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Escape Velocity

Chaos & Symmetry: An Interview With Daniel Bjarnason
Erin Lyndal Martin , April 10th, 2014 05:35

With composer Daniel Bjarnason's latest album Over Light Earth released late last year, Erin Lyndal Martin catches up with him to discuss abstract expressionism and conducting orchestras

It takes ambition, inspiration, and sheer chutzpah for a composer to attempt to translate Mark Rothko's large color field paintings and Jackson Pollock's kinetic drippings into contemporary classical music. In 1971 Morton Feldman recorded The Rotho Chapel, a serene album that draws more on the chapel for inspiration than on the art itself. Icelandic composer Daniel Bjarnason took up a similar challenge of composing a response to Rothko on his newest release ,Over Light Earth, out now on Bedroom Community. Without knowing that Feldman and Bjarnason were inspired by the same artist, one would never make a connection between the two. While Feldman's album is contemplative, Bjarnason alternates between frenetic aggression and delicate melodies, never lulling the listener into complacence for long.

In part, Bjarnason's music has such an energy because he was trying to capture the visceral response he had to seeing Pollock's work. "You can't understand the power of it until you see it in the flesh," he writes in his notes on the piece. "The first impression I had when I saw this painting in MOCA was that it almost knocked me off my feet. 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 - I couldn't take my eyes off it - there is also a very pleasing sense of symmetry and calmness that seems to underlie this level of activity. In 'Number 1, 1949', I am in some ways describing this reaction. It kind of zooms into itself until it reaches complete stillness, and then it zooms out again to the level of most activity."

That a 34 year-old composer could achieve the high standards set by his artistic vision might seem surprising - unless you'd heard Bjarnason's 2010 Bedroom Community powerful, impressively intense debut Processions. Since its release late last year, Over Light Earth continues to make an impact. The album's ten tracks - comprising movements of three larger pieces - do well by the art that inspired them and herald the arrival of another unconventional artistic master.

How did you got started in music and in composition? Who were your early influences?

DB: It actually all started in Madison, Wisconsin. I went to this really amazing preschool, which is probably still there, called Preschool of the Arts. They taught music and dancing and acting and all kinds of things, as well as math and reading. So that was a great place. But then I started learning piano, I started playing when I was like seven or something. I actually stopped when became more of an early teenager and I was like into sports and all kinds of things, and then I started again quite fiercely when I was 15 or 16. By the time I was about 16, 17, I had decided that this was what I wanted to do with my life. So I quit the sports.

Were your parents arts inclined?

DB: Well yeah, my father was an artist and arts teacher.  They're not musical in that way. They appreciate music but they didn't play instruments themselves or anything. But I guess it was a pretty artistically aware household. I was always really into music from an early age, and also what happened was my brother who was a few years older than me started to learn singing, and that also inspired me to go back into music, just seeing what he was doing and going to concerts with him.

Was he doing classical music?

DB: Yeah, like opera. So that sort of brought me back into classical music really pretty full on. When I was a teenager I listened to a lot of stuff, but I listened to a lot of classical music more than I do today actually. I sort of went through all these phases with all the composers, you know. I had love affairs with all of them.

Every single one?

DB: Every single one. Or you know love/hate affairs, love/hate relationships. So that's how it started.

Was there any composer that really stayed with you when you started composing?

DB: Well, yeah, in different periods there've been different composers that have really meant a lot for me. There was a period where Shostakovich was just like the beginning and ending of everything in my life. And then at some other point it was Prokofiev or Ravel, and it just kind of comes in phases. I still love Shostakovich, but he's not such a big part of my daily life. I had to go away from him for a little bit because if I was composing or something, I really couldn't listen to him. It was just too influential in a way. It just made everything I did sound like Shostakovich. It was something I had to go away from quite actively.

But that was maybe a bit extreme. There's so much music, and when you're sort of working as a composer, as a musician, you tend to have a slightly different relationship with music and with composers. Because it becomes more of a conversation, you're looking for certain things, and you can be really into certain music without actually enjoying it that much; there's just something in it that you really find interesting that beckons somehow. It's a different thing than just listening for appreciation or pleasure.

Is there a musician that you really like and may be influenced by, but could never ever sound like?

DB: There are loads. There are loads of people that influence me but you can maybe not ever tell. I love Morton Feldman, but I realise that I don't make music that sounds like Morton Feldman.

So what was your experience like writing and recording your first album, Processions?

DB: It was great. It was the first time I sort of worked in studio. I mean, I had done recordings before, but they'd been more like traditional/classical recordings, where you would basically come with a rehearsal piece and just record it. 'Bow To String' - that was a piece that was written for the studio. It was sort of a starting point for me, in just reconsidering my whole approach to music, and I brought a lot of that into Over Light Earth.

Now had you been playing a lot live before you started recording the songs?

DB: I've been conducting a lot, doing a lot of live concerts in that way, but I haven't been playing my own stuff live. That's actually been slightly frustrating, in that it's been hard for me to follow up on the albums with live concerts. Both albums use big orchestras, you need a lot of people, and they're not unified in the amount of people you need for each piece. And doing them on a smaller scale is really quite difficult. Even though I have done versions of pieces in smaller settings, which is fun, it's just hard to hard to put it together, logistically it's a bit of a nightmare. So also that's the idea with my next album - that it will be easier to perform live and tour with it, which is something I want to do.

So to move onto Over Light Earth; I read it was in part inspired by abstract expressionist art, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that, and how the music reflects the art.

DB: Yeah, those two movements [of the title track] are sort of connected to these two paintings, one by Mark Rothko and the other by Jackson Pollock. It was coincidence in a way that when I started to write the piece I happened to see these paintings at MOCA in LA. I was quite  impressed or struck by these paintings, and I started to think a lot about these painters and this period, and what it was that I connected to so strongly. When I started looking at more paintings and more painters from that period, I sort of went under this abstract expressionist umbrella; I could I felt a really strong connection to them. So, the pieces aren't descriptions of the paintings themselves. They're more of a reflection on that time and those painters, and trying to somehow have a conversation or tap into something that was important, but using that as inspiration for me.

You wouldn't say that there was a storyline or anything?

DB: No, not at all. And there's nothing like 'this color or this trope is this bad part in the piece', or whatever [laughs]. There's no literal description; it's more trying to tap into the feeling of it I think. The subconscious reaction to it. The painting.

How do you want people to feel when they listen to Over Light Earth?

DB: I don't want people to feel any certain way when they listen to my music. That's partly one of the reasons that I don't write notes to go with my pieces. I give them titles which maybe open up or suggest a way, or a mood, or a space that you can go into, to listen to those pieces. But I want it to stay quite open. Connecting these pieces to these paintings is probably the most literal I've ever gotten with my music.

Sometimes you conduct your own work, and sometimes other people do it. How is that different for you?

DB: It's actually a completely different experience. I really love conducting my own work because you get to go the whole journey to the end with your work, with your piece. It can be equally wonderful to just let somebody else do that work, and you get a slightly different view and a different perspective on your work, which is also very important. It can be frustrating if you're if you're not happy with the conductor, or you don't think the conductor is doing the right thing, but I've been quite lucky in that regard. I haven't had too many of those experiences.

Right, and having John Adams conduct your work is not something most conductors would complain about.

DB: No, exactly. That was fantastic.

Is there anyone that you really want to work with that you haven't yet?

DB: There are a lot of conductors, there are a lot of performers that I admire. The list would be too long... I don't know if I would want to name anybody in particular, but yeah, lots of people, lots of different people.

Daniel Bjarnason's Over Light Earth is out now via Bedroom Community