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Press Reviews for Processions

It is no secret that Iceland has one of the best music scenes in the world right now. Between Sigur Rós, Björk, Jóhann Jóhannson, Ólafur Arnalds, and múm, it is hard to deny the amount of great music coming out of the small northern island. But hasn’t great music always arisen out of areas with terrible political climates, amidst crisis and depression? In the United States, the Great Depression gave way to the golden age of big band jazz and bebop. Choirs around the world still sing arrangements of African spirituals, which in fable developed during periods of cruel enslavement.

In Iceland, the economy has crashed, the government has ceased to be effective, and the people of Iceland have risen in protest of the failures of their leaders. Still, it seems that the music coming out of Iceland--the peaceful minimalism of Ólafur Arnalds, the joyous solo efforts of Jonsi--seem to cry for a release from the crisis. The music seems a distraction and an attempt to conjure a world without this pain. Daniel Bjarnason, the leader of Iceland’s burgeoning classical world, takes a different approach to his country’s climate. Processions, an album featuring three of Bjarnason’s original compositions, broods in pain and depression, creating the most powerful musical statement of 2010 so far.

Bjarnason has been behind some of the more grandiose moments in recent Icelandic music. He conducted the orchestra and choir in the one-shot recording of Sigur Rós’ “Ara Batur.” He founded and still conducts the Isafold Chamber Orchestra, a group that has won countless awards inside Iceland.

For Processions, however, Bjarnason makes use of different ensembles, exploiting tone color in a way that could be compared to Debussy, but might best be compared to countrymates Sigur Rós, who exploit different ensembles like string quartets and marching bands as well as different techniques like bowed guitar. On Processions, Bjarnason makes similar decisions, with three compositions for completely different ensembles--one suite for multi-tracked cello, a three-movement piano concerto with full orchestra, and a chamber piece for harp and percussion. In all of these compositions, Bjarnason utilizes the different tone colors of each ensemble. The cellos in “Bow to String” use pizzicato, arco, bow strikes, and harmonics in nearly each movement. In “Processions”, Bjarnason rips apart the orchestra to make endless amounts of different colors to accompany the piano soloist. And finally, on “Skelja”, Bjarnason makes the harp seem like the most versatile instrument around with his use of plucked and bowed strings.

While in viewing the music from the point of orchestration, Bjarnason seems directly influenced by his peers, he moves far beyond anyone else in Iceland tonally. At his most minimal, his peers may be Arvo Pärt or John Adams, while at his most agitated and bombastic, Bjarnason sounds more like Igor Stravinsky in his Petrushka era, caught somewhere between tonality and atonality. “Bow to String” opens with “Sorrow conquers happiness,” an aggressive, inflammatory opening full of percussive bow strikes and rapid melodic lines. The meter rapidly changes throughout, though certainly grounded in an 11/8 motif. The melodic lines weave in and out of each other, creating the perfect image of chaos, of threads flying off the bow of the cello. Yet amidst the cacophony, there are moments where everything relaxes, and harmonic squeals, gently bowed chords, and silence give the listener a short respite. These minimalist passages form the basis for the next two movements. “Blood to Bones” keeps the atmosphere dark, forming disconcerting melodies out of sparse pizzicato and subtle swells of tremolo chords. Meanwhile, “Air to Breathe” inverts the process, focusing on bowed chords and a beautiful solo melody, perhaps the most traditional movement of the entire album. Tonal and calm, yet solemn, the final movement of this suite is indeed repose, but the pain that runs throughout the album is not forgotten.

“Processions” is an entirely different beast, forming the bulk of the album and perhaps the album’s most powerful moments. The first movement, aptly titled “In Medias Res”, or “into the middle things”, begins abruptly with a huge bow strike and a glissando on the piano. Immediately, the main piano theme is introduced with dissonant trumpet and horn chords hitting the downbeats for a grandiose effect. The rest of the movement plays with a “quiet-loud” effect, moving between exposed solo piano passages and more waves of dissonant sound. Despite the bombastic opener, however, the next movement, “Spindrift”, is clearly the concerto’s and the album’s centerpiece. Opening with a tender brass chorale that slowly unravels, builds with piano and strings, and devolves into chaos, the piano part becomes increasingly frenetic throughout the opening sections. The rest of the piece spends its time beautifully and organically building back up to the huge climax at the end of the piece. Following this, “Red-handed” may seem like a throwaway movement, a bit out of place, but it completes the concerto by not trying to upstage the other two movements, admittedly similar in style, but instead tries something completely different, a more rhythmic affair that brings to mind “Sorrow conquers happiness” once again.

The final composition, “Skelja,” is easily the most minimalistic composition on the album, relying on sparse plucked and bowed harp, and almost indiscernible mallet percussion. With such grandiloquent, epic pieces filling out much of the album, Bjarnason intelligently closes Processions with a beautifully meditative composition rather than trying to outdo “Spindrift” and “Sorrow conquers happiness” in their bombast.

Throughout all of these compositions, whether in the loud and dissonant or in the quiet and peaceful, trepidation runs rampant. Bjarnason composes in a world where crisis seems ready to pop out of any corner, and his music reflects that, teetering on the line between bliss and chaos. Processions is a collection of compositions decidedly modern, musically daring, and keenly aware of its surroundings.

Tyler Fisher

SputnikMusic (April 28th 2010) ★★★★★★★★★

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