Jóhannsson: Drone Mass (LP)

Jóhannsson: Drone Mass (LP) cover
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Jóhannsson: Drone Mass (LP)
Theatre of Voices, American Contemporary Music Ensemble, Paul Hillier

[ Deutsche Grammophon / LP ]

Release Date: Friday 20 May 2022

The previously unrecorded Drone Mass was described by its composer, the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, as "a contemporary oratorio". Written for voices, string quartet and electronics, it was commissioned and premiered by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, aka ACME, who toured and recorded with Jóhannsson for almost ten years. Now they have made the world premiere recording of this richly atmospheric work, in collaboration with Grammy Award-winning vocal ensemble Theatre of Voices, conducted by Paul Hillier, also a multiple Grammy Award-winner. The members of both ACME and Theatre of Voices worked closely with the composer many times, both in the studio and in multiple live performances and tours, before his untimely death.

Drone Mass is an extraordinary, mysterious accomplishment which at times bears comparison with the meditative minimalism of composers such as Arvo Pärt or Henryk Górecki. Beginning with strings and voices, but slowly integrating Jóhannsson's electronic techniques into its landscape, the work represents what the Icelandic composer called "a distillation of a lot of influences and obsessions".
As the title suggests, those obsessions include his fascination with the musical device of the drone. This was something Jóhannsson felt as a visceral presence, "a fundamental vibration that anchors music and gives you a foundation". He often used both acoustic and electronic drones - sometimes gently underpinning the music, sometimes drowning out everything else. The new meaning the word has acquired in modern times gave it additional layers of resonance for him. Here, his drones have a motivic-like role, shifting and shimmering with hypnotic effect, conjuring different moods, from unsettling to uplifting, as the work progresses.
Adding to that mesmerising effect are the vocal lines, at times redolent of Renaissance polyphony, particularly in "Two is Apocryphal" and "Moral Vacuums". Having long been interested in writing a large-scale vocal work, Jóhannsson found his source material in the so-called "Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians", part of the Nag Hammadi library discovered in 1945. Among other texts, he uses a hymn described as consisting of "a seemingly meaningless series of vowels". Both the enigmatic nature of these Gnostic writings and the sheer beauty of the vocalise-style writing add to the spiritual quality of the work as a whole.

Jóhann Jóhannsson - Drone Mass