As a core member of the Bedroom Community label, Daníel Bjarnason has been composing music that stretches and warps the concepts and expectations towards what is considered “classical music.” His 2010 debut album, ‘Processions,’ is a work that is at once both visceral and intimate, held together with highly complex structures of breath-taking virtuosity.
Who: Daníel Bjarnason
Where: Harpa Kaldalón
When: Friday, November 1 at 23:20.
Daníel Bjarnason seeks to bring new ways of to how we approach and listen to classical music.
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As a core member of the Bedroom Community label, Daníel Bjarnason has been composing music that stretches and warps the concepts and expectations toward what is considered “classical music.” His 2010 debut album, ‘Processions,’ is a work that is at once both visceral and intimate, held together with highly complex structures of breath-taking virtuosity. He has also worked closely with label mate Ben Frost, on 2011’s ‘Solaris,’ (Inspired by the 1972 sci-fi film of the same name) and on the soundtrack to the Icelandic film ‘Djupið,’ (Also in collaboration with Frost). He has also composed individual works such as ‘The Isle Is Full Of Noises,’ influenced by the Shakespeare play, ‘The Tempest.’
This September saw the release of Daníel’s second solo album, ‘Over Light Earth.’ Containing three segments based on early works and influenced by the New York school of painters, the album refines the music seen in ‘Processions’ with recording and production techniques that seek to shape orchestral music into new, innovative forms.
The Grapevine met with Daníel to discuss his work and creative process, as well as his preparations for this year’s Airwaves.
On ‘Over Light Earth,’ the self-titled first section was apparently inspired by the New York School of painters in particular, Rothko’s No. 9 (Dark Over Light Earth), and Jackson Pollock’s Canvas No. 1 1949. What was it about these two pictures that inspired you?
Well it happened that I was in LA on another project, just as I was starting work on this piece, but was only at the time thinking about what I should do. But right across the street from Disney Hall, where the piece was going to premiered is MOCA (The Museum Of Contemporary Art), and my hotel was also right next to that. And when I was in the frame of mind where I was thinking about the pieces, I was spending a lot of time in there.
The two artworks themselves are very different aren’t they? The Rothko piece is a classic of abstract impressionism, while the Pollock piece is very dense and furious.
Well I had seen both those paintings before, but when I saw those two at that moment and the way they were presented, I was more receptive to them, especially the Pollock painting. But I will say that it wasn’t that I was in the museum looking for something specifically to make music to, it’s was just a case of catching something at the right time.
I then came back to Reykjavik and I was still thinking about those paintings. I found myself looking at other works from that period and I found myself becoming extremely connected to them.
‘Over Light Earth’ is markedly different from other classical recordings in that it was recorded with the use of close miking and studio multitracking. Why did you feel you had to go down this method as opposed to the traditional way of recording classical music?
Well it’s a couple of things actually. We started this method of recording on “Bow To String,” (From ‘Processions’) with a single cello and then layering stuff on top of the original sound. This made it possible to do things that you can’t with traditional recordings. You can really delve into certain sounds, in that you can isolate, amplify, and filter them, etc. It´s essentially a different approach for classical music that’s considered normal in almost every other genre in music; that the album is the album, and the live performance is a separate thing. They don’t have to be the same. Most classical music that’s recorded is a representation of a live experience even though ironically most live performances for recording are edited quite a lot.
Listening to ‘Over Light Earth’ you can hear a lot of the played action of the instruments close up. The scratching of the string instruments, to the hammer of the piano keys hitting the notes. Were you trying to get a more natural feel into the music, to make it feel more “alive”?
Yeah, in a way. I was trying to get more into the actual sounds that each instrument can make and be able to play with effects such as studio panning, so you can focus in and out of certain groups of instruments. Someone described it to me like being a fly that could fly around the different instruments and being able to hear different sounds at different times.
The third passage of the album, “Solitudes,” is one of your earliest composed pieces. Why, for this album, did you decide to return to this piece? I understand that Ben and Valgeir (Sigurðsson) reworked the music a bit.
Funnily it was the first thing of mine that I recorded with Valgeir, around four or five years ago. We were originally going to put it out as the first album, but then I wrote ‘Processions’ and it was decided that we would go with that instead, as it would be too much having two piano concertos in the album.
But when we were putting together ‘Over Light Earth,’ we were looking for a third piece, and we went back to these original works and started working on them a bit more. We found that these pieces themselves started to make sense when we treated them the same way as the other pieces in the album. Then the idea came that we would go at it with a slightly different approach in using more electronic instrumentation.
The electronic aspect is VERY subtle in a way. I can at times just hear Ben’s guitar drift in and out of certain passages.
Oh yeah, it’s very subtle and people will have to listen very hard to hear it. The stuff that Valgeir and Ben do on this piece is quite specific.
When I interviewed Valgeir for Iceland Airwaves last year, we talked about the collaborative nature of how you make music within the Bedroom Community. You’ll come up with an idea, and then one or more of the others will come in with suggestions and input.
Well, the collective aspect was how we recorded it rather than what we recorded. I will say though that with the “Solitudes” passage, there was a little more input from the guys in what was recorded.
How has working in the Bedroom Community changed your approach to making music?
For me, the main thing I’ve found that has changed is the whole process of just being in the studio with Valgeir and seeing how he approaches music, as well as the appetite in me growing in trying out new ways of recording music and using the studio. I think that because of this, I now feel more comfortable in using the desk and because of this, the next album I’m going to do will be more different to what I’ve done before.
So how different are we talking about here?
Well I’ll be using a much smaller ensemble, as most of the pieces I’ve composed in the past, such as “Bow to String,” have been for much larger orchestras. Because it’ll be a much smaller setup, we can perform the pieces in a live setting more often. And I’ll be approaching the instruments and how they sound can be manipulated in a different way… I can’t exactly describe what it is because I still have to go through the process of actually making it, but I know that there are ways of approaching the recording that I want to do.
In terms of collaborating, you’ve worked together a lot with Ben, working together on the soundtrack to the film ‘Djupið,’ and more significantly the piece inspired by the 1972 film ‘Solaris.’ How did the project start?
It was a commission from the Unsound Festival in Poland. Mat (Schulz, the festival organiser), discussed aspects of it with Ben and they came up with the initial idea together, but then the ideas around it started to change and then I got involved. Through various morphing processes, it became the project that ended up with the soundtrack.
What was your knowledge of ‘Solaris’ beforehand? Had you seen the film before?
I actually hadn’t seen it! When the project approached, I watched it through once, and when Ben and I met up, we watched the film through twice, two days in a row. While we were watching it, we started our improv sessions, where all the music for the piece basically came from. After those sessions, we let the material lie for a long time, and then we came back to it and started editing away what was good and what was bad. At that point we had no idea what pieces would fit to what scenes of the movie. We decided early on that we weren’t going to approach it linearly like you would normally do with a movie soundtrack.
So it was similar to ‘Over Light Earth,’ in that you were asking what does the movie represent and can we represent those themes in a musical form?
Yeah, for us the movie was a starting point, and was more of a conversation between the two works. We never actually watched the movie again after we finished those improv sessions.
Really? I and many other people would assume that you spent a lot of time delving into the movie and its themes.
Well, while we were making the music, we both approached the movie very deeply, if only for a short, focused session of time. Having said that, if we didn’t have the movie with us during those sessions, the music probably would have been completely different in terms of pacing and atmosphere.
You then ended up putting the music through specialised editing software. What was the thinking behind that?
Well it was an interesting decision to use it. The melodyne software we used is a bit like black magic, a black box of sorts. You put stuff in and stuff comes but it’s a mystery how it works! We were just trying figuring out how the software works and we put the music we made through the improvised session through it, but the outputs it produced brought up all kinds of wrong notes.
You can definitely hear some wrong notes and harmonics in the finished piece.
Some of that had to do with the accuracy of the software as well as the preparation of the piano. Because we prepared the piano, it was giving off weird harmonics, so the software didn’t know what was being played, which really fucked up the readings. This kind of made it both interesting, and a lot more complicated at the same time. In the end, I ended up using some of the results it provided into the final version of the score.
I also have to say that I found you and Ben’s recreation of one of the scenes in ‘Solaris’ for the cover of the album was rather touching. It seemed like a tender moment.
Ha ha! Well it was kind of a little joke on our part, but the thing is that I really liked the picture; we both looked good in it!
One thing I find with “avant garde” music is that many people have a hard time following or processing what is happening, but when you have composers like yourself making soundtracks for film using many avant garde techniques such as processed pianos, they seem to be much more receptive to it when it´s combined with a visual aspect.
Well there is a bit of truth to that, and I guess that is a good thing. People seem to be much more receptive to the music when they are watching something on the screen. The thing is though, I do want people to listen to my music and not think of it as a secondary “distraction,” although admittedly to ask people to commit fully to the music like that can be a tough ask.
I do think though that we presuppose too much to what people can accept and take in with music. And because it’s been like that for so long, especially when people from labels and marketing concentrate so much on the boxes and styling, that it can be hard for the artist to break out of that. But with something like Bedroom community the emphasis is more on curating different types of artists but concentrating on a certain type of aesthetic to the music that people can link in to.
You wrote recently in Gramophone magazine about how Iceland fosters such creativity from its musicians and from the setup of its music schools. Can you tell us a bit more about what why you think Iceland is so well suited in this way?
Well I wrote about how there is a slightly different mentality in Iceland towards making music, and the fact that you have a lot of direct access to people and facilities means that you can get a lot of experience that you normally wouldn’t get in a lot of other places. What happens in Iceland would be much more difficult in a larger society.
There’s been a lot of discussion about how the state funds the arts as well as the need for state involvement in national culture and art itself.
For me I think it’s absolutely vital that they keep the structure of the music schools healthy, that every kid that wants to learn music has the ability to, not just those who come from good neighbourhoods. And that this setup is properly integrated into the school system because that is of such key importance for young people to just get access to music instruments and teaching no matter the type of music.
So you weren’t too impressed when the current government made the announcement of cuts to the arts in this year’s budget?
I just find it extremely short sighted, and it’s not looking at the bigger picture. For example, with the film industry Iceland, if you cut that not only will you be killing the industry, you will simply lose money in general as, with other professions, the local expertise and know how at hand will simply leave and go elsewhere, and big budget films simply won´t come to Iceland, if there is not industry for them to work with.
With Airwaves approaching, how are you approaching it for this year? Will it be any different to your regular performances?
I haven’t quite worked out what I´m going to play yet. The set will contain some of the music from the album, but not all of it though as it will be way to complex. You’d need 50 people, and you will also need to prepare the piano and it´s hard in a festival like this to be able to do that sort of thing. So it will be myself and a small group, around seven or so people. For this set, I’ve been making these arrangements, to cut the number of people needed down, and I find that quite interesting to make the music work in a different situation.
See also: Daníel Bjarnason Interviews Vök