Q&A with Danel Bjarnason: Yes, he really can just call up Björk


As of late, the country that gave us Björk and Sigur Rós has also been able to boast about its buoyant classical-music scene, thanks in part to the Bedroom Community label. One of its latest releases, composer-conductor Daneíl Bjarnason's Processions, is a honey of an album. Bjarnason fuses influences from Sigur Rós (for whose Abbey Road recording of ra btur Bjarnason led the London Sinfonietta and London Oratory Boy's Choir) and Jón Leifs (Iceland's answer to Aaron Copland) to create a sound that comes eerily close to defining classical music's undefinable brave new world.

Together with his Bedroom Community comrade Sam Amidon, Bjarnason will celebrate the stateside release of his debut album with a concert on Wednesday (March 3) at (Le) Poisson Rouge, joining forces with Efterklang for one triple threat of an evening. Over an energizing coffee, we had an equally energizing conversation.

Iceland is sort of like Europe's final frontier: an island farther north and farther west than most of the rest of the continent. What's the music scene like there?
Like you say, sometimes it's like we're straddling two worlds, because we're in Europe and America. But we get a lot of influences, and have them from both sides. Reykjavik is [more] like a small town, but it feels like a big city because there's a lot going on there. It's almost perfect, the size of it, because you have access to everybody in all genres doing everything. And you probably know them anyway, so it's easy—it's very easy—to do whatever you want to do. If you want to work with someone, you can just call them or say, "Hey, let's try doing this or that." It's a melting pot in many ways. Like New York.

And you can just call up Björk.
I could, yeah.... I think the Icelandic music scene is incredibly vibrant, especially when you think of how small it is. And I can't really say it's because of this or because of that.

It must be something in the Brennivn.
I guess it must be!

Did you grow up in a musical household?
I started learning piano when I was six...I wasn't like a prodigy kid or anything like that. I was actually more into sports. And then I stopped playing piano when I was 10 or 11 for a few years, and I started again when I was 15. But then I was hooked. By the time most people were going away from it, I was back in. I stopped playing soccer.

What were your musical influences?
Well, I listened to David Bowie, Duran Duran...pop music, rock music, also classical. My mom was a big opera lover. I loved Mozart when I was a kid, but I didn't have this classical upbringing where I was always listening to classical music. I listened more to mainstream.

Which is nice to bring into classical—and very noticeable in your album. "Processions," especially, seems to layer influences from Bach, Liszt and Rachmaninoff, for starters. But it also tempers that with pop or rock idioms, pushing classical into a new century.
I don't really even think about that consciously. I think it's just normal. It's just my musical language because that's what I listened to always. I'm glad you said that, but it's not a conscious thing I do.

Let's talk a bit about the genesis of Processions. How did the compositions come about?
["Bow to String"] came about because my friend Sunn Thorsteinsdttir asked me to write this solo cello piece, which I didn't want to do. So I ended up just writing more and more. It became this multilayered thing. At the same time, I realized I could do something I'd wanted to do for a long time, which was to make this sort of sequenced recording of an instrument where you break it into its particles almost, and work on the sound on a timeline, like you would do with electronic music. So in the first movement especially, that's very true. That was two things coming in at once: me chickening out of writing a solo piece and wanting to do this layered thing.

It sounds like an entire orchestra of cellos.
It's like 70 to 80 voices.

How does that work in the concert hall?
It doesn't. I just wrote a new version that will be heard at (Le) Poisson Rouge. That's the practical version of the piece. It's not a lesser version. I think the one that's on the CD, that's the one on the CD. And I also like the idea that, in classical music especially, you have the CD, which doesn't mean that it's exactly the same as what you're going to hear in the concert. That's the CD version and you use technology to make it that version. And then you have the acoustic. You get that all the time in pop. You never go in [to a concert] and expect to hear exactly what you heard on the CD—you'd be disappointed almost, and think, Is this playback? [The genesis of] "Processions" was a bit different. That was a big commission to write a piano concerto. So that was a more traditional thing for me that took a long time to write. It brings together a lot of things I'd been doing up to that point. But the last movement of that was written around the same time as the first movement to "Bow to String," so they're like brother and sister almost.

You mentioned in an earlier interview that you don't compose with a narrative arc in mind. Yet they're rife with imagery. Would it be safe to call your pieces 21st-century tone poems?
I don't mind you saying that. As a composer I'm just closer to that kind of narrative style than I am to a more structured style. Even though the first movement has the structure [of a concerto], it's not something that I think of beforehand...I very often get people coming and saying they had this strong visual, a spark of imagination, while listening. They're given ideas. So in that way I guess it does inspire some narrative thinking. [The compositional process] is very chaotic. It's very hard to describe. For each piece, I start, somehow, with a feeling that I want to express, or an emotional state I want to have. More than anything else, I have this idea of what I want to feel like. But in the second movement of "Processions," I envisioned this celestial organ, a majestic sort of thing, and I just go in and look for something like that. I follow some sort of feeling that I have and try to get close to it. And then it ends up being completely different, but at least that's where I go.

With that in mind, you really can reach the audience only on a level of visual sparks.
Yeah. If it has worth—if the emotional cell is strong enough—then it will always come through. It will always resonate.