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Jóhann Jóhannsson. Photo by Matthew Eisman. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Used with permission.
Jóhann Jóhannsson. Photo by Matthew Eisman. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Used with permission.

There seems to be something about Johann Johannsson’s music which compels people to applaud in the middle of his pieces. During his performance of his piece “Drone Mass” with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble – ACME, obviously – at Big Ears a few weeks earlier, for instance, Rolling Stone reported that one particularly effective musical passage drew an tsunami of applause. “Orphee”, the piece Johansson was presenting as the closing ceremony of the Reykjavik Festival’s takeover of the Disney Concert Hall, drew claps as well, although mostly from people who didn’t seem to realize that the piece wasn’t actually over about two-fifths of the way through. But then again, that’s kind of how his music works; it aspires to be – and frequently is – truly vast, often to the point that you might lose sight of its basic shape.

It’s tempting to say that you could probably make a similar claim about Icelandic music at large, but the whole point of the Reykjavik Festival is that the music coming out of the world’s youngest country enthusiastically defies any attempt at classification; it’s the smallest of countries with some biggest ideas about what music can sound like. Consider the range of talents on display during the opening act, a rare US date on the Bedroom Community Whale Watching Tour; ordinarily the idea of Nico Muhly or Sam Amidon or Daniel Bjarnsson opening for anyone would be laughable, simply because you’d think a collection of such singular talents would have a lot of ground to cover on stage.

And they did. Basically, everyone in the group took turns leading a composition, which means the audience was treated to a thrilling little program ranging from contemporary composition to traditional Icelandic folk music (and all points in between). Surprisingly, the folk songs were probably my favorite of their set. What might ordinarily be fairly humble compositions were rearranged for the room to build to these exhilarating crescendos. The piece led by Jodie Landau in particular expanded to fill the room with immaculate detail.

After a half-dozen or so different sounds in the first program, a monolith like Orphee was quite a bracing palate cleanser. Johannsson is probably best known as the composer of the scores to Denis Villanueva’s movies (Sicario, Arrival, the forthcoming Blade Runner 2049), and Orphee is probably best understood as exactly the kind of music that you would expect him to make without the benefit of those movies to keep your interest. In all honesty, it doesn’t need visual accompaniment; Orphee is bracingly vivid all on its own. I kept thinking of Max Richter’s epic composition “Sleep” (an eight-hour piece designed to accompany, well… sleep); Orphee was obviously faster, but both pieces share an approach of beauty through immensity, like watching a family of whales swim beneath your ship.

But I don’t mean to suggest that there wasn’t a visual component to the performance; it was just incredibly subtle. On stage, Orphee’s movements are broken up into tapes played on a classically impractical reel-to-reel player. Every couple of minutes, Johannsson would swap tapes as the piece shifted into a new movement. The last one, though, ended with a wallop: a recording of Paul Hillier and the Theater of Voices’ “Orphic Hymn.”

I’d been wondering how they’d manage to introduce the blindingly beautiful closing piece, halfway expecting a sudden appearance by a chorus as a culmination of Orphee’s various musical themes. As it turns out, it’s the last thing that plays on the last tape, meaning it’s the only “ending” in the entire piece which comes by surprise. It’s one of those moments that fixes you in time and space, a grand gesture made exponentially bigger by virtue of how far inwards you have to go to find it. A round of applause is probably the least that the piece deserves.

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