There is something very calming about Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason. Daníel has just won the Harpa Award for his score in Icelandic movie ‘Under The Tree,’ which was described with great accuracy as “a physical assault on the cinematic viewer.
One could easily be forgiven for not recognising in his poised attitude the tumultuous energy of his music. Yet, it’s when we talk about composing that his impetuous nature finally becomes crystal clear.
Like a crime scene
“We wanted to give the music a strong character,” Daníel says of the score. “We didn’t want it to be an invisible part of the movie. It was more like painting with strong colours.” Indeed, with heavy melodies that capture the dramatic tension of the movie, the score of ‘Under The Tree’ moulds every figure and every scene, giving depth to emotions that can’t be expressed with words.
But he doesn’t stop there. Even when he composes for himself or for the Opera, Daníel doesn’t waste time with faded hues: instead, his music breathes dramatic life into any environment, closing in on the soul like a beautiful cage made of melodies. Despite the different kind of work involved in the two creative processes, it’s interesting to see that ‘Recurrence,’ his 2017 album with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, is as emotionally demanding as the score itself, dragging the listener into a raging storm of fear and beauty.
“As a composer, you are a sum of a lot of different things so you experience every piece in a different way,” Daníel explains. “Whether you’re making music for an abstract piece or a movie, you always try to push it in a unique direction, but your DNA always creeps in. It’s like a crime scene—you always leave some of your DNA behind. I can’t explain it better than why I am who I am.”
The many facets of composing
Daníel studied piano as a kid and began writing music when he was 17 years old, which ultimately led to conducting.
While these past few years he’s been working with symphony orchestras all over the world, Daníel seems to veer away from a classic stereotype of composer and conductor, taking on the most disparate projects that are making his music an integral part of contemporary culture.
However, it’s not just about the outcome: the creative process itself has many different facets, but Daníel seems to welcome every challenge with great passion. “When you’re making music for a concert or for a live setting the process is quite introverted,” he says. “You tend to go much more into yourself. In this sense, it’s more similar to writing a novel because it all comes from your mind.”
The universal and the personal
Adapting to someone else’s story, however, is much more of a collaborative project. Interpreting the piece becomes a twofold matter: it should mirror the story, but it should also feel personal. It’s this kind of project that Daníel finds particularly exciting, working with text and with people in a way that is not limiting.
Quite the contrary—it seems to draw him out of that universe of instrumental melodies, slowly descending to the particular, the personal, the individual. “I enjoy that kind of process—when you’re working much closer to people,” Daníel adds.
That’s why his score works so well with the movie: because it relies on the fine details of human connection. In the wild waves of his sound, fragments of personal life finally come together like a long-lost puzzle. It will undoubtedly be exciting to watch him paint the future with the same dramatic tension he’s well known for.
Daniel’s first ever opera will be performed in Harpa Concert Hall on June 9th during the 2018 Reykjavík Art Festival. Find tickets here.