Iceland Symphony Orchestra ~ Atmospheriques Vol. 1

The best thing about Atmospheriques Vol. 1 is that it is only the first installment.  With this set, Sono Luminus continues to shine a spotlight on Icelandic music, this time through the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, fresh from the success of triptych Recurrence, Concurrence and Occurrence.  Four of these five pieces come from Icelandic composers, the exception being Missy Missoli (U.S.); tonally, they are a match.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir (whose own CD is due next month on Sono Luminus) starts the set with the 21-minute title track.  This is enthralling music, but challenging, beginning with a foreboding series of glitterings and glissandos.  Four minutes in, the first inkling of a melody appears in skeletal ivory notes.  The brass processes like an advancing army.  The strings grow agitated, as if their hive has been attacked.  But then instead of advancing more, the music retracts, or more properly crouches, inviting the listener to lean in.  While reminiscent of a lurking cat, the prefix is cata-, suggesting a downward trajectory, darkened prospects, a descent.  While this bleakness may be gleaned in society, the interpretation is left to the listener, and the additional tracks extend its story past the last echoing note.

Missy Mazzoli‘s “Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres)” travels past the boundaries of Earth, adoptng a wide-angle approach.  An early glissando links the piece to the earlier track, leading in turn to a series of definitive brass notes, a rush of percussion and a gentle bell segment, gliding through the stars to experience sequential renditions of awe.  As the piece progresses, the sounds grow more definitive, even accessible, the percussion almost leading to euphoria yet retracting once more.  The clearest passage arrives at 7:53, just as the piece is ending: am arrival back at dock.

“From Space I Saw Earth” continues the theme, as conductor Daniel Bjarnason references Apollo astronauts.  The music twists and bends, surging in the center to a previously-unimagined height.  One imagines a shift in perspective, a recognition of commonalities instead of an exploitation of differences.  This macro view transcends borders, cultures and life itself, revealing only a ball of blue and green.  Triumphant tones appear toward the end, albeit slightly muted, as if to suggest that the epiphany has not yet arrived.  Dark notes dominate the eleventh minute, suggesting two paths diverging in the cosmological woods.

María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir‘s “Clockworking for Orchestra” (an earlier version found on Nordic Affect’s Clockworking, also on Sono Luminus) picks up the narrative thread, addressing permutations of time.  Humans have always sought to organize time, placing themselves at the center of Earth’s story despite the fact that they are a very recent addition.  “Clockworking” may suggest either forward progress or the Doomsday Clock, depending on how one receives it.  The soft tempo of the mid-section imitates a timepiece, while the rising xylophone melodies of the second half imply a decision made, a direction taken.

The CD’s press release asks, “Is Bára Gísladóttir’s ÓS gasping in air, or desperately exhaling?  The answer is likely: both.”  This concluding piece is the album’s shortest; in its early section, it’s also the album’s quietest, and in its later section, the album’s loudest.  As metal sheets are shaken and struck, one thinks of street protests and a commensurate rattling of sabres.  A mid-piece buzzing hearkens back to the opener; the collection, despite having five composers, has not forgotten its history.  As the metal returns, the album falls into silence, waiting to be broken, the last question being: by what?  (Richard Allen)

Available here (with sound sample)

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