Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Virðulegu forsetar

A lot has been written about Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson's sublime attempts at transcribing human melancholy and angst into the realm of music, especially after he shocked the music community with his debut album Englabörn in 2002 (originally written for a Reykjavik play under the same name). His second album, Virðulegu forsetar (2004), is a minimalist approach to the exploration of the relationship of man and his vast surroundings.

Virðulegu forsetar
consists of 4 very long but mostly calm compositions that evoke very grand feelings about a lot of things. If one reads the second album not as a continuation of the underlying themes of Englabörn -Odi Et Amo's look at the paradoxical nature of human emotions, such as love and hatred- then Virðulegu forsetar is about man's reaction of despair and fascination with his state of being as an entity in a greater, external world (call it nature, if you will); the music is a celebration of things like the vastness of the night sky, the depth of the abyss and the hope brought with every sunrise. The album relies on the juxtaposition of periods of absence of sound with periods of grand horn and organ play, as well as Glockenspiel and bells. It should be classed as a neo-classical composition because elements of electronic music are added to the overall track.

Jóhannsson meticulously instills a certain expectation in the listener about a monumental climax to come, which ironically is never realised. It is an hour-long buildup that ends in nothingness. The irony is in line with T.S. Eliot's modernist poem The Hollow Man (1925), with an emphasis on the final stanza:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

It is not a novel idea to create multiple copies of a basic pattern (Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol popularised the idea within the fine arts), but the 4 tracks on the album follow the same ground principles (the last one being longer than the other three parts). I personally saw the album as an ode to Mark Rothko, one of the greatest craftsmen of repetition known. Just like listening to Virðulegu forsetar could be seen as concerning the emotions associated staring into the abyss (or the sky!), so is the contemplation of Rothko's art about the emotions evoked when looking into his abyss of seemingly monotone canvasses. They are both forms of minimalist creations (Jóhannsson's compositions are about much more than vague horn play, and Rothko's art is certainly not monotone, but is instead characterised by a carefully crafted series of layers with extremely rich texture and subtle variation).

In Rothko's serial exhibitions at the Tate Modern, consisting of multiple paintings with essentially same motif, the serialism in the art directs the viewer not towards the motif itself (because you have so many canvas that look almost the same, so which one do you choose to look at?) but towards exploring what it means to look through the multiple shades of purple, blue, red, etc that the entire room is mostly made up of. Hearing the many similar horn utterances likewise focuses our attention away from the playing itself.

Morton Feldman was the first composer to pay tribute to Rothko (this being done explicitly) with his rather special album Rothko Chapel (1971), commissioned for the non-denominational Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. This album is one of the more accessible pieces of music from an otherwise slightly inaccessible composer.

Jóhannsson's album is a musical celebration unparalleled by anything seen in recent times; it will go down in history as one of the greatest minimalist compositions of the decade. Despite it's long duration, this Icelandic composer manages to captivate the listener with the beautiful horn play that constantly remind us of the great but also terrible existence we are living. Likewise, the monumental creations in Rothko's lifetime were accompanied by great personal tragedies (culminating in his suicide).

It is said that Rothko found inspiration in the work of Nietzsche, so I have a quote of his prepared that sums up Virðulegu forsetar quite appropriately:

"If you stare into the abyss long enough the abyss stares back at you".

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