Bedroom Community

Press Reviews for Processions

When Ísafold Chamber Orchestra’s second album was released in 2008, one song stood while the others sat: the nineteen-minute title track, “All Sounds to Silence Come.” Until this composition was committed to disc, Daníel Bjarnason had been better known as a conductor than as a composer, and the ICO had been more famous for its fantastic covers (Pärt, Schönberg, Stravinsky) than for its originals. This piece, with its fierce first movement and restless, contemplative second, garnered numerous awards for the composer not only in his native Iceland, but as far afield as Dublin.

By any estimation, “Silence” would be difficult to surpass, but with Processions, Bjarnason topples expectations like Tinkertoys.Bedroom Community (whose last release was Ben Frost’s By the Throat), has shown remarkable prescience in choosing this album as its first release of 2010. The year may be in its infancy, but to this reviewer, Processions is already the one to beat.

The field of modern composition is crowded, but it’s thin on top and bulges in the middle like a sedentary retiree. A few composers have been able to distinguish themselves through a combination of talent, originality, and verve. Bjarnason’s greatest asset is that he doesn’t sound like any of them.Max Richter, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Ólafur Arnalds, and Valgeir Sigurðsson (the last three from Iceland) offer experimental excursions and soundtrack sensibilities, but their output rests securely in the “alternative mainstream” - neither bland nor bizarre, traveling the Ring Road (the sporadically dangerous highway that traverses Iceland’s borders) while avoiding the treacherous, unpaved center. These composers are careful not to alienate potential listeners, a risk that Bjarnason gladly takes. Instead of walking one step at a time, testing the ground to see if it is moss or rock, Bjarnason leaps, trusting that the ground will hold as he races breathlessly to an unseen destination.Processions is one musical millimeter away from being too avant-garde, too inaccessible, but the occasional clusters of major notes that comprise its main themes anchor it like a crampon to the ice. This leaves Bjarnason free to veer into the dissonant and the atonal, two roads less traveled, in search of the thematic glue that will bind it all together.

Processions boasts a huge supporting cast, which lends the project an immediate air of respectability. The aforementioned Valgeir Sigurðsson serves as producer, engineer, and mixer. The Icelandic Symphony Orchestra dominates three tracks, while orchestra members guest star on others. Riding bareback is Bjarnason, as composer and conductor. Remember those Sigur Rós sessions at Abbey Road with the London Sinfonietta? That was him. But this sounds nothing like that. This is wild, untethered music, swirling around a core that often disappears, spitting off in every direction, splintering and reconfiguring, jagged and sharp. Bjarnason marches into this maelstrom with rugged determination, like an explorer who refuses to return for his coat. At times, we hear echoes of Ralph Vaughn Williams’ Antarctic Symphony, but more often than not, the tonal shifts and instinctive chord changes have no identifiable antecedent.

The album kicks off with a flutter of percussion and a wildly active series of multitracked cellos, immediately engaging the attention of the listener. The soaring arpeggios and sense of menace call to mind Jonny Greenwood’s score to There Will Be Blood, another broadly atonal work whose seeming randomness was actually the result of clever construction. The beauty of “Sorrow Conquers Happiness” is that each instrumental passage goes through multiple stops and starts; no single thread runs the length of the composition, yet the piece retains a staggering momentum. The components are part of a well-oiled machine, analogous to an American football team who makes multiple substitutions while plowing relentlessly forward. The final frame is the selection’s most subdued, the breathcatcher at the end of the touchdown drive, the brief celebratory pause before the next kickoff.

“Sorrow Conquers Happiness” is the first of the three movements that comprise “Bow to String.” The second, “Blood to Bones,” is lithe and toned. Plucked strings occupy the foreground, while seething cellos lurk in the background like a mongoose, awaiting an opportunity to strike. Yet when the time comes, the anticipated pounce is absent; instead, the cello symphony unveils a dirge-like anthem. Occasionally, the music comes to a complete stop, so when the first tentative notes of “Air to Breathe” arrive, they seem like a continuation of the same piece. The tone of this selection remains mournful throughout, calling to mind the words of Ella Wheeler Wilcox:

After the fierce midsummer all ablaze
Has buried itself to ashes, and expires
In the intensity of its own fires,
There come the mellow, mild St. Martin days
Crowned with the calm of peace, but sad with haze. 

“Sorrow Conquers Happiness” seems to trump its siblings with sheer bombast, but the three movements actually complement each other, producing a rare melancholic blend of nostalgia and hopeful yearning. This ternary enhancement – three tracks operating as more than the sum of their parts – illustrates the principle that classical music, whether modern or traditional, often suffers when broken down to singles and soundbytes.

The second triptych is the album’s centerpiece and the source of its title. The piano holds court, but the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra provides a stunning backdrop. The overall effect is like gazing at a flower in front of a fjord. “In Medias Res” echoes the album’s first track by beginning with a percussive blast, but this time around, the keyboard has replaced the cello and the percussion has taken on the timbre of shattered glass. As the listener searches for a central melody, the brass offers little aid. The horns herd listeners away, shooing them toward the strings, which jostle the pilgrims like riders in a subway car, causing them to return to the piano for a semblance of sanity, which it only briefly provides. In the sixth minute, all the instruments relent, providing a soothing narcotic sensation: there, there, it’s alright. But in the seventh, they explode with a clear denunciation:no, no, it’s not. At 7:44, what seems like a main theme emerges, only to have its head pushed violently back underwater, and when the track finally concludes at the ten-minute mark, it does so with an unsettling cacophony of crash and trill.

“In Medias Res” would be the highlight of most albums, but the two premier tracks are still to come. The twelve-minute “Spindrift” begins with subdued melody (finally, something to hold onto!), and in its first two minutes provides a shelter from the storm. As the track progresses, it becomes apparent that the storm has not ended; what seemed like a break in the clouds was actually the eye of the hurricane. Whenever the pianist abandons his usual restraint in order to hammer on a single key, we are warned that it is time to go back inside, that shards of melody will soon become as rare as driftwood on a wind-tossed sea. When the strings finally return, they sound like salvation, then doom, which in turn makes the piano’s surprisingly delicate coda all the more welcome.

“Red-handed” draws the triptych to a close, forming itself out of echoed fragments and building swiftly to a surging series of staccato strings, enhanced by virtuoso ivory scales and pounding percussion. The excitement of this piece, and its occasional excess, hearkens back to the album’s first track. Like “Sorrow Conquers Happiness,” “Red-handed” draws down to a refined close, setting up a quieter track, in this case the album’s coda.

Since “Red-handed” bursts at the seams with internal dynamism, the left turn of “Skelja” makes perfect sense; to attempt to trump a finale with a larger finale would just be ridiculous. At first listen, this piece comes as somewhat of a disappointment – we’ve been trained by Michael Bay to expect “Boom Boom Pow” rather than “Boom Boom Hush” – but on subsequent listens, it works. This closing track is a simple combination of harp and light percussion, and it gives us time to reflect on all that has gone before, while operating as a cushion between the dramatic world of “Red-handed” and our reluctant return to ordinary life. I’d have made it a couple minutes shorter, but that’s a minor quibble.

Bjarnason, recently thirty, was lucky enough to have been born in the digital age, and so unlike his classical predecessors, he may experience the good fortune of being appreciated while alive. Processions deserves to be his global breakthrough. It’s the sound of fire and instinct, the musical equivalent of a controlled burn. Perhaps all sounds to silence come, but thanks to Bjarnason, that sonic Armageddon seems a long distance away. 

Richard Allen

The Silent Ballet (January 27th 2010) ★★★★★★★★★

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