Icelandic musician Daníel Bjarnason works the borderless world of new music. As a conductor he regularly leads the Icelandic Opera and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, and has worked with the London Sinfonietta, the Ulster Orchestra, and the Sinfonietta Cracovia. He was named Composer of the Year at the Icelandic Music Awards in 2010, where Bow to String, from his debut album Processions, was named Composition of the Year. His Shakespearean triptych The isle is full of noises… had its world premiere in Walt Disney Concert Hall in March, on a Sounds About Town concert with the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus and the American Youth Symphony conducted by James Conlon. Bjarnason has collaborated with a broad range of musicians outside the classical field, including Sigur Rós and Efterklang. His latest album is Sólaris, with Ben Frost.
Bjarnason composed Over Light Earth earlier this year in Reykjavik, but he found his inspiration just across the street, when he was here for the premiere of The isle is full of noises…. Over Light Earth is “a reaction to (conversation with (reflection on))” paintings by Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock that Bjarnason saw at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), as he notes in the score.
The full title of the Rothko painting is No. 9 (Dark Over Light Earth), which is a fairly literal description of its primary tones. There is darkness in Bjarnason’s music – Rothko’s paradoxically luminous darkness – but Bjarnason dropped “Dark” from his own title because he liked the feeling of weightlessness it had without the word. “The darkness is still there in the minds of everyone who knows the reference (the painting) and there is also darkness in the music but it isn’t at surface level,” he says.
The piece begins in a soft haze, as if we are suddenly aware of something that had always been there. It explores glowing textures at very soft levels, but with shimmering swells that gradually build to a rich climax before evaporating edgelessly in harmonics and white noise. “I think that as an artist I am interested in some of the same things that were important to Rothko,” Bjarnason says. “I’m interested in the eternal in a piece of art, which is the same thing as the eternal in every person. Access to this lies in the subconscious, which is, of course, something that all the abstract expressionists were obsessed with. I think I simply feel a strong connection with this way of making and thinking about art.”
The second movement is titled for Pollock’s painting. Bigger and busier, it seems to push and pull, where “Over Light Earth” absorbs; action vs. being, at least superficially.
“What I find so amazing about Pollock is that seeing his paintings is such a visceral experience,” Bjarnason says. “You can’t understand the power of it until you see it in the flesh. The first impression I had when I saw this painting in MOCA was that it almost knocked me off my feet. The first thing you take in is the explosion of color, the vibrancy and the raw energy, seemingly chaotic, but when you stand and look at it for a while (I couldn’t take my eyes off it), there is also a very pleasing sense of symmetry and calmness that seems to underlie this level of activity. In ‘Number 1, 1949,’ I am in some ways describing this reaction. It kind of zooms into itself until it reaches complete stillness and then it zooms out again to the level of most activity.
“For this piece I wanted to make music that was somehow frozen in time, like a painting. So that you would not feel like you had been experiencing a narrative that is moving chronologically from A-Z, but rather that you are looking at the same object from different angles and in different light. For me this was a challenge because it is more natural to me to make music that is dramatic and has a forward thrust. But recently, and especially as I was thinking about the work of Rothko, I started to yearn for music that was not ‘doing’ anything. Music that was simply present, that you could spend time ‘inside’ and belong to without emotional attachment.”
Music of both furious energy and haunting beauty, Bow to String was originally composed as a studio piece for multi-layered cellos, all played by Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir on the album Processions. “Actually, it all started with Saeunn asking me to write a piece for solo cello, which I said yes to, but then sort of chickened out and started adding more and more voices. By then I was only thinking about the studio and I never really thought about how we would perform it live, but then after the album was released, of course we wanted to be able to perform it somehow. So I started making some different versions of it that were performed in various settings, from concert halls to tiny bars. I probably have eight or ten different versions of it already. The one that will be performed here is a new version for solo cello and ensemble,” Bjarnason says.
“The first movement refers to an art installation by Ragnar Kjartansson in which he continually sings this song with the lyrics ‘Sorrow conquers happiness’ accompanied by a small orchestra. That’s the song (the chord progressions) you can hear in the first movement. So that movement is some kind of a remix of that song. The whole piece in its three movements is moving from loud to quiet, from the earthly to the ethereal.”