Daníel Bjarnason

5 questions to Daníel Bjarnason (composer)

Daníel Bjarnason is an Icelandic composer, conductor and pianist who has worked with such varied artists as John Adams, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, the Britten Sinfonia, and post-rock band Sigur Rós, among others. Future premieres include an orchestral commission from Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic for its ’13-’14 concert season. Bjarnason’s second solo album, entitled Over Light Earth, was released via Bedroom Community on September 30. Bjarnason will join Nadia Sirota, Valgeir Sigurðsson, Paul Corley and others for “An Evening With Bedroom Community” at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City on October 28.

In terms of structure and gravitas, much of your work in [your debut album] Processions, and in particular the compositions featured on Over Light Earth suggest an interest in exploring the symphony and concerto as forms. Is this an accurate assessment?

I don’t know if I’m really that conscious about it. I think I definitely do sort of approach the medium differently–obviously–than if it were a solo piano piece, or whatever… I think in a way, the bigger the forces get, the timescale changes in a way. It becomes a little bit zoomed out. So things work in a different way than they do in chamber music or solo music….

[I love] super short movements and really compact ideas, and [a kind of] Webern, early Schoenberg approach. Almost like a haiku, you know; it’s so understated, so short that it’s there and you see it and it leaves a lot of space around it, but it doesn’t get followed up and followed through. And at the opposite end, sometimes [the movements] end up actually much longer than I originally intend them to be.

Daníel Bjarnason

Daníel Bjarnason

While the emotional tenors of both Processions and Over Light Earth appear to emanate from similar places, the latter has a grander scope that feels all-encompassing. What would you characterize as the point of divergence between the two records?

Obviously with the exception of the last piece on the record, [“Solitudes”], which is actually an older piece, it has to do a lot with the pieces of both “Over Light Earth” and “Emergence” being orchestral pieces, as opposed to “Bow to String” and “Processions,” which are essentially concertos. So I think [they’re] a little bit more on the sleeve, if that makes sense…  There’s a different approach to the expression involved. For me at least, on “Over Light Earth” and “Emergence,” I’m approaching it in a slightly different way just because there was a need for me to do that. It’s a little bit more closed off emotionally or expressionally [sic]; it’s more about texture and sound and it’s more focused. Each movement is more focused, less Mahler-esque–it’s more condensed.

The composition “Over Light Earth” was written in response to paintings by Rothko and Pollock respectively. Is there something about abstract expressionist art that lends itself to interpretation in your soundworld?

There is. I don’t know if I can explain very well what it is, but I feel very drawn to that period and those particular artists–a lot of them. In a way, it sort of gives me the same feeling as listening to the early Webern free atonal pieces, which for me is his most interesting period (and Schoenberg too), where it’s just this amazing creative freedom that has gone away from harmony but it has still not become rigid…. It’s good to have a certain framework in your mind, but when that becomes restricting it’s really important that you let go of it, I think. It’s a lot about just trusting your natural insights;musical insights as regards to balance, form, and structure.

Is “Over Light Earth” a kind of translation of the visual language, or is it more a reflection on your emotional response to the paintings?

It’s the latter I would say, definitely. It’s not at all supposed to try and be like a direct translation or depiction of those paintings, and I hope people don’t think of it like that. It’s more of a sort of conversation or reaction to those paintings.

The musical lexicon you’re using seems to operate in a space somewhere between Boulezian atmospherics and colors and the dark Romantic lyricism of Mahler, whom you mentioned before. Do you see your music as explicitly or inherently communicative?

Yes, absolutely I do. I think that’s actually quite important for me that it is. The question is maybe Who is the audience it communicates with?…I’d like to think at least that I’m sort of working within a language that is understandable but maybe not completely easily accessible–but still very understandable to most people…. I was most interested in music that sort of took you immediately by the hand and told you, “Follow me.”

For more information about Daníel Bjarnason: http://danielbjarnason.net
For more about the album Over Light Earth: http://www.bedroomcommunity.net/releases/overlightearth