Though it also features two multi-movement settings, Dissonance, the fourth studio album by Icelandic composer Valgeir Sigurdsson and his first since 2012's Architecture of Loss, is literally and figuratively dominated by its audacious title track. Having first stretched a forty-second section from Mozart's 1785 “Dissonance” string quartet to twenty-three minutes, Sigurdsson proceeded to assemble a multitude of viola da gambas into a mesmerizing colossus. How it was achieved is a story unto itself: with collaborator Liam Byrne pushing the antique instrument's naturally grainy sonority to a raw extreme, Sigurdsson began by recording layer upon layer of the instrument, then re-routed the results back to amps, speakers, and effects for additional colour and texture before recording those processed treatments onto tape for the final version. Though one might more typically associate the viola da gamba, a fretted ancestor to the violin and cello, with a composer such as John Dowland, Sigurdsson's behemoth has, in terms of compositional structure, little in common with anything he created.
That said, the work's restrained opening minutes do exude a sorrowful quality that one could just as easily imagine emerging in a Dowland setting. But it doesn't take long for the distance between past and present to declare itself when Sigurdsson's musical structure begins to leave behind traditional notions of harmony and form. Tension permeates the work in the way it juxtaposes the elegant sonority of the viola da gamba and the dissonant effect produced by the multiple pitches, as well as in the constant fluctuation between an adherence to classical form on the one hand and a glacial deconstruction of it on the other.
Sigurdsson created the second setting, No Nights Dark Enough, in response to a request by Robin Rimbaud (aka Scanner) to create a new piece in honour of Dowland for the City of London Sinfonia. Scored for chamber orchestra and electronics, the sixteen-minute work, whose movement titles derive from Dowland's song “Flow My Tears,” might at first blush appear less radical than the album's title track due to the more familiar timbres of a modern-day chamber orchestra, but it's equally marked by Sigurdsson's bold sensibility. No Nights Dark Enough grows ever more bewitching as it advances without pause through its oft-ethereal parts, with perhaps the composer's electronic interventions most conspicuous during its “fear and grief and pain” movement.
The concluding work, 1875, grew out of a Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra commission designed to honour the 125th celebration of the Icelandic settlement in Canada. Of the album's three pieces, it's the most traditional, not only because of its orchestral design but also for programmatic movement titles that reflect the difficult journey undertaken by the settlers and the hardships they suffered. As forward-thinking as it is compositionally, one could visualize 1875 being performed by a symphony orchestra during an evening concert; it would be much harder to imagine the same for the title track, however, whose more natural home would be a new music festival specifically tailored to the presentation of challenging experimental works. Still, as engaging as No Nights Dark Enough and 1875 are, it's the title piece that is the release's primary selling-point.