On Processions, Daniel Bjarnason’s first release, nothing is evoked so much as a deconstructed orchestra. From the opening strings waltzing smoothly over the sounds of percussive clatter to the self-destruction of dulcet passages, Bjarnason has clearly never met a symphony he couldn’t vivisect. “Bow to String II: Blood to Bones”, the album’s second track (out of seven, though two of the pieces are over ten minutes each) may take a scalpel to harmonies gently, arpeggiating the strings carefully, but there is nonetheless the overwhelming impression that classical music is being taken apart in Bjarnason’s hands. The “Bow to String” title for the first three pieces may well be the bow shredding the string rather than playing it, though Bjarnason leaves enough of the traditional edifice intact that the music isn’t too jarring.
Of the pieces in the “Bow to String” suite, the opening one, “Bow to String: Sorrow Conquers Joy” is by far the most dissonant and least subtle. Those who would turn the album off during “Sorrow Conquers Joy” are missing the innate prettiness that follows, namely in the opening of “Bow to String: Air to Breath”. It is sweetly sad, evoking the slower moments of fellow Icelander Hildur Gudnadôttir’s music.
Another triptych follows “Bow to String”, this one entitled “Processions”. These pieces display the myriad ways there are to deconstruct a genre. “Processions: In Media Res” indeed sounds like it begins at the middle or even the climax of a much larger work. “In Medias Res” works backwards, de-escalating the drama of the piece. Or does it? Loud clanging noises still emerge periodically, just as there are long minimalist piano passages that quiet the drama of the piece. At ten and a half minutes of going back and forth between extremes, “In Media Res” gets somewhat repetitive and fails to entirely earn its length.
The 12-and-a-half-minute “Proecssions II: Spindrift” contributes a uniquely epic dissonance to the album and sets Bjarnason apart from other composers. Here, the dissonance comes from the minimalist piano work that appears again, this time taking center stage. The strings work around the work, but the orchestral swells and ebbs work for the piano here. Once again, the piece could make its mark and thrive at a shorter length. However, the last two minutes must be preserved for their solemn, watery beauty recalling the work of Gavin Bryars’ “The Sinking of the Titanic”. “Processions III: Red-handed” initially seems like an oddly placed march, but the chaotic piano and cello runs interlaced with one another proves that this too is a dismantling of typical orchestral structure. “Red-handed” also makes the best use of its time. At only five and a half minutes, the drama sustains itself and keeps the listener engaged throughout. Once the dissonance itself deconstructs, it seems entirely earned, appropriate, and even wonderfully exhausting for the listener.
When considering this album’s tendency toward beautiful chaos, it is important to remember the label that released it. Bedroom Community, owned by Icelandic übergenius Valgeir Sigurðsson, releases artists who do similar work that makes listeners define and redefine their ideas of classical music. Nico Muhly and Ben Frost are two other artists found on this label, and both share Bjarnason’s sense of flawed, beautiful drama.
Processions is the first full-length release for Bjarnason, who only recently turned 30. Clearly, he already possesses a wealth of knowledge about the history of classical (or classical-esque) music. For someone so young to have that knowledge and deploy it to deconstruct the music itself is mind-boggling and leaves listeners wondering what Bjarnason will break next.
// Notes from the Road
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