Commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the title track of Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason's new album of orchestral music reacts to the art of two abstract expressionists of the New York school. The first movement, "Over Light Earth" takes its name from Mark Rothko’s painting Dark Over Light Earth, the second from Jackson Pollock’s Number 1, 1949.
In the original program notes for the commission, Bjarnason describes his first viewing of Pollock’s painting at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art: “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… there is also a very pleasing sense of symmetry and calmness that seems to underlie this level of activity.”
The homage is clearly audible: the music often sounds as if it’s suspended in space; woodwinds and strings swirl around pointillistic, muted piano notes and clusters; swells of brass splotch a sonic canvas of pulsing strings that hints at a shimmering surface underpinned by both meditative calm and chaos.
The album's next two compositions are built on different programmatic material, but the textured, celestial ambiance of Bjarnason's orchestration and alternations of tranquility and violence act as such powerful through-lines that all three pieces sound as a cohesive, uniform body. During the three movement Emergence, a seemingly static bed of strings acts as the backdrop for quiet woodwind swells. Seesawing strings colored with electronics give way to the vacuum of space before snowballing into a first tumultuous, then regal, cinematic soundscape with strong whiffs of Holst's The Planets.
The Bedroom Community label releases often share a dark, late-night aesthetic less concerned with capturing the natural sounds of instruments than with creating an otherworldly soundspace evocative of Iceland and "Over Light Earth" is no exception. Performed by the Reykjavik Sinfonia and produced by hero producer and Bedroom Community leader Valgeir Sigurðsson, it’s a classical record as musically informed by ambient electronica as by late Romantic music and the 20th Century modernists.
"Over Light Earth" closes with Solitudes, a four-part piano concerto reworked by Sigurðsson and electroacoustic composer Ben Frost. It's a fitting close to a record built around concepts of non-representational art and otherworldly vacancy. At times recalling John Cage's Dances for prepared piano, at times the ultra classicism of Mozart, and at times the signature Bedroom Community sound, the music powerfully illustrates the breadth of Bjarnasson's compositional voice - one that draws freely from the past and the present while creating a textured world all its own.
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