Jóhann Jóhannsson: Virðulegu forsetar

Gorgeous swells of horns proclaim an opening theme, followed by faint wavering chords over an organ pedal-point drone. Sound familiar? While it might be impossible to hear Virðulegu forsetar at first without echoes of Also sprach Zarathustra intruding, Strauss's work, with its solemn yet dramatic declamatory fanfares, is of an entirely different character. Performed by the Caput ensemble (four trumpets, four horns, tuba, two organs, bass, glockenspiels, bells, and the composer's piano and electronics), Jóhannsson's hour-long piece, by contrast, shares the elegiac beauty of its Touch precursor Englabörn while eschewing the brevity of its miniatures for a glacial pace; the work unfurls so slowly one might miss the fact that the tempo gradually slows down before picking up again in the middle. The mood is funereal yet not depressing, the atmosphere calm. In short, if Strauss's work celebrates the Nietzschean Superman, Jóhannsson's invokes the Theme of Eternal Recurrence.

Much like Gavin Bryars' The Sinking of the Titanic (minus its aquatic sonic dimension), Virðulegu forsetar achieves pathos and stateliness without lapsing into maudlin sentimentality. Rather than developing as one might expect, Jóhannsson's opening section repeats throughout with subtle variations in instrumentation. Not only does it cycle in a manner that recalls Titanic, but like it too additional sounds (sparse glockenspiel accents and electronic effects) are integrated subtly. In Part Two, pianissimo horns are joined by soft bell strikes while later creaks and groans suggest early morning sounds one might hear at a harbour. It's 'ikonic,' also, in a way that recalls John Tavener's similarly 'static' works; you'll hear little by way of conventional narrative development or rising-falling arcs (even if the addition of a piano chord, for instance, creates contrast from one section to another).

That the piece was debuted in Hallgrimskirkja, a large church in Reykjavik, is significant given the music's 'architectural' quality. For its live performance and recording, players and organs were placed at the front and back of the church to create an immersive, spatial sound. While Jóhannsson considers it wrong to judge the piece meditative and ambient (since he contends it's more about chaos and tension), its open-endedness accommodates both impressions even if its peaceful qualities seem more pronounced. Note that the package includes two discs, one a conventional CD and the other a hybrid DVD-Audio disc featuring an enhanced suround mix. The DVD portion of the latter, however, essentially comprises a still photograph of a tiny bird that gradually fades from view against a static background—a subtle visual gesture whose almost imperceptible transitions mirror the work itself.

December 2004