The Restlessness of Icelandic Peace was the name of a concert on 15 October at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Brno, at which conductor Chuhei Iwasaki with the Moravia Brass Band and American artist Adam Wiltzie performed a work by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (1969-2018). Many of you may know his music from the award-winning films The Theory of Everything and Arrival.
In addition to film music, Jóhannsson was involved with the art rock band Appart Organ Quartet and the Kitchen Motors collective – a platform for artists from different disciplines to collaborate in publishing, concerts, exhibitions and happenings. The composer made a name for himself with two solo projects: Englabörn (Angels) and Virðulegu Forsetar (Distinguished Presidents). It was the second composition that had its Czech première during this year’s Moravian Autumn. It could be described as a concert sound installation, which originally served for an exhibition about presidents (hence its name). It is scored for a brass ensemble of six trumpets, four horns and a tuba, melodic percussion (chimes and bells), keyboards and electronics, which were handled by Adam Wiltzie. The composition’s main principle consists of the constant repetition of one central motif built on a simple harmonic cadence with the character of a fanfare. The motif changes slightly over the course of the piece – instrumentally, harmonically, melodically and dynamically – on the basis of a tonal delay in the low register of the synthesizer (organ) and electronics. Jóhannsson’s work allows a pleasant, soothing harmony to clash with strong dissonance in the form of a major second in the trumpets, disrupting the music’s calm and smooth flow. However, as the dissonance comes more and more to the fore over larger areas, it becomes a natural part of the harmony and gradually becomes consonant.
The composition was written with the composer’s awareness of the acoustic possibilities of Reykjavik’s Hallgrímskirkja Lutheran Church, where it was given its world première in 2003. One of the few ever live performances (there have been three to be exact) featured an expensive projection in which the players were positioned at either end of the church so that the sound could resonate throughout the space. Blue balloons floated near the church’s ceiling and slowly descended towards the audience during the concert. The cathedral space on Petrov Hill was used differently. The ensemble played from a single place in front of the altar, and light and sound equipment was arranged around the musicians. The smoke effect used throughout the cathedral was very effective, forming a screen through which the individual colours and their combinations penetrated. The balloons were replaced by light poles, flashing in various ways in relation to the music. The climax of the light projection was formed by spot lights, also changing colour and projecting various shapes into the space – especially the ceiling. Although the light projection was imaginative and often drew attention to itself, The question arises as to whether the potential of the cathedral’s interior, especially its size, was sufficiently exploited, and whether in this case it might have been possible to work more with sound resonance in the space, as was the case with the piece’s première.
From an interpretive point of view, the work has many difficulties. The use of the synthesizer and electronics meant that amplification had to be used, which in many places was very loud and projected more sounds and noises than necessary. However, these were not excessively disturbing elements. The theme itself, which carries a significant interval leap right at the beginning, is not easy in terms of uniform start or clear intonation. This is not helped by the fact that the musicians have quite a lot of time between their sections, and after such long breaks it is much more difficult for them to enter and play the motif with authority and cleanliness. The Moravia Brass Band members, however, coped with these difficulties and, apart from a few insignificant details, it was a successful performance.
JÓHANN JÓHANNSSON Virðulegu Forsetar (Honourable Presidents), Czech première
Adam Wiltzie synthesizer, electronics
members of the Moravia Brass Band
conducted by Chuhei Iwasaki
On Sunday, 15 October 2023, Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul