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Gunnar Andreas KRISTINSSON (b. 1976)
Sisyfos, for clarinet and thirteen instruments (2014) [18:06]
Patterns IIb, for ensemble (2004) [11:39]
Moonbow, for string quartet (2017) [15;32]
PASsaCAgLia B, for bass clarinet, harp and percussion (2012/2016) [6:41]
Roots, for small orchestra (2019) [10:29]
Ingólfur Vilhjįlmsson (clarinets)
Duo Harpverk; Siggi String Quartet
CAPUT Ensemble conducted by Gušni Franzson
rec February 2020 at Harpa Concert Halls, Reykjavķk, Iceland
Reviewed in both formats
SONO LUMINUS DSL-92246 BD-A/CD [62:32]

The Virginia-based audiophile label Sono Luminus continues its meticulous survey of the seemingly inexhaustible delights of contemporary Icelandic music with this monograph dedicated to the work of Gunnar Andreas Kristinsson. Born in Reykjavķk, he graduated from the city’s College of Music and followed up with a Masters degree from The Hague Conservatory in the Netherlands. The thumbnail biography in the booklet identifies a host of teachers, the best-known of whom are Krzysztof Meyer, Atli Heimir Sveinsson and Martijn Padding.

Each of the five pieces included on the disc are scored for distinctive instrumental groupings ranging from the unusual trio required for PASsaCAgLia B (it took me time to work out the significance of the capitalisation) to the small orchestras required both for the tripartite work Roots and the clarinet concerto Sisyfos which opens the disc. Cast in a single movement of 18 minutes duration the latter is the most extended piece on the album, whilst its title alludes to that most frustrating of Greek myths, the story of the inveterate liar Sisyphus and the eternal limbo of his boulder pushing punishment (certain contemporary international leaders might do well to take heed, but given that the chasm which used to delineate fact from fiction has for some reason transmogrified into some kind of ‘grey area’ I’m not holding my breath …). The very brief note in the booklet simply states that “….the soloist takes the role of Sisyphus while the clarinet is disguised as the boulder……” So how does this work in practice?

A tiptoed descent on the piano is eventually mirrored by oboe and horn whilst the clarinet seems to counter the incessant and weary downward motions of the other instruments. Nothing remotely virtuosic here, but the outcome is strangely beautiful and casts a lasting spell – here are familiar sounds and shapes on the face of it, harmonic and rhythmic collisions which are hardly novel – so how does the music seem as fresh as it does? Things gather pace a little at the first percussion entry. Re-reading some of the blurb at the front of the booklet, stuff which seemed generic and largely meaningless suddenly seems to describe what Kristinsson is actually doing. Phrases like “…unfolding processes, passages that transform smoothly from one texture to another….” Or “textures woven out of rhythmic and melodic patterns, like patchwork…” or even “…multi-layered, continuous movements with musical elements being drawn in and out of the foreground through instrumentation and articulation…” could conceivably be applied to absolutely any contemporary music. I have no desire to load this review with the words of others, but it’s uncanny how empty these words seemed before I listened to this music, and yet how forensically they do actually characterise the underlying processes of Sisyfos. The patterns referred to are recognisable and enable the listener to navigate the piece. It does resemble a clever, intricately woven aural patchwork. Indeed phrases become familiar unusually swiftly, enter one’s consciousness and then seem to be displaced by fresh material, but probe deeper and the original motifs are still there, hovering in the background. In Sisyfos, Kristinsson seems to have nailed the impossible art of making the familiar timbres seem newly-minted and original. Sisyfos is in effect a massive single intensification of timbre and pulse which compels from first note to last. It’s a wonderful piece, brilliantly conveyed by Ingólfur Vilhjįlmsson and the Caput Ensemble under Gušni Franzson and magnificently recorded by the Sono Luminus engineers.

Patterns IIb is the earliest work on the album. It’s a re-working of a piece Kristinsson devised for the Dutch group Multifoon, presumably during his post-graduate studies. Originally scored for an intriguing sounding admixture of conventional instruments and gamelan, he has transcribed it for a quintet of xylophone, vibraphone, marimba, violin and bass-clarinet which seems more pragmatic on paper but strikes me as an equally unlikely combination in real terms. The “rhythmic and melodic patterns” mentioned in the quotes above here conceal the Icelandic folk tune Fagurt er ķ fjöršum (It’s beautiful in the fjords). Ice cold droplets of xylophone patter into a haze of string drone in the initial moments. Eventually a regular pulse is established by the other tuned percussion instruments with irregular, unpredictable thuds of bass-clarinet. These are the building blocks from which Patterns IIb is constructed, and had I not familiarised myself with the folk tune before playing the piece it would have remained concealed forever; as it is at about 4:50 in the piece bursts into vibrant life and the tune makes its presence felt, and at the point of this singular piece’s conclusion, it proves almost impossible to dislodge. Patterns IIb bequeaths a gentle, wavering intensity which proves irresistible.

In the string quartet Moonbow (which lends its title to the album) Kristinsson attempts to evoke the form and perception of the eponymous nocturnal meteorological phenomenon which is sometimes referred to as a ‘white rainbow’. Originally commissioned by the Canadian Quatuor Bozzini, it’s played here by Kristinsson’s fellow Icelanders the Siggi Quartet, whose fine debut disc for Sono Luminus I reviewed a couple of years ago. Sustained, fragile notes project the grain of the strings (an effect which comes to three dimensional life in the 5.1 surround option); this creates a tentative, temporary sort of atmosphere which is immersive and haunting. Elongated tones are layered atop one another, creating short-lived harmonies which fade and change. At about 3:10 the long tones change into tiny melodic cells which collide and interlock, expand and contract. These cells increase in urgency and complexity about half-way through by which point this listener felt completely mired by these fascinating sounds. The tiniest caesura at 8:40 seems to herald a more ominous and assertive perspective on these materials – Moonbow imperceptibly seems to transform into something else, but this mood evaporates as rapidly as it emerged, and the calm of the initial bars is restored, albeit flecked with a more variegated range of textures and articulation, which in turn emits another wave of hyperactivity which builds until the abrupt conclusion. The Siggi Quartet’s attentive, detailed playing is a joy; inevitably the sonics are flawless.

By now it is clear that Kristinsson has an individual style markedly different from his compatriots and contemporaries. Notwithstanding the notes from which I quoted above, I think it’s possible to pin this music down in more specific terms. This composer builds up deceptively big structures by interlocking intricately devised motifs; they are jigsaw-like in the sense that these tiny mosaic cells seem to only fit in one place, be played at a specific, optimum dynamic level and at a precise tempo. The composer’s obsessive attention to detail creates an illusion of inevitability, spontaneity and rather counter-intuitively relaxation. He does all this with a minimum of fuss – instruments are played conventionally – there are no extended techniques or electronic modifications. Kristinsson is making something fresh and new out of something old and familiar. There is nothing essentially ‘Icelandic’ about any of this (apart, perhaps from the use of the folk tune in Patterns IIb). Having said all that, it comes as no surprise whatsoever that Kristinsson IS Icelandic.

For those who haven’t yet solved the puzzle, the capitalisations of PASsaCAgLia B refer to the French mathematician famed for his triangle, whose numbers are apparently manipulated and interpolated into the modified passacaglia form which underpins this trio for harp, bass-clarinet and percussion, another possibly unprecedented instrumental nexus. And whilst few will pick up on the maths, this brief piece certainly seems like a passacaglia as it moves back and forth between world-weary processional and a lively bass-clarinet led pastorale. Like its companions on the disc the music is easily digestible and indubitably attractive. Unsurprisingly it’s performed with real style and sparkle by Duo Harpverk in tandem with Ingólfur Vilhjįlmsson’s fruity bass clarinet.

The Roots referred to in the title of the final piece allude to the links between the fundamentals and overtones from which its musical content is derived. Uniquely among the pieces on this disc Kristinsson applies microtonal elements. The three movements project markedly different characters. The first builds tentatively from a ripe fanfare figure over a stately piano pedal. The microtonality seems to be buried deep in the harmonic undergrowth. The music is predominantly static but rich in atmosphere. Activity becomes more unhinged in the last thirty seconds. At the outset of the second panel a calm, spare piano descent is arranged over transcendental Ivesian strings. The listener is immersed in a sepia-tinted dream in which one’s consciousness only returns via bell sounds which reinforce the Ivesian comparison. The swifter finale starts with a jazzy strummed bass and takes the form of a tiny concerto for orchestra, with individual players responding to each other canonically. Although these short movements are unfailingly interesting in themselves, to my ears they represent brief experimental ideas which one suspects Kristinsson will subject to further investigation at some point in the future.

My Blu-Ray/SACD player is a modest affair yet all of this music becomes extraordinarily immersive by clicking the red on the remote and accessing the 5.1 DTS surround layer. I would have expected the two pieces involving larger ensembles, Sisyfos and Roots to gain most from the facility and they unquestionably sound impressive, but I was astonished to feel as though I was within the wood of one of the Siggi String Quartet’s instruments on revisiting the quartet work Moonbow in this guise. The balance the engineers have achieved – my layout involves speakers behind and in front – is beyond extraordinary. Lord knows what delights the Dolby Atmos and 9.1 Auro-3d layers have in store for those with access to that rarified level of technology.

In the final analysis this entire package is a musical and technological triumph. Sixty-odd minutes of accessible, original music performed with total conviction and complete assurance by a quintet of uniquely constituted ensembles offered in a choice of ideal sonic options. The two-speaker sound is outstanding in any case. The quality of everything that comes my way from Sono Luminus seems assured even before I’ve removed the cellophane wrap. I have ceased to be surprised by this label, and if I didn’t get some of these discs for review I would take out a subscription. And no, I’m not taking a cut.

Richard Hanlon

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