"Lucia di Lammermoor" at the Metropolitan Opera
"Meredith Monk and Friends" at Zankel Hall

Jóhann Jóhannsson's Drone Mass at the Temple of Dendur

Jóhann Jóhannsson's Drone Mass Most people probably had never heard of Jóhann Jóhannsson before he won the Golden Globe this past January for his score to The Theory of Everything. But the Icelandic composer - who now lives in Berlin - has been known in the new music scene for some time now: we heard first heard him in 2012, when he and the Wordless Music Orchestra performed The Miners' Hymnsa collaboration with filmmaker Bill Morrison. Jóhannsson writes a blend of acoustic and electronic music, which Jóhannsson himself plays from his laptop. 

Last Tuesday, Jóhannsson joined the string quartet ACME and vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth for the world premiere of his Drone Mass, a major work commissioned by ACME for its tenth anniversary. Billed as "a contemporary oratorio," Jóhannsson says that he wrote Drone Mass using mysterious ancient Egyptian texts made up of a meaningless series of vowels.

The performance took place at the Met Museum's Temple of Dendur, which has emerged over the past few seasons as one of NYC's essential concert venues. The majestic, cavernous space isn't always the most friendly from an acoustic standpoint, such as Vijay Iyer's show there a couple of weeks ago. But, for this music - loosely defined as sacred music - the resonant, church-like room proved to be ideal.

Johann johannssonIn the program notes, Jóhannsson reveals that the drone in Drone Mass is both a musical device and - as with Ben Frost's Negative Ghostrider II - refers to the military devices that patrol the skies, often with malevolent intent. As such, a ominous menace pervaded the hour-long work, with the sound of air raids and propellers mixing with ACME's furious bowing and Teeth's fearsome singing. Without any text to follow - or even a program listing of the various sections - you had little choice but to sit back and experience the music as sanctifying ritual.  

The only thing that could have made the experience even more powerful would have been to place the musicians in the center of the temple courtyard, rather than on a stage at the far end of the temple. I assume the Met has good reasons for this setup - acoustics? protecting the temple? - but from a visual standpoint, it made little sense to place the musicians in front of a blank wall. 

There was one conspicuous logistical issue with this performance: Caroline Shaw, who normally plays violin in ACME, is also a member of Roomful of Teeth. Caroline opted to sing, so violinst Yuki Numata Resnick took her place, alongside regular ACME members Clarice Jensen, Caleb Burhans and Ben Russell. Resnick also opened the concert with the world premiere of Johannsson's Chaconne for solo violin: a brief, tranquil work that served as a sort of invocation. (Incidentally, I'll be seeing both Resnick and ACME again later this week in Knoxville, TN for the Big Ears Music Festival, where they'll be performing music by Max Richter.) 

Drone Mass, Temple of Dendur
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