I first encountered the work of Daníel Bjarnason in 2008, when I picked up a CD, unheard, in a Reykjavik shoppe. The suite “All Sounds to Silence Come” was immediately enthralling, and I suspected that the young composer might be the nation’s best kept secret. Soon afterward, the album Processions broke this secret to the world. This was followed by the intricate Solaris, recorded with Ben Frost. Frost is present here as well, as are Valgeir Sigurdsson and the Reykjavik Sinfonia. Bjarnason conducts the orchestra and plays piano and synths; Frost and Sigurdsson grace the final suite with processing and programming.
A good word to describe Over Light Earth is unrushed. Four years have passed since Processions, and in the interim, Bjarnason has been tested by fame and honed by collaboration. The influence of Solaris is clear on the new work; these pieces take time to develop and ignore linear progression. There may be nothing so immediate as “Sorrow Conquers Happiness” or “Spindrift” here, but the patient approach – from both composer and listener – makes this album a more consistent collection. Big moments still abound – explosions of brass, flourishes of strings – but quieter, subtler moments are also frequent, and the piano veers from contemplative to abstract. This is especially fitting as the paintings of Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock inspired the title track.
The two-movement “Over Light Earth” is an anticipatory piece that erupts briefly at 1:56 of the first movement, only to retreat again into a larger framework. Plaintive piano notes feed into a stream of brass, only to be beaten into submission by a large drum. The less percussive instruments bide their time, shy until the second movement, when the entire ensemble grows more active. One imagines the dancer on the cover (painted by Winston Chmielinski) racing to portray the myriad emotions as they unfold in turn. At exactly 4:30 (the exact midpoint) of this movement, a perfect chorus emerges, but is swallowed by silence only 15 seconds later, imitating Bjarnason’s inaugural work.
The complex, three part “Emergence” offers a series of harmonic convergences and divergences, a temporary separation of magnetic attractions. The first movement boasts an ironic title, “Silence”, and attempts to suggest silence through the sound of extended chords and trills. The brass-filled finale jolts the timbre into the opposing realm, offering an indelible sequence topped only by the blasts that conclude “Black Breathing”: two dark notes, in and out, like respiration.
“Solitudes”, originally Bjarnason’s first piano concerto, now includes added electronics from Frost and Sigurdsson and arrives in five movements. The most abstract, “Dance Around in Your Bones”, wanders in multiple directions like a drunken coquette, yet eventually lands on its feet as if it were sober all along. “Selge Ruh” offers a sense of the haunted sublime, while the closer “T’aint No Sin” toys with dramatic tension like a cat with a wounded mouse. With fierce intelligence confirmed, Bjarnason now seems primed for a romp through the rest of the 21st century. (Richard Allen)