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From Earth to Ether

Daníel Bjarnason

From Earth to Ether

Jakob Kullberg, Karin Torbjörnsdóttir, Aarhus Symphony Orchestra, Philip Larkin

»Power, precision and personality« Gramophone Magazine

There is an evaporating quality to the music of Icelandic composer and conductor Daníel Bjarnason, with sounds that can start softly or loudly, serenely or fiercely, but ultimately dissipate into intangible air. This album, conducted by Bjarnason himself, showcases these characteristics in captivating new versions of three works that in turn offer mesmerising transformations, ephemeral trembling sounds, and poignant reflections on the fleeting nature of companionship and love.

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Daniel Bjarnason © Saga Sig
Power, precision and personality: leading Icelandic conductor Daníel Bjarnason confirms his parallel credentials as a composer
Andrew Mellor, Gramophone
Bjarnason conducts his pieces transparently, with great lightness and mastery of the excellent sonorities of the Danish orchestra
Carme Miró, Sonograma
Total runtime: 
46 min.
From Earth to Ether

By Tim Rutherford-Johnson

There is an evaporating quality to the music of Icelandic composer and conductor Daníel Bjarnason. It may begin quietly or loudly, calmly or violently; but eventually its sounds are brought to the edge of breaking up, of transforming into something less concrete, closer to air. In Over Light Earth they tremble before being dispersed to the far edges of the orchestra; over the three movements of Bow to String an insistently pounding passacaglia transforms into an exhale of frozen breath; and the three Larkin Songs dwell on the companionship and love that becomes a mirage even as we hold it in our arms.

It is tempting to attribute this vaporous nature to the landscapes of Bjarnason’s homeland: steam rising from volcanic fissures; the icy fogs of the North Atlantic; the Aurora borealis. But there is more to it than empty cliché. Over Light Earth provides a first clue. The work’s two movements are inspired by two masterpieces of American abstract expressionist painting: Mark Rothko’s No. 9 (Dark Over Light Earth) of 1954, and Jackson Pollock’s Number 1, 1949. It is a curious quality of abstract expressionism – and a key to its enduring appeal – that images that so foreground the practical actions of the artist on his canvas (Pollock’s drips and swirls, Rothko’s thick, uneven brushstrokes) should achieve such a powerfully spiritual quality, a shimmering mysticism.

It is often said that the rectangles of Rothko’s colour field paintings – like No. 9 – are both concrete and not. They clearly are rectangles, painted in bold, single colours, lined up and arranged one over the other; the abstraction of Kandinsky or Mondrian reduced to its most prosaic elements. But then again, they are not rectangles: their edges are blurred and imprecise; and they are unevenly brushed, so that shades and colours from behind show through. Perhaps they were rectangles, but now they are dematerialising.

Daníel Bjarnason © Saga Sig

Over Light Earth – commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association and composed in 2012 – begins at one of Rothko’s fuzzy edges. Bjarnason’s orchestra is augmented with two pianos, which are positioned at opposite sides of the ensemble, as far apart as possible. They begin the piece with similar material – strings of high, repeating notes that descend and decelerate, dissipating energy like bouncing molecules and drawing it out into the widest field. As if we are zooming in, this passage returns several times, each time a little slower, and each time with more of its internal details coming to the fore. Gradually, something more concrete emerges from the centre of the orchestra – a plane of bold colour, we might imagine – but after a climactic crash from the pianos this too fades into the edges, leaving only an enigmatic oboe melody in its wake. A similar motion inward and back out shapes the second movement, named after one of Pollock’s iconic drip paintings: a dense web of black, yellow, grey and cream with traces of blood red, dark green, lurid pink and more. This time, Bjarnason begins with the frantic totality of the painting – its bebop rhythms, its barely controlled polyphony – before centring in on the heart of the mesh. The paradox here is that now the zoom-in reveals not more detail but more space: the tiny, still voids within Pollock’s network of drips and streaks magnified to vast galaxies before we zoom back out again to the painting as a whole.

Bow to String was originally composed in 2010 for multi-tracked cellos and first performed by Bjarnason’s friend Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir. It is recorded here for the first time in a new version for cello and orchestra created in 2022. The first movement takes its title, ‘Sorrow Conquers Happiness’, from an eight-bar song that features in the performance work GOD (2007) by the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson. In GOD, Kjartansson – dressed like a Frank Sinatra-style crooner – sings in front of an 11-piece jazz band, in a room draped from ceiling to floor in pink satin curtains. Over the course of the performance’s 30 minutes, he repeats his song dozens of times, with small variations by his band. Bjarnason borrows the melody and chords of Kjartansson’s song and essentially remixes them: retaining the song’s original shape and repetitions but stretching then over a dramatically terraced emotional landscape instead of Kjartansson’s slowly turning melancholy.

In this context, Kjartansson’s song functions something like one of Rothko’s rectangles: a more or less solid thing, which over the next two movements slowly fades out of existence. Although the song itself does not return, the second movement deconstructs its big band ballad style with a pizzicato walking bass (some of the orchestral cellos play with paperclips attached to their strings to give them eerie, gong-like sound) and occasional white noise splashes that recall the hiss of a drummer’s sizzle cymbal. When the soloist breaks out into melody, it is set in bluesy slides and harmonies. The final movement, ‘Air to Breath’, reduces things down even further, retaining only the idea of repetition: it is like a deconstruction of a deconstruction, stretching the gongs and muted strings of the second movement from pulse into smooth harmonic bed, while the cello plays four variations of a melody that rises higher and higher, before fading entirely into a field of string harmonics.

The version of Larkin Songs recorded here has had a protracted genesis. The first song, ‘Talking in Bed’, was written in London in the summer of 2008 and subsequently arranged for soprano and piano quintet in 2010 when the other two, ‘Is It for Now or for Always’ and ‘Night-Music’, were composed for a performance of all three at the Kammertónleikar Kirkjubæjarklaustur in Iceland in 2010; later that year a double bass part was added to the quintet; and in 2022 the three songs were orchestrated (and the vocal part slightly revised) for this recording.

Bjarnason was introduced to Philip Larkin’s poetry by a friend and immediately felt a connection with its bleakly honesty perspective. These three were chosen as much for the musical possibilities they suggested as anything else (and the marginally more upbeat ‘Is It for Now or for Always’ in order to lighten the mood slightly). But all three poems also feature a juxtaposition of mundane and heavenly that must have resonated with the composer as well. ‘Talking in Bed’ describes the loneliness that can be felt even in the most intimate moments in the arms of a lover, while ‘Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest / Builds and disperses clouds about the sky,’ ‘Is It for Now or for Always’ describes the uncertainty of concrete things, which can all appear as ‘tricks’, ‘mirages’ or ‘shams’; only a lover and only the present – ‘my sudden angel’ – can be taken for granted. Finally, ‘Night-Music’ considers the loneliness of the night sky and the sleepers’ dreams.

Understandably, Bjarnason’s music is more dramatic here than in the two orchestral scores, but still the sense remains of earthly things transforming into ethereal ones. The overall arc is similar to that of Bow to String: the flowing opening movement is followed by a spikier second, in which snapping pizzicato and dry, perforated sounds dominate; and then a vapourised third, coloured here by flautando strings, trembling percussion and air-tone winds. Larkin’s poems all refer to the emptiness that looms beyond home, bed and body, which Bjarnason renders in musical phrases that – while they occasionally stretch out broadly – are never far from fading away.

Release date: 
June 2023
Cat. No.: 
Jewel Case
Track count: 


Recorded at Symfonisk Sal, Musikhuset Aarhus, on 30 May – 3 June 2022

Recording producer: Daniel Davidsen
Engineering, editing, mixing, and mastering: Daniel Davidsen

℗ & © 2023 Dacapo Records, Copenhagen

From Earth to Ether, by Tim Rutherford-Johnson, translated from the English by Jakob Levinsen
Proofreaders: Jens Fink-Jensen, Hayden Jones
Design: Studio Tobias Røder,

Published by Peters Edition Limited, part of the Edition Peters Group

With support from William Demant Fonden and Koda Kultur