Album Review: Daníel Bjarnason – Processions

[Bedroom Community; 2010]

Now on the Bedroom Community label with every indie band’s favourite composer Nico Muhly, Daníel Bjarnason can perhaps start aspiring to be getting caught up with rising and established bands and hope for a notable and influential background spot on someone else’s Veckatimest or Go. And if this is the inevitable path for Bjarnason then I cannot wait for these albums he is going to feature on.

This excitement stems from the impressionable nature of his new label debut, Processions which demonstrates a great gift for numerous musical talents for one person. Processions is an orchestral album but not always in the conventional sense. You may well hear the first symphony “Bow To String” as a mere avant-garde composition but there’s a little more to it than you think. Let me explain by trying to describe the music first. The album begins with the opening part “Sorrow Conquers Happiness” which thrusts the listener into what sounds like the thrilling climatic scene of a horror movie. Strings are shifting all around you; densely and rigidly with a persistent and near overwhelming force driven directly to you with devastating and ambiguous percussive effects. Amidst the hypnotic rattle a break in mood occurs as the tempo changes to a slower more evocative pace, like the camera slowing down the most intense sword battle to emphasise the beauty in the movement. And this first part of “Bow To String” has a great deal of movement about it, constantly building with tension before breaking for release at just the right moment when you cannot bear shouting at the character on screen that the killer is right behind them.

The second and third parts of “Bow To String” drop the pace somewhat dramatically but feel like perfect continuations. “Blood To Bones” is much like the quiet contemplation that comes after the frenzied murders at the end of the horror movie. It trots along carefully on the slight an occasional beats of percussion and pizzicato as strings emphasise the almost lyrical content the notes have about them. “Air To Breath” spends four minutes searching for the symphony’s redemption, almost teasingly wandering around the cadence. And when it does finally come it’s so subtle you might even not notice it. Redemption is satisfying but it’s also fleeting and plenty more we will regret doing lies in wait just around the corner as the piece suggests, slipping away on a warm but unsure note.

And here’s the kicker: all the strings were performed by one person (Sæunn Þorsteinsdóttir) and on one cello. Sure, that might not sound like much in text but when you hear the range of sounds created, you’ll realise that what you likely thought to be a string quartet (or two) is just the result of a passionate player and some effective multi-tracking. But it’s not just the fact that Bjarnason uses multi-tracking that makes his work noteworthy. Even if he had the “Bow To String” pieces played by a full group of people on violins, violas and cellos, he would likely still be able to showcase his remarkable talent for using nuance.

And nuance isn’t something I can say I often look for or knowingly appreciate in the classical domain. But Bjarnason’s use of it gives the record and these compositions a deeper quality that allows the listener to look deep and through the brash escalations of strings, brass, woodwind and percussion. The juxtaposition is key, but not always. On final piece “Skelja”, the air seems to vibrate with tension as notes on a harp are plucked carefully, like they are reverberating and causing other instruments in the room to react. All sorts of noises shimmer between and around the notes and it’s these that keep the otherwise sparse composition together and all the more engaging. With the juxtaposing loudness of a full orchestra, the nuances can go by without you noticing them but as you get to know these pieces you learn to appreciate things like how single notes are played. The music here is the kind I would love to see the written music for to see how Bjarnason has directed the musicians to make them play the music the way they do.

Of course one shouldn’t get too wrapped up appreciating nuances here though, especially when the music sticking out on the top is as impressionable as it is. If “Sorrow Conquers Happiness” doesn’t catch you then I’d be convinced you must be lying if you say you weren’t at all fixated by the “Processions” pieces. “In Medias Res” presents itself suddenly and ostentatiously and doesn’t seek to stop, which it unfortunately does after a thrilling climax were the strings shiver violently and the key descends amidst it before scratching to a halt. But it’s the percussion that will stick in your mind, though, sounding like someone smashing glass bottles inches from your ears. “Red-Handed” on the other hand comes across as almost accessible exercise in sheer ability to create tension and excitement from the lingering moments where notes ring. Hopping along at first, the heavy air builds the almost defeated sounding brass instruments with concise strokes before the spiralling piano adds the flourish.

Many might be put off by the descriptions I began this review with. But I won’t lie and try worm my way around it: this album is what many would class as avant-garde or neo-classical or something similar. And sure enough at times it sounds like a forgotten score by Bernard Herrmann, or a Scott Walker nightmare (or sometimes both), but that doesn’t mean it should be dismissed by those who supposedly can’t stomach or be bothered with such things. You don’t need to be some educated sort to just appreciate a display of talents on offer here, whether it is the nuances, the compositional techniques or just the melodies. People shouldn’t be scared or uninterested by “classical music” because, as composers like Muhly – who have given records their cinematic flourishes – have proved, “classical music” has a fitting place in the likes of the indie genre. So that’s why I hope Bjarnason breaks into the same field as his label mate because if people choose to ignore this then at least his talents won’t go completely unappreciated an unnoticed by the masses.