming to demonstrate such a keen interest in compositional process, often mathematically-inspired, that he seemed oblivious to the fact that the results for the most part ranged from simply dry and bland to blankly impenetrable (the most challenging being his 2002 piano work Cycles; the only exception being the beautifully lyrical Der Unvollendete). Not so much cerebral as intellectual or even theoretical music.
On the one hand, it’s a relief to say that Moonbow is a far more engaging and rewarding listen than Patterns. Yet i can’t help feeling that the more engaging nature of the music on Moonbow is simply a simultaneous consequence of more varied timbres and more attractive surfaces, as well as the fact that its inner processes here seem more straightforward and, therefore, audibly tangible. Take PASsaCAgLia B, a piece for marimba and harp that presents its notes steadily, positioning them carefully. While somewhat alluding to the cycling nature of the passacaglia form, all the while growing in intensity, the repetitive nature of its surface – reinforced by the simplicity of its harmony – makes the work seem surprisingly static, albeit attractive, despite its forward trajectory. Similarly the title work, Moonbow for string quartet, promises a lot in a lovely opening sequence almost sinister in its oblique air of mystery. Yet this is rendered moot by its subsequent clarifying into a gently undulating, very conventional, chamber music that in turn atomises into minimalistic blather. The sense earlier on of a central idea being cycled and elaborated upon is another promise that comes to nothing.
In some respects this friction between opposing senses of stasis and progression is best demonstrated in the longest work on the disc, the clarinet concerto Sisyfos. Here, after all, is a narrative that positively demands a simultaneity of progression and circularity. This manifests in a series of episodes that feature patterns of behaviour, the first being perhaps the most beguiling, filled with different speeds of descent. Thereafter, the distinction between the episodes is relatively modest, the primary colours of the harmony further minimising their distinctiveness. Considering how relaxed the piece is for much of its duration – positively laid back at times – Gunnar’s Sisyphus is evidently having a pretty easy time of it, without much sense of torment or even struggle. Only in its latter stages is the ante significantly upped, in a boisterous climax that finally injects some acid into the proceedings, making the solo clarinet finally sound like it has something to contend with.
The pieces that work best avoid narrative or real-world allusions in favour of more direct sonic explorations. The three parts of Roots focus on the nature and composition of the harmonic series. The chord is slowly presented in part 1, flexing as it materialises (almost as if it were breathing), before rather wonderfully breaking apart into a plethora of polyphonic strands. The second part teases out microtonal facets and implications of the chord, appearing to be continually rising but settling into a strange kind of hovering undulation; part 3 is similarly deceptive, establishing a Shepard tone-like network of falling staccato ideas – another instance of simultaneous progress and stasis that proves highly effective in this context.
Most engrossing of all is Patterns IIb, in both name and character arguably the piece with the strongest connection to Gunnar’s earlier album. Composed for the lovely combination of xylophone, vibraphone, marimba, violin and bass clarinet, the piece combines the ways in which PASsaCAgLia B and Moonbow began, staccato notes being placed slowly, gently and cautiously while soft violin notes stretch out behind. It’s a mysterious and mesmerising opening that only becomes more beautiful as it grows in assertiveness and begins to coalesce. The ambiguity of whether or not the music is progressing or simply noodling around with the folk tune at its heart is again present, though it has a hypnotic quality here, seeming to emanate – similar to that in Roots – from an improvisatory attitude of child-like exploration, fascination and wonder.