The long goodbye to Jóhann Jóhannsson continues with the release of Drone Mass, commissioned by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble in 2015 and premiered by ACME and Roomful of Teeth under Jóhannsson’s direction. Inspired by Nag Hammadi texts, the work is rife with vowels, a reflection of the text, which delves into repetition as mantra. As such, the singing is percussive and ritualistic, although the music is often more modern composition than drone.
The vowels receive a rough translation: “who exists as Son for ever and ever. You are what you are, you are what you are.” This impressionistic segment was an inspiration for the artist, who occasionally found himself a victim of disenchantment. There is a slight discomfort at hearing such a work after the composer has left this mortal plane, but unlike his other post-mortem works, this one seems substantial and worthy. The earnest delivery and dramatic presentation reflect Jóhannsson’s creative fire.
“To Fold & Remain Dormant” contains the first segment that one might mark as pure drone, the introductory minutes virtually devoid of voice, the constant rustle and hum indicators of the tonal shift, reminiscent of the scarab beetle. The drone is then passed to the cellos and choir, the latter adopting the tone of Tibetan throat singers. The violin-laden “Divine Objects” adds voices as it transitions seamlessly into the following movement. The mass produces a feeling of reverence, fitting for the form, although questing, questioning, incomplete: a plea awaiting an answer.
“The Low Drone of Circulating Blood, Diminishes With Time” returns to the timbres of “To Fold,” adding glissandos that tail into the clouds. Chaos and order continue their conversation, reaching a tentative truce in the second half of “Take the Night Air.” All elements converge in the lengthy finale with the commensurate title “The Mountain View, The Majesty Of The Snow-Clad Peaks, From A Place Of Contemplation And Reflection.” Once again we are left saddened and stunned. Once again we wonder, “is this the last work we will hear from our beloved composer?” Once again, he speaks to us from the clouds, where perhaps his questions have been answered, his searching rewarded, his notes now the rain that falls from the sky, evaporates and falls again. (Richard Allen)