Páll Ragnar Pálsson

Páll Ragnar Pálsson – Atonement

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One of the first works of contemporary music that i ever got to know was Dérive 1 by Pierre Boulez. i fell for the piece pretty hard, and one of the main reasons for that infatuation – which hasn’t really subsided in the decades since – was the way Boulez constructs pretty much the entire fabric of the work from tremulous fibres that constantly vibrate, shimmer and thrum as if an electric current were coursing through them. Paradoxically, a palpable stillness emerges despite all this surface movement (not unlike the surface of water covered in pond skaters), creating a soundworld pulsating with life while conveying an air of quiet solemnity. A similar quality permeates the five chamber compositions on Atonement, a new portrait disc of music by Icelandic composer Páll Ragnar Pálsson.

The connection is reinforced by the fact that all of these works use a similar instrumental line-up to Derive 1, performed in this recording by Iceland’s premier new music group, Caput Ensemble. All but one of them also feature a voice – soprano Tui Hirv, the composer’s wife – exploring texts that draw on folk hymns, Icelandic poetry and the screenplay of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker. The nature of the active/static paradox is arguably most telling in the one instrumental work, in no small part because of the challenge thrown down by its title: Lucidity. On first contact, it’s tempting to consider that there’s something ironic about the idea of clarity or revelation coming from its tangled textures. But, it seems to me, the essence of what makes all five of these pieces tick is to be found in this piece. There’s the distinct sense that what we’re hearing, what the ensemble is doing, is less about cause than effect: an inner response to an outer stimulus, like a mind or soul being made to shake and resonate by something external. It’s rather like hearing the output of a seismograph – not an unreasonable analogy for a composer who has also written pieces titled Quake and Afterquake – with each instrument’s tremulant material the indication of some deep, profound movement. Read more

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Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir – Vernacular; Siggi String Quartet – South of the Circle; Iceland Symphony Orchestra – Concurrence

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In just over a week’s time Iceland’s premier new music festival, the Dark Music Days, will be up and running again, and once again i’ll be heading off to Reykjavík to immerse myself in some of the goings-on. Details about the festival can be found here, and for any UK dwellers who fancy a spontaneous jaunt over to Iceland, there are some fantastically cheap deals to be had from Gatwick and Bristol (especially, with Bristol, if you travel on a Wednesday or Sunday), and some equally great deals to be found on AirBnB. As an upbeat to the festival, it’s a good time to touch on a number of releases that came out last year on the Sono Luminus label, showcasing some of the more exciting examples of Icelandic contemporary music-making. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2019: Iceland Symphony Orchestra; Yrkja

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, Festivals, Premières | 1 Comment

Judging from the way it’s usually discussed, you’d be forgiven for thinking that – overwhelmingly inspired by the country’s uniquely dramatic combination of earth, water, ice and fire – Icelandic music was all about, and only about, nature. It’s therefore interesting, in hindsight, to note that it wasn’t until the sixth day of the Dark Music Days that the subject of nature even crossed my mind. However, when it finally did, last Thursday evening at the concert given by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daníel Bjarnason, it didn’t merely cross my mind but practically filled it to capacity. Hitherto, my impression of Icelandic contemporary music, irrespective of my opinion about individual pieces, was one of variety, music characterised by diversity and difference. Whereas now, sitting in Harpa’s large Eldborg Hall, hearing five substantial Icelandic orchestral works, i was staggered by their similarities. Textures, textures everywhere.

The archetype for this use of texture was demonstrated with considerable subtlety in Lendh by Canada-born, Iceland-based composer and cellist Veronique Vaka, the first of three world premières in the concert. Her programme note was all about nature, concerned with the sensory impressions of landscape, inspired particularly by the geothermal area at Krýsuvík (in south-west Iceland). In general – the primary aspect of this archetype – perception of the overall mass effect was of much greater importance than individual actions. Thus the orchestra articulated a network of shifting textures punctuated regularly by swells, as if something were churning and bubbling in the music’s depths. This led to the sensation that the orchestra was an organism slowly breathing, ripples running across its surface with such variety of colour and shape and detail it brought to mind (to switch metaphors) the changes in pigmentation on the skin of a chameleon. Music that focuses exclusively on large-scale textural impressions like this can often become drab and unfocused, yet Vaka instilled in Lendh a real sense of pent-up power and potential: its ‘climaxes’ were barely larger than the swells that had preceded them but packed almost the same weight as a full-on tutti due to the palpable implication of what they could unleash if they really wanted to. A striking and lovely piece.

The same couldn’t be said for María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir‘s Oceans, also a world première, the ideas of which could have been lifted straight out of a movie. The title of the work – which the composer claims “came early in the process” but just before the festival was still being listed as ‘new work’, so perhaps was more of an afterthought – seemed arbitrary, entirely unrelated to what was essentially a tired exercise in basic, reheated filmic tropes. This was texture at its most ineffectual and clichéd, and while Oceans had its moments – including one where in the midst of a climax the harmony became complicated and briefly clustered – it otherwise lacked any significant memorable ideas. Read more

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