Former Sigur Rós pianist Kjartan Sveinsson's first major orchestral work is an intriguing listen for patient listeners. The fourth movement is worth the price of admission alone.
If you’ve heard of Kjartan Sveinsson at all, it's likely because he was the piano player in Sigur Rós through 2013. Kjartan did a lot more than piano in his time with the band; he played whatever unusual instruments were needed and also did much of the arranging work for the string and orchestra accompaniments Sigur Rós occasionally used.
Der Klang der Offenbarung des Göttlichen is his first large-scale work since leaving the band. The piece, which translates to “The Explosive Sonics of Divinity”, is described as a four act opera and is inspired by author Halldor Laxness’ novel World Light. The piece debuted in Germany back in 2014, and Kjartan collaborated with artist Ragnar Kjartansson, who provided different visual tableaus for each act.
Now, nearly three years later, the audio album version of Der Klang has been released, and it is certainly interesting. As a first impression, it seemed that the press materials calling the piece a “four-act opera” are reaching a bit. The album just barely grazes the 35-minute mark, and the “acts” average about eight minutes long. That’s pretty slight to be included as part of a style of musical theater where performances regularly push past the four-hour mark. This feels much more like a suite, especially when the fact that the opera contains no actors is factored in.
Naming conventions aside, the music of Der Klang at times feels very much of a piece with what Kjartan did when he was with Sigur Rós, particularly in the first and fourth movements. “Teil I” is entirely instrumental, with a simple, languid minor key theme played by a string orchestra. This theme is passed around the ensemble, sometimes played in unison by several different sections, and sometimes just, say, the cellos. Instruments that aren’t playing the theme either sit out or drone on a single note or chord from the theme. Occasional gong splashes and timpani rolls fill out the ensemble, becoming more frequent as the music grows louder in the second half. As “Teil I” enters its final two minutes, more of the violins seem to land on single tremolo notes while the theme continues, giving the piece sort of a shrieking clamor as it finishes.
This type of droning exploration of a simple melody is highly reminiscent of a lot of Sigur Rós’ early work, minus the distinctive falsetto vocals of Jonsí. It’s not exactly easy or pleasant to listen to, but it is compelling, at least for the patient listener. “Teil II” primarily consists of a choir singing at a deliberate pace in close harmony. It very much resembles Renaissance-era religious choral music, although the string accompaniment that backs up the choir for roughly half of the movement feels a bit more robust than something from the 1500s.
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“Teil III” starts in a similar vein to “Teil I”, with a simple string theme repeated. This one is slightly brighter sounding than the gloomy “Teil I” theme, but the pace is just as measured. This time around, the choir joins in and picks up the theme a couple of minutes in. The voices then push the core leitmotif in new melodic directions, keeping “Teil III” from being a rehash of the first movement. The growing volume and melodic direction of the choir give the movement the brightest moments of the entire work to this point before Kjartan pushes them back down into a quieter, more intimate place. Some lovely low notes from the bass voices resonate in the final third of this movement, giving it warmth despite the sparse arrangement and minor key setting.
“Teil IV” is the longest section of the piece at nearly 12 minutes. It opens with a string bass drone that is soon joined by more string instruments, building a chord. This chord resolves into a violin and soprano duet. Here the wordless vocals are a dead ringer for Jonsí’s falsetto, as is the plaintive melody. Once the ensemble joins the soprano, the listener gets to hear what a Sigur Rós song would sound like with a full choir and orchestra. “Teil IV” is easily the brightest and the warmest section of the work, immediately besting “Teil III”’s brief moment of light. In fact, “Teil IV” sounds like watching the sun crest the horizon at dawn in real time. There’s no bombast or operatic declarations here, just a growing warmth of voices and strings that crescendos and eventually quiets as the moment passes. It’s an absolutely lovely piece of music, and it recasts the previous three movements of the work as sections ramping up to this beautiful conclusion.
Der Klang is a challenging work for pop and rock oriented listeners, but it will hold appeal to fans of ambient music. There are no beats to be found here and the fastest the music moves is at a slow walking pace. Kjartan’s arrangements are entirely reliant on strings and choir, which gives the piece a distinct but unusual flavor. The first two movements, in particular, are repetitive, but that is clearly by design, and it all pays off in “Teil IV”, which is worth the price of admission by itself.