Drone Mass

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Design by Florian Karg.

You’d think someone would have used the title Drone Mass prior to this new release but it seems not. The album is the premiere recording of a late composition by Jóhann Jóhannsson, performed by the composer’s regular collaborators in the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, together with Theatre of Voices and their conductor Paul Hillier. The album title and the presence of a choral group raises expectations of a religious Mass but John Schaefer’s notes draw attention to the title’s ambiguities, Jóhannsson having said that he was thinking as much about airborne drones as sustained sounds. (The Khephri scarab on the cover has a rather drone-like appearance.) Schaefer also notes that the word “mass” can refer to physical substance as well as religious ritual.

As to the substance of the music, there is a superficially religious quality to the first two pieces, a feature deceptive enough to make the album the kind of thing I’d like to play to the unsuspecting. Without knowing what to expect you could easily imagine the rest of the suite developing like an Arvo Pärt composition (and Theatre of Voices/Paul Hillier have performed Pärt on several occasions) until you reach the dissonant waves of the third piece, Triptych In Mass, after which various electronic rumbles and distortions arrive to take the album into a very different sphere. One of the pleasures of Jóhannsson’s compositions was this juxtaposition between the familiar structures and instruments of classical composition with sounds processed by computer software. The combination isn’t exactly new, Edgard Varèse was doing the same as far back as the 1930s (he also discussed his music in terms of “sound masses”), but in 20th-century examples the orchestral component is always striving to seem as fresh and as different as the electronics genuinely were. What you didn’t get then—because any such music would have been deemed old-fashioned or even reactionary—is this blending of traditional chords and harmonies with sounds that originate in the latest digital processes. After the release of Last And First Men I hadn’t been expecting any new Jóhannsson compositions (although previously unreleased soundtracks keep turning up) so this is all very welcome.

If you’ve looked at Florian Karg’s cover and are wondering what any of the above has to do with Ancient Egypt, an explanation may be found inside the album where a photo shows the 2015 premiere performance of Drone Mass taking place outside the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. That bright yellow Deutsche Grammophon logo has become something to watch for in recent years. The DG cartouche has always been a trademark of quality where classical recordings are concerned but the label has a somewhat broader remit today, releasing many more soundtrack albums than they would have done in the past, in addition to non-soundtrack works by Jóhann Jóhannsson, Max Richter and others. Oddly enough (considering the news last week), the new direction was begun by Vangelis in 1985 when his Invisible Connections album was released on DG instead of its pop sibling, Polydor. This was very surprising at the time even though the label had been releasing avant-garde compositions for many years; the first Stockhausen album I bought in 1981 was a secondhand DG release of Mikrophonie I & II. Some of the recent remixes of old Berlin Philharmonic recordings will have set Herbert von Karajan spinning in his sarcophagus but the label hasn’t pushed things too far in that direction, and if the poppier works pay for new recordings such as this one then I’m not complaining.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Jóhannssonia
Last and First Men

Weekend links 608

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The Temple, an illustration from The Ship that Sailed to Mars (1923) by William Timlin.

• “With the grotteschi, Piranesi produced hybrid forms of ornament juxtaposed in an array without regard to single-point perspective. With his capricci, he brought disparate structures into a landscape that existed only within the borders of the plate. Perhaps because of his early fidelity to accuracy and the long tradition of printmaking as a medium for the measured representation of antique forms, Piranesi’s capricci take on a particularly fantastic aura.” Susan Stewart on the ruinous fantasias of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, one of whose etchings happens to be providing the page header this month.

• At Dangerous Minds: 23rd Century Giants, the incredible true story of Renaldo & The Loaf! Oliver Hall conducts a long and very informative interview with two of Britain’s strangest music makers.

• New music: Nightcrawler by Kevin Richard Martin, recommended to anyone who enjoys the nocturnal doom of Bohren & Der Club Of Gore; and Murmurations by Lea Bertucci & Ben Vida.

“Throughout the book, McCarthy writes as if he knows something that more conventional historians aren’t always keen to accept: that the past doesn’t always make sense, that it’s often cruel and irrational, and that some things aren’t so explainable. History is not a book waiting to be opened so much as a Pandora’s box that might curse us and leave us chastened by what we find inside.”

Bennett Parten on Cormac McCarthy’s baleful masterpiece, Blood Meridian

• “Inside me are two wolves and they are both paintings by Kazimierz Stabrowski.” S. Elizabeth‘s latest art discoveries.

• At Wormwoodiana: Mark Valentine on Arthur Machen and the mysteries of the Grail.

• RIP Betty Davis and Douglas Trumbull.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Tobe Hooper Day.

Temple Bells (1959) by Frank Hunter And His Orchestra | Temple Of Gold (1960) by Les Baxter | Temple (2018) by Jóhann Jóhannsson

Weekend links 586

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Cover by Gordon Ertz for The Inland Printer, June 1916.

• “I worry that enthusiasm is being mistaken for a moral virtue, and negative criticism for a character flaw.” Dorian Lynskey on the dying art of the hatchet job. Also a reminder (not that we require it) that the word “fan” in this context has always been an abbreviation of “fanatic”.

• Culture.pl explores the work of Stanislaw Lem, the science-fiction writer “whose works, abilities and quirky sense of humor convinced Philip K. Dick that he was too brilliant to exist and must have actually been a committee of people”.

• The electronic music of Paul Schütze receives a reappraisal on Phantom Limb in November with a compilation album, The Second Law.

Aliya Whiteley on Amanita Muscaria, the hallucinogenic mushroom seen in hundreds of fairy-tale illustrations.

• Stuart Firestein talks to Roger Payne about changing the world’s attitude to whales by recording their songs.

• Jennifer Lucy Allan talks to Sam Underwood about his unique Acoustic Modular Synth.

Jóna G. Kolbrúnardóttir sings Odi Et Amo from Englabörn by Jóhann Jóhannsson.

• A forthcoming release on Dark Entries: Back Up: Mexican Tecno Pop 1980–1989.

• Luc Sante looks at Jim Jarmusch’s collages.

John Grant‘s favourite albums.

• RIP Michael Chapman.

• The Divination Of The Bowhead Whale (1978) by David Toop & Max Eastley | Keflavik: The Whale Dance (1980) by Richard Pinhas | Ballet For A Blue Whale (1983) by Adrian Belew

Hands with a mind of their own

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My weekend viewing included two films based on The Hands of Orlac (1920), a novel by Maurice Renard. This is one of those books that remains little read and seldom discussed even though its central idea—a concert pianist injured in a train wreck is given the hands of an executed murderer in a transplant operation—has prompted many film adaptations, almost enough to make the novel the origin of a sub-genre of hand-transplant horror. Robert Wiene’s The Hands of Orlac was the first screen adaptation made in 1924, and is another in the long list of silent films I’ve known about for decades but had to wait until now to see. The film is notable for reuniting the director of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari with Conrad Veidt, the actor who portrayed Caligari’s murderous somnambulist, Cesare, in a mute role that mostly required stalking around acutely-angled sets in a black body stocking.

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The Hands of Orlac: Paul Orlac (Conrad Veidt) is besieged by nightmares in his colossal hospital room.

Veidt has much more to do as the lead in The Hands of Orlac, giving a suitably tormented performance as the pianist convinced that his new hands retain the violent impulses of their former owner. The acting from Veidt and Alexandra Sorina as Orlac’s wife, Yvonne, is often wildly emotive, surprisingly so for a film made near the end of the silent era when the mannerisms of early silent pictures were being replaced by greater naturalism. Lotte Eisner in The Haunted Screen explains this in terms of the Expressionist influence which was still prevalent in German cinema, and which extends beyond lighting and set design. A scene in which Orlac is overwhelmed by his predicament is described by Eisner as “an Expressionist ballet”; when Orlac holds a dagger aloft this becomes an unmistakable mirroring of a climactic moment in Caligari.

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Continue reading “Hands with a mind of their own”

Jóhannssonia

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Looking around at the weekend for Jóhann Jóhannsson concerts turned up a few freely available recordings plus a two-hour mix by the composer that I hadn’t come across before. I must have about three quarters of the Jóhannsson discography on disc by now but a handful of rarities remain stubbornly out of reach. Discoveries like this help me resist the temptation to consider spending £150 on a secondhand copy of End Of Summer, a CD/DVD recording of a Jóhannsson collaboration with Hildur Gudnadóttir and Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe. Given Jóhannsson’s reputation, and that of Hildur Gudnadóttir who worked with him on other albums, I’d be surprised if some of these scarce recordings weren’t reissued eventually.

KEXP (2010).
Jóhannsson with the Acme String Quartet in a 36-minute session for the Seattle radio show. The ensemble perform five pieces which include a version of Flight From The City six years before its appearance on the Orphée album. Also two compositions that are only available on singles or compilation albums, Tu Non Mi Perderai Mai and Corpus Camera.

FatCat Podcast #66—The Miners’ Hymns live at Winter Gardens (2012).
The Miner’s Hymns was a score for a Bill Morrison documentary about the mining communities of North East England for which Jóhannsson used a range of brass instruments like those found in colliery bands. This is a live performance of the entire score by the Wordless Music Orchestra that accompanied a screening of the film in New York.

FACT Mix 527 (2015).
Linked here before, a 55-minute mix which includes a number of unsurprisingly sombre orchestral selections from Mihaly Vig, Gloria Coates and Witold Lutoslawski, together with two pieces by Meredith Monk. The latter point the way to the Monk-inflected vocalisations on the score for Arrival.

KEXP (2016).
A 50-minute session on video which includes more selections from the Orphée album. During the discussion interlude with Kevin Cole, Jóhannsson talks about his soundtrack work, including his score for Arrival.

Electronic Explorations 461 (2017).
A two-hour mix which repeats some of the FACT mix—Lutoslawski’s Funeral Music was evidently a favourite—and which also shows Jóhannsson’s sense of humour. Of all the many pieces he might have chosen by the early music historian David Munrow, the two recordings that open and close this mix are from Munrow’s unreleased score for John Boorman’s Zardoz. Then a third of the way through there’s an abrupt transition from the droning doom of Sakrifis by Mohammad to Au Suivant by Jacques Brel, a song better known to Scott Walker and Alex Harvey listeners in its Mort Schuman translation, Next.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Last and First Men