The universe is making music all the time

Chosen One: Daníel Bjarnason

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Interview with Daníel Bjarnason.

“A painting is not about experience. It is an experience.”

―Mark Rothko

Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry


The Autumn of 2013 heralded the highly anticipated return of Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason’s newest work, entitled ‘Over Light Earth’, released on the prestigious Iceland–based independent label, Bedroom Community. ‘Over Light Earth’ represents yet another groundbreaking work in contemporary neoclassical music from the multi-award winning composer. The latest record is Bjarnason’s third release for Bedroom Community, having released the stunning ‘Solaris’ collaboration with label–mate Ben Frost last year and the similarly universally-acclaimed debut album, 2010’s ‘Processions’. The latter was described by Time Out NY as “coming eerily close to defining classical music’s undefinable brave new world.” On ‘Over Light Earth’ an equally exhilarating new world is created by the masterful composer that encompasses a seamless array of stunningly beautiful arrangements, intricately woven melodious patterns and enriching textures.

‘Over Light Earth’ comprises three major works. The title–work is Bjarnason’s nod to the abstract expressionism school of painters – such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock – where a sprawling sonic canvas is wonderfully drawn from. ‘Light Over Earth’ was commissioned and premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The second piece is aptly titled ‘Emergence’, where a plethora of strings (performed by the newly formed Reykjavík Sinfonia) conjures up a vast ocean of mood as dramatic tension gradually unfolds as the emergence of Bjarnason’s orchestral voice comes into full-focus, in all its power and glory. ‘Solitudes’ comprises the third and final piece that in fact is Bjarnason’s first piano concerto, reworked with electronics by Valgeir Sigurðsson and Ben Frost. The magical spirit of John Cage permeates the piece’s hypnotic piano motifs and rhythmic pulses of strings. The results are nothing short of staggering.

Bjarnason’s string arrangements can be heard on the last two records by Icelandic ensemble Sigur Rós – most ‘Kveikur’, released in June of 2013 – and not to mention the plethora of collaborations with label-mates Valgeir Sigurðsson, Nadia Sirota and Nico Muhly in the not-too-distant past. As ever, a rich symbiosis exists between the Bedroom Community collective of gifted composers and musicians that effortlessly percolates into the solo artist’s respective work of true art. In 2012, Bjarnason contributed the score to the feature film ‘The Deep’. His composition was awarded Best Film Score at the Icelandic Film and Television Awards in 2013 and nominated Best Original Score at the Harpa Nordic Film Composers Awards 2013. His 2012 compositions, ‘The Isle Is Full Of Noises’ and ‘Light Over Earth’ won him the prize for Best Composer at the 2013 Icelandic Music Awards.



Interview with Daníel Bjarnason.

Congratulations on your new record ‘Over Light Earth’. I’ve loved your first solo record, ‘Processions’ and the new music is equally stunning. I love the sequencing – and the beautiful flow – to the album and how it’s separated into three distinct movements. Can you please discuss for me these three wonderfully realized worlds you so effortlessly have created; ‘Over Light Earth’, ‘Emergence’ and ‘Solitudes’ and how this deeply affecting intensity of emotion is captured so well in these recordings?

DB: Well…thank for your kind words! Actually the 3 pieces on the album all have a very different genesis and they are all written for different occasions. The last piece on the album is actually the oldest one, 10 years old! But it was the first thing we recorded when I joined Bedroom Community 4 years ago. Emergence is this huge orchestral thing I wrote for the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra around the time I was becoming a father. It is a bit of a crossroads piece in that I am looking back at things from my past but also moving forward and trying things I hadn’t done before. The most recent piece is Over Light Earth which was written on commission from the LA Phil and premiered last year. It says the most about where I am right now even though I have already moved on from certain things in that piece (at least I think I have, but it’s sometimes hard to tell). So actually the pieces are not at all thought of in a unified way and what I guess really brings them together on this album is the way they are approached from a recording and producing point of view.


I was intrigued to read how the works of Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock formed such an inspiration for ‘Over Light Earth’, and indeed Canvases No 9 and Number 1, 1949 inspired the two movements of ‘Over Light Earth’. I would love to gain an insight into your fascination with these particular paintings? The music shares similar qualities of abstract beauty and a plethora of meanings are obtained, just as the works of Pollock and Rothko share. 

DB: Obviously there are a lot of shared space between (abstract) art and instrumental music. I feel very close to this period in art called abstract expressionism and the way both Rothko and Pollock approached their art as well as other artists from that period. Sometimes it is also a question of coincidence. While I was thinking a lot about what I wanted to do for this piece I happened to be in LA and walk in on an exhibition where I saw this Pollock that knocked me off my feet. Rothko is obviously more subtle but had a deep aftereffect somehow. Even though I had seen works by both these painters in museums before I felt like I was really seeing them for the first time. Sometimes things just happen like that. But in the end the piece is not really about that or an illustration of a certain piece of art. It’s more that you put yourself in a certain headspace and meditate on certain things while you’re creating. I don’t want people to think too much about Rothko and Pollock when they listen to the piece. It becomes its own thing. This is why I am often afraid of telling people about the connections one is making while creating a piece of music. There are a lot of invisible threads in creation and sometimes it’s better if they remain invisible. However there is a big demand on artists to speak about their work and tell how and why and what. I’m a bit torn on this subject.


I would love to learn about your creative process involved in these life-affirming compositions? I read your recording technique involves meticulous close-miking and multi-tracking. I would love for you to talk a bit about this please?

DB: For this album we really approached the recording process in a non-classical way. It was recorded in sections with the strings, brass, wind, percussion, harp and piano all recorded separately. We recorded the wind, brass and strings in groups as much as possible but even so there was a lot of overdubbing. This became a bit of a scrolling nightmare in ProTools because we had well over a hundred tracks running most of the time. But in return we had a lot of control.


This special record sees your own music performed by the newly formed Reykjavík Sinfonia, creating in turn, a monumental symphonic recording. As a conductor, how did the music evolve – from the music you first of all wrote and seeing it take on new significances horizons later on – and how you felt as a composer, when you heard the resulting works performed by the orchestra?

DB: I’m used to following my music all the way from perception to performance and I sometimes feel like I don’t really know a piece of mine until I have conducted or performed it myself. But performing your work and recording it for the first time is always special. Because of the way this album was recorded in layers it was sometimes hard to keep track of the big picture but I’m happy with how it all came together in the end.


I love all the music you have collaborated on, from the likes of Sigur Rós and Efterklang – some of the most innovative bands making music today – and the amazing ‘Solaris’ record, in which you collaborated with Ben Frost. As an artist and composer, these magical projects must provide you with great inspiration and tap into the music of your own solo works. Can you discuss for me the collaborative aspect of your music, and how you feel you have developed as a composer, on the back of these amazing records?

DB: I feel it is important to collaborate and I enjoy it very much, especially when I have had the good fortune to work with the people you mention. When you are arranging music it’s a delicate balancing act of bringing something of yours to the music but not making it become about you. When collaborating on a new piece you need to work differently than when you are composing your own music; you relinquish some control but you’re also involved in a dialogue which you sometimes miss when working alone. Working with Ben was great and I think we’ll continue to work together on various projects.


Can you trace back to your earliest musical memory? I can only imagine you must have come from a very musical family and background. Were there particular records or events that triggered for you your love of music and fascination with sound?

DB: Well, I didn’t come from your typical musicians family and neither of my parents are musicians. I did get a pretty good music upbringing though and when my family lived in Madison, Wisconsin I went to a great pre school called Pre-school of the Arts. I think my first musical love was Mozart actually. When I was about 3 or 4 I had this cassette that told the story of his life and played his music and I used to listen to that a lot. I was also crazy about Michael Jackson.


‘Over Light Earth’ is available now on Bedroom Community.



Written by admin

December 5, 2013 at 2:58 pm

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