Iceland

Dark Music Days 2019: Dúplum Dúó

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Tuesday evening at the Dark Music Days brought Dúplum Dúó – comprising soprano Björk Níelsdóttir and violist Þóra Margrét Sveinsdóttir – to the somewhat lugubrious setting of Iðnó, one of Reykjavík’s many bars and cafés that also serve as concert spaces. Þóra Margrét didn’t get much of an opportunity to let rip in the recital, while Björk’s voice was mesmerising and often surprisingly powerful, yet it was the understated theatricality of her performance that proved most telling.

Despite the brevity of the four premières they performed, some of them made for a frustrating experience. Sveinn Luðvík Björnsson‘s setting of Shakespeare’s 39th sonnet, consisting of a few half-hearted viola bleats either side of an entirely spoken recitation of the text, almost sounded like the work of a complete musical novice (though hearing Shakespeare recited with an Icelandic accent was admittedly rather lovely). Sóley Stefánsdóttir‘s Parasite should have included electronics but I learned afterward that these had been removed at the last minute – which perhaps explains why the music had sounded provisional and insufficient. Aart Strootman boldly took on the challenge of setting Baudelaire. In many respects his Flowers of Evil nicely captured the atmosphere of the text, in conjunction with a tape part conjuring up a kind of dreamy reverie with clear underlying passion. The piece was undoubtedly overlong and became monotonous in its latter half, though the way Strootman introduced ferocity and a distinct acidic quality at the work’s end – nicely alluding to the bitterness and desperation implied in the poem – made for a superb conclusion. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2019: Schola Cantorum, Kúbus

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The most taxing challenge facing Reykjavík on Sunday was not, surprisingly, the -9°C temperatures permeating the city that day, but the evening chamber recital at the Fríkirkjan given by the group Kúbus. The day before, Georg Friedrich Haas had made 70 minutes feel like less than half of that; on this occasion, Kolbeinn Bjarnason made 30 minutes feel like 1,000. It was bad enough that he chose (possibly in an attempt at humour, but who can tell?) to preface his Musik der Unzeitlichkeit II with a 5-minute all-Icelandic spiel that appeared to be an anal-retentive description of each of the work’s sections – immediately followed by a two-sentence English version decrying how unnecessary the preceding spiel had been. LOL? Even worse that he saw fit to keep punctuating the piece with witless theatrics involving metronomes placed within glass recepticles that were then filled with water – one of which agonisingly took several minutes to complete. By comparison, the fact that the rest of the music consisted of the most generic and cliché-ridden gestures and ideas that one has heard a million times before felt only mildly irritating, but the sum total of the work was one of the most infuriatingly stupid, cheap, pretentious, pointless and creatively vacuous musical experiences to which I’ve ever been subjected. Read more

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Daníel Bjarnason – Collider

Posted on by 5:4 in CD/Digital releases | 2 Comments

This week i’ll be exploring four new albums of contemporary orchestral music that i’ve recently been spending time with, the first of which turned out to be a surprisingly big disappointment. Last year i was very impressed by Recurrence, a disc put out by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, mainly due to its inclusion of a three-movement work by Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason titled Emergence. On the considerable strength of that piece, i’d been looking forward to Bjarnason’s latest album of music, Collider, released on Bedroom Community a little over a month ago. A digital-only release, it features three works: Blow Bright and Collider, both orchestral, plus a small-scale setting of lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest for youth choir and orchestra, The Isle Is Full Of Noises.

While none of the pieces are very good, it’s unfortunate that the album is named after the worst of them. At 15 minutes’ duration, Collider has plenty going on in it, and if you’re willing and/or able to engage with it on a purely superficial level then there’s possibly some enjoyment to be had. But beneath the surface, there’s essentially nothing of any substance to be found. This is, to put it bluntly, painting-by-numbers orchestral writing: a bit of generic brooding here, a bit of scattershot textural mayhem there, unfocused blather that Bjarnason tries to make meaningful through minimalistic outbursts (faux-excitement) and saccharine, filmic lyricism (faux-emotion). Writing music that’s as boringly over-familiar and formulaic as this is bad enough, but what makes it worse is that it all feels so deliberately manipulative. Yawn/yuck. Read more

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Björk – Crave (Odd Duck Mix); Hearts & Bones; Undone

Posted on by 5:4 in Retrospectives | Leave a comment

In my most recent mixtape, exploring the noble art of the remix, i included a track by Björk – ‘Crave (Odd Duck Mix)’ – that i mentioned had been made available as a download back in 2001, but which was no longer available. There were in fact four tracks that Björk released as downloads at that time, and since three of them have been unavailable for over a decade, i thought it would be interesting to revisit them.

It’s worth saying at the outset that throughout her career Björk has been more responsible than most musicians for cultivating an extensive catalogue of remixes of her songs. i began collecting her work in 1993, the year she began her solo career (having left the Sugarcubes), and each successive single felt like a substantial release, usually coming in the form of two or sometimes three CDs (later including videotapes or DVDs) containing a mixture of additional songs and remixes of the title track. The number of these remixes was at times considerable – one of her earliest singles, ‘Big Time Sensuality’ (1993), had as many as seven – but beyond this, these singles would also frequently include new renditions of other songs: ‘Violently Happy’ (1994) had acoustic versions of ‘Anchor Song’, ‘Come To Me’ and ‘Human Behaviour’, ‘Isobel’ (1995) featured a harpsichord version of ‘Venus as a Boy’, while ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ (1995) – one of Björk’s only singles never to have been remixed – included three versions of ‘Hyperballad’, a song that wouldn’t be released as a single until the following year.

Björk’s predilection for remixes has remained consistent, reaching a peak during the late 1990s (the Homogenic period) when ‘Bachelorette’ (1997) and ‘Alarm Call’ (1998) were treated to ten remixes each. More recently, 2011’s Biophilia was supplemented with a series of eight singles collectively titled Biophilia Remixes containing a total of 17 remixes, and while there are far fewer of them, a handful of remixes have been released to accompany her last two singles taken from Utopia (2017), ‘Blissing Me’ and ‘Arisen My Senses’. Furthermore, in addition to singles Björk has also regularly released anthologies of remixes, including The Best Mixes from the Album Debut for All the People Who Don’t Buy White Labels (1994), Telegram (1996), Voltaïc (2009) and Bastards (2012). Remixes are clearly a logical extension of the restless imagination and urge to collaborate that drive Björk’s creativity. Read more

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In memoriam Jóhann Jóhannsson

Posted on by 5:4 in Commemorations | 3 Comments

First encounters can be unforgettable. Mine was in 2006, and it was the result of an entirely random purchase of an entirely random imported music magazine (German, i think) that contained a disc featuring a cluster of forgettable audio trifles plus a music video. When i hit play on that video, time suddenly started to slow down, and i became transfixed and deeply moved by the enormity of the music’s unusual mix of melancholy and beauty. The music was ‘The Sun’s Gone Dim and the Sky’s Turned Black’, by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose sudden death has been reported in the last few hours. He was just 48.

i can’t claim to be an expert in Jóhannsson’s music. i love IBM 1401, A User’s Manual, the album of which ‘The Sun’s Gone Dim’ is the stunning final track, and i know a smattering of his other solo works. Being a movie addict, i’m also fond of the film scores of his that i’ve encountered thus far – particularly Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival – though as i still haven’t yet seen Sicario and Prisoners there remains much for me to explore. i’m certainly not going to miss The Mercy, which has just been released in the UK and has a Jóhannsson score, and there’s a couple more films still to come that feature his work.

Even though there’s a great deal of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s music that i have yet to encounter, all i’ve heard thus far has testified to a composer with a unique sensitivity, capable in both his studio work and film scores of creating the most nuanced and above all human music, never contrived or ordinary, with an immediacy that i find genuinely uncanny. From the heart to the heart, indeed. i was reflecting on Jóhannsson last autumn, specifically how he had been replaced in Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, which i think was unfortunate – i would have loved to have seen that movie with a Jóhannsson score (it would certainly have been far more inventive than Hans Zimmer’s ersatz Vangelis knock-off) – as well as the mutual decision by both Jóhannsson and Darren Aronofsky to refrain from creating a score for Aronofsky’s mother!. Considering that mother! turned out to be one of the most brilliant films not just of 2017, but ever, i was deeply impressed by a composer who recognised that there’s a time not to make music, that sometimes what’s needed is just the gentlest whiff of something that may not even be recognised as deliberate sound, which can speak with infinitely greater force and authenticity.

In so many ways Jóhann Jóhannsson has impressed me since that unexpected first encounter nearly 11 years ago. i’m shocked and very sad indeed that he’s no longer with us, but i’m determined to make sure that i now get on with listening to everything else that he made while he was with us. i’ve no doubt there’ll be many more wonderful encounters to come. Rest in peace, Jóhann.


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Þráinn Hjálmarsson – As heard across a room (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Premières | 1 Comment

Today is Þjóðhátíðardagurinn, Iceland’s national day, celebrating their independence from Denmark and founding as a republic in 1944. Quite apart from Iceland being one of my favourite countries, its contribution to contemporary music (as seen in my recent Nordic CD review) is a challenging and imaginative one. A very good example of this can be heard in Þráinn Hjálmarsson‘s orchestral work As heard across a room, composed in 2014. That simple, descriptive title immediately brings to mind another, Alvin Lucier’s I am sitting in a room, though while Lucier’s piece grapples with the literal effects of aural reality, Hjálmarsson is exploring them from a somewhat more figurative perspective.

Despite appearances, it would be over-simplistic to summarise the piece as being textural. This would place the emphasis and focus of one’s attention on the generalised, nebulous quality of the music. And there’s certainly a great deal of this, Hjálmarsson establishing a soundworld so indistinct – full of strange, distant rustlings; lots of activity but all of it indefinite and blurred – that it would be easy to hear it as ‘non-music’, a candid outtake in which the orchestra were absent-mindedly toying with their instruments. For a couple of minutes, it seems as though this is all that there is, creating an interesting illusion where, despite the granular, gritty nature of this soundworld, it’s sufficiently slippery that one’s ear slides straight off it. This is paradox music: like trying to make out the structure of a void. Read more

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Davíð Brynjar Franzson – on Matter and Materiality (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series | Leave a comment

Without wishing to appear too biased towards the cello, the next concerto in my Lent series is another work that features that instrument at its epicentre. A few months back, i was enthusing about Davíð Brynjar Franzson‘s radical treatment of the piano; in his new work on Matter and Materiality, he puts the cello into an equally radical but altogether more gruelling context.

If the soloist can be described as not doing much, it’s certainly not for want of trying. It sounds as though Franzson has detuned the C-string down to a bottom D (a similar effect to that in Rebecca Saunders’ Solitude), and this note becomes the unwitting nadir of the cello’s repeated failed attempts to haul itself up or out or along. These attempts are expressed in a dogged series of grinding swells (orchestral colours can be barely glimpsed within them); ostensibly tinged with aggression, the instability of the cello’s timbre coats its pitch with spasmodic harmonics and overtones, exposing it as utmost fragile, all throbs and palpitations, music in dire need of defibrillation. Heavy bow pressure, far from obtaining some kind of solidity (or, considering the title, ‘materiality’), only undermines this fundamental further, causing it to waver and distort. Read more

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