While we haven’t finished saying goodbye to Jóhann Jóhannsson, we may have found his successor. Not that Rutger Hoedemaekers wanted to carry such a torch; he’d rather have his friend alive. The Age of Oddities pays tribute to the beloved composer, now three years gone, while laying a sonic template for what we hope will be a long and storied career.
The album was our pick of the season in Modern Composition in early January; now that winter is almost over, it’s safe to say it’s earned its crown. The music has staying power; the backstory is indelible; and the collaboration list is majestic. Leaving nothing to chance, Hoedemaekers teamed with the 23-strong Budapest Art Orchestra, along with Kira Kira, Else Torp, Laura Jansen, Morris Kliphuis, Hilary Jeffery, Una Sveinbjarnardóttir and Viktor Orri Árnason on vocals, horn, trombone and violin. Yet for all its seeming largesse, the timbre seems intimate, a reflection of Hoedemaeker’s late night solo studio sessions, where everything fell into place: quietly, reflectively, gratefully.
The album’s centerpiece, “The Invention of the Moon,” was performed at Jóhannsson’s memorial concert, and highlights themes of his oeuvre: the abraded, robotic voice of “The Sun’s Gone Dim and the Sky’s Turned Black,” the patient build, the measured pace, the sensitive strings, plucked directly from the heart. As the symphony rises in fullness and volume, one can imagine a soul ascending to the heavens. We suspect there was not a dry eye in the house; now people will be wiping away tears from home. What a gift to be remembered so well.
Yet Hoedemaekers has more on his mind that an individual elegy. The album remembers a single life, but expands into a wide array of overlapping grief. As the composer was mourning his friend, he was also mourning the state of the world, which continued to devolve while he set pen to paper, hands to ivory, bow to string. “There’s No Going Back, For Any Of Us” can be read in a multitude of manners. The music suggests pause, silence, reevaluation. This compositional theme finds fruition in “C.A.L.M.”, whose pauses recall the sonic spaces of Virðulegu Forsetar. Other titles border on the melancholy while underlining resilience and resolve. To quote Samuel Beckett, I can’t go on. You must go on. I’ll go on.
This is, as Lord Byron wrote, the age of oddities. There seems no way to sort the stories. The life expectancy for people of color has lowered by 2.7 years. A chicken nugget is launched into space. Windmills are blamed for power outages. An opposition leader is arrested. Sea shanties are back in style. Young people enhance the circles under their eyes. Who can measure the absurdity of it all? What sort of soundtrack might we prepare for a world without an identity?
Hoedemaekers chooses to land on the side of hope. “Ring Out the Darkness” references Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “In Memorium (Ring out, wild bells),” which seems oddly prescient:
Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.
Those bells ring out in the following piece, “Not For That Hour, Nor For That Place,” quoting the melancholic Wordsworth. And yet, despite such displacement of mind and soul, Hoedemaekers decides to step forth, called “for such a time as this.” “We Will Clamber Through the Clouds And Exist,” he concludes, trading Keats’ personal “I” for a “we” (found, not coincidentally, in a letter to Haydon that mentions the flight of Wordsworth). In a world of destruction, the very act of creating is an act of defiance. Can we reconcile the fact that Jóhannsson continues to inspire in despair? Or that the noble dead poets still speak? Or that such beauty can arise from grief? The album is large, but humble; pointed, yet subtle; measured, yet eloquent, imagining some new age yet to come: an age of wonders, resplendent, sublime. (Richard Allen)