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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Concert Review: The Place Where Time Stops

Johánn Johánnson's Drone Mass at the Temple of Dendur.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Brad Wells (center left) conducts the members of Roomful of Teeth (right) and the
American Contemporary Music Ensemble in Drone Mass at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Composer Johánn Johánnson is at the extreme left. Photo by Mark Shelby Perry
The Temple of Dendur was built in 15 B.C. in Egypt. Since 1978, it has stood in New York City. A gift from the Egyptian government, the Temple occupies the Sackler Wing at the north end of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Temple and its Gate are housed in an enormous glass-and-stone space, surrounded by a reflecting pool, Egyptian artworks and watchful museum guards. On Tuesday night, the Temple was the setting for the world premiere of Drone Mass, a new work by the Icelandic composer Johánn Johánnson commissioned by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble for its tenth anniversary.

Mr. Johánnson is a rising star in contemporary music, who has followed the lead of Brian Eno, John Luther Adams and Johnny Greenwood in his creation of soundscapes. He is the composer of a number of noted film soundtracks, including the Oscar®-nominated The Theory of Everything. According to Mr. Johánnson's note, the Drone Mass was inspired by both the Gnostic gospels and the influence of modern technology, creating a unique sound that spanned the centuries. The concert featured a string quartet from ACME, the singers of Boston-based group Roomful of Teeth, their director Brad Wells and Mr. Johánnson himself.

The concert opened with a performance of the composer's Chaconne by violinist Yuki Numata Resnick from the ACME Ensemble. A chaconne is an antique music form, a short, repeated figure that serves as the basis for melodic creation and further development. Ms. Resnick played this repeated figure with long and short note values, generating different sounds from her violin by playing with the side of the bow and near the bridge to create harmonics. Drones on the lower strings and plucked rhythms built the sense of drama, fading eventually to an almost imperceptible final silence.

The Drone Mass proved to be a hybrid creation, contrasting short monosyllabic chants and long lines, the "drones" of the work's title. These were filtered through modern computer-generated electronics, using note values drawn from re-processing of the singers' voices. The singing itself was mesmerizing, with the slow adding of textures from each of the eight singers. Their voices were at times altered by Mr. Johannson, who sat impassively at a Mac laptop that served as both musical instrument and mixing desk. The sounds rose, fell and overlapped, forming ocean-like waves, a vast cry of humanity generated by only eight voices.

Against all this vocalise was the ACME group, a taut unit whose instruments formed the core of the work's sound. Ms. Resnick played the first violin part, drawing out long-valued notes that reached heavenward and blended with the voices.  Second violinist Ben Russell plucked and strummed his instrument, creating the sound of mysterious rituals and Egyptian sistrums with his fingers. Cellist Clarice Jensen plucked bass notes, dragging the pads of her fingers down the strings the create an eerie, hollow booming sound that blended with the drones of the bass and baritone singers.

These vocal and string signals were processed further as the work developed, incorporating slow electronic-generated crescendos that build to a magneto whine, evoking the sound of small approaching engines of that 21st century technology: the flying electronic drone. Those swells of sound, sometimes at breathtaking volume provided intervals of technological terror between the movements of the Mass, creating a combination of sounds that quite literally spanned millennia.

As the work moved through its sections toward a conclusion, one had the sense of timelessness. Here, in this extraordinary created environment was music that drew its influence from the Gnostics, a still extant sect of Christianity whose rituals and practices date back to the earliest era of that religion. With 21st century technology and modern computer-assisted compositional technique, Mr. Johannson had achieved the impossible feat of a bridge across time, a feat echoed by the silent presence of the ancient temple at the premiere of his work.

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