Shifting Soundscapes and High Drama

Drone Mass

By Jóhann Jóhannsson
Deutsche Grammophon, $13.98

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Review by Christopher Hoh

Drone Mass by Jóhann Jóhannsson made a splash at its 2015 premiere and at last is available as a recording. It is not a Mass. Nor is the music defined by drones (a constant pitch against which other sounds are heard). The composer called it an oratorio, yet the nine movements for eight singers, string quartet, and electronic sounds do not tell a story or even have a discernible text.

The work explores shifting soundscapes, offering extraordinary music as a vehicle for contemplation. The piece uses voices instrumentally, singing on sustained vowels with little relation to syntactic text or extramusical context.

Gnostic writings in Coptic provide the textual point of departure. The Theater of Voices and the American Contemporary Musical Ensemble under Paul Hillier’s direction deliver spotless, satisfying performances while sublimating themselves to the atmosphere as a whole.

“One Is True,” the first movement, evokes polyphonic organum in its opening moments but soon blossoms into a kaleidoscope of rhythmic punctuation, drones, melodic licks, harmonic changes, and other effects. Its energy suggests the universe growing ever grander yet ever connected and organic.

Other listeners will likely perceive other images; that lack of specificity seems intentional. Jóhannsson died in 2018 and left few hints about meaning in this work; he noted that he had no specific thoughts about how some concrete ideas relate to each other, but “they have some kind of poetic resonance, which is usually enough for me.”

The next sections, “Two Is Apocryphal” and “Triptych in Mass,” settle down with calmer pace, while always evolving in intriguing turns of phrase and harmony. Think of Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt at their best. “Two” is quieter, while “Triptych” builds to a mass of sound, adding more electronics and distortion along with string scrapings and vocal phrases, and then it fades away.

“To Fold and Remain Dormant” is the fourth movement, beginning with deeper calm before slightly unstable, irregular low electronics join. Next the voices and strings sound slowly above and then evaporate, leaving the sound of a machine falling asleep.

The fifth movement, “Divine Objects,” showcases strings to start. Powerful, expressive playing brings beauty to both high repeated figures and low lyrical lines. After nearly three minutes, the voices add chords that lie between the high and low strings in tempo and in pitch. It is hypnotic, settling into near-silence as a kind of climax. This feels like the central point of the work, or culmination of a first New Age symphony before a second one begins.

“The Low Drone of Circulating Blood,” movement six, opens darkly, with slides, sirens, distortion, and brooding lows. It is never harsh or loud, however, just kind of unsettling. The next movements are “Moral Vacuums” and “Take the Night Air.” They offer a slow respite and a pointillistic essay.

To close, “The Mountain View, the Majesty of the Snow-Clad Peaks, From a Place of Contemplation and Reflection” is the longest movement (and title). It sets a Coptic mantra of vowels that can be read as a Greek hymn: “Who exists as Son for ever and ever, you are what you are, you are what you are.” It is a moving apotheosis.

Jóhannsson’s film-score skill imbues Drone Mass with continual movement, even drama, despite minimalist roots. These extraordinary singers and players (and electronic sounds) combine in seamless ensemble, finely balanced and sensitively layered. By the end, I had undergone a journey — if not in the cosmos then through whatever ruminations were conjured in my mind. In this, the work seems not exactly new but rather timeless.

Christopher Hoh is a composer/publisher and artistic consultant based in Arlington, Virginia. He is also a retired U.S. career diplomat and lifelong musician and concertgoer.


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