The inner sleeve appears to portray the artist striding from darkness into light, but look again; the inside of the hanger is illuminated, while the outdoor light is fading. The album was conceived during “the most extreme four years of Sigurðsson’s life”. One sees the struggle in the cover image and hears it in the grooves. On Dissonance, Valgeir Sigurðsson faces his demons while struggling for and finding a precarious balance. The next time he walks into that tunnel, he will do so with the weight of experience in his backpack.
Dissonance is a tale of two sides. Side A is a 23-minute piece, atonal at times, a reflection of its title that sounds more consonant the more it is played. Side B holds two multi-part pieces that operate as a reward: their very accessibility throws the first side into relief.
The unusual nature of “Dissonance” may prompt strong reactions. This experimental piece is a reflection of Sigurðsson’s penchant for taking apart the pieces of a recording and gluing them back together. The breaks never heal quite properly, nor are they meant to do so: there’s always a fracture line. In this instance, the source material is “a single moment from Mozart’s 1785 “Dissonance” string quartet”. This music is translated for the viola de gamba by Liam Byrne, then layered, amplified and enhanced. In the beginning, it sounds like a tuning orchestra, but by the final three minutes, one can hear the frets enhanced by rhythmic tapping, and thrill in the rapture of harmonic convergence. The liner notes note that the world is “collapsing under its own internal dissonances”; the composition is both a reflection of this world and an arrow of trajectory, pointing to the healing of wood and bone.
The hard part over, Sigurðsson turns to the Reykjavik Sinfonia for his second and third pieces. “No Nights Dark Enough” is dedicated to English composer John Dowland, while its titles quote his “Flow My Tears”. This quadryptic is slow and moody to start, strings gathering force like an amassing army. By the end of the first movement, the melodies are already beginning to leak through the cracks like rising weeds. One can’t stop them; it’s like trying to hold back a season. They reach their highest peak early in “infamy sings”, before finding themselves dotted with electronics in “fear and grief and pain”. The latter track brings to mind a mirror image of the Scriptural passage, if the light in you is darkness, how terribly dark it will be. This darkness appears in bright tones, defying expectation. Whether one interprets these melodies as threatening or comforting may depend on the listener ~ Dowland was known for both melancholy and beauty, so either reaction is plausible.
Finally Sigurðsson turns to a different area of history: Icelandic settlers in Canada. “1875” scores their ocean crossing and the early days of their wildy audacious lives. Fraught with drama and danger, this stellar three-part composition sounds in turn like a rogue wave, a polar bear, a crushing winter and the first appearance of the Northern Lights. There’s little time to rest, but the scope of the piece lends itself well to images of courage and perseverance. The frequent peaks call to mind the pace of a life in which every misstep might mean death; time and again the immediate threat is thwarted, only to be replaced by another. By the final brass blasts, one thinks of heroes and heroines, honed by disaster, ultimately triumphant. Their story is a reminder that the world has seen harsher times and endured. Dissonance may yet turn to consonance, chaos to order, conflict to peace, if only we can recall the lessons we’ve already learned. (Richard Allen)