“It’s a terribly strange job, to be honest,” Daníel Bjarnason finally says, after a long pause. He is staring straight ahead, brow furrowed, in deep contemplation. “I don’t think people understand conductors very well at all, especially in this country. I wish they would.”
The fêted Icelandic composer and conductor is on the cusp of releasing ‘Collider,’ his third album of commissioned works and his first outright solo album in five years, aside from the soundtrack for ‘Under The Tree.’ The album is comprised of three works originally commissioned for American ensembles from 2011-2015, and reinterpreted and recorded by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and Hamrahlíð Choir during Daníel’s three-year stint as the ISO’s artist in residency.
On this day, however, the conversation veers from his new album—a piece commissioned by Bryce Dessner for the Cincinnati MusicNOW festival—to the physical and psychological constitution of a good conductor.
“There are so many different things that go into being a good conductor, and being a good conductor is probably one of the hardest jobs in the world,” he says. “You have to have an amazing knowledge of the music. You have to know the instruments. You have to understand composition. But you also have to get people on your side, at least nowadays because being a tyrant isn’t really an option anymore. You need to be convincing. You need to be able to communicate what you want to a large group of people who have their own opinion, and are expert musician that have spent thousand of hours honing their craft. And they have to trust you. And then you also have to be able to communicate with your body, at least if you’re going to be a good conductor.”
A vast organism
He acknowledges the rather opaque and ephemeral nature of the work, particularly from the audience’s perspective, as seemingly not relating between physical movement and the sounds produced. “Sometimes when you watch it, it may look like the conductor is doing this big thing and the orchestra is not playing on his big thing, but it’s the relationship between the written music on the page, time and movement that they will understand,” he says. “Sometimes the conductor can dance and the orchestra can just play, but sometimes the orchestra depends for its life on what the conductor does. Very often.”
He admits that his fine tuning as a conductor has now rendered him to the point
that he often can’t switch off his working brain when listening to music or
watching an orchestra and is somewhat always in research mode.
“It’s just a joy of bringing something to life that you care about and then hopefully other people will care about as well,” he adds. “Sometimes you have to work hard and you have to be demanding, of course, but it all comes from a place of excitement. An orchestra is such a crazy thing. There are so many possibilities. It’s such a vast organism.”
Daníel Bjarnason’s new album ‘Collider’ comes out on October 26th on Bedroom Community.