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The late, great Jóhann Jóhannsson’s contemporary oratorio makes its long-awaited premiere with Deutsche Grammofon as a posthumous recording by ACME with Theatre of Voices, overseen by Francesco Donadello and Paul Hillier.
A staggering testament to Jóhannsson’s unbound vision for classical and electronic music, ‘Drone Mass’ is arguably among his most ambitious, timeless compositions, and comparable with minimalist classical works by Arvo Pärt and Henryk Gorecki. Originally premiered in 2015 at the Egyptian Temple of Dendur, NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, it sadly remained unrecorded by the time Jóhannsson passed in 2019. However, his friends and longtime collaborators have made sure the work now comes to light, with the American Contemporary Ensemble (ACME) teaming with Denmark’s Theatre of Voices, conducted by ECM regular Paul Hillier, and produced by Francesco Donadello, who worked with him on ‘The Theory of Everything’ soundtrack and ‘Englabörn & Variations’, among others. The result is a fitting tribute to Jóhannsson’s legacy of visionary orchestral composition, and the way he seamlessly refreshed that crenelated paradigm with modern electronics.
This 2019 recording, made at the Garnisonkirken in Copenhagen, sees the composer’s myriad interests dovetail in breathtaking form. Taking his cues from the so-called ‘Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians’, part of the Nag Hammadi library discovered in 1945, as well as longheld fascinations with large-scale vocal works and the elemental might of drone music, the nine part work is a momentous achievement from any angle. Its pair of introductory vocal pieces, ‘One is True’ and ‘Two Is Apocryphal’ manifest a keen focus on Renaissance polyphony, with particularly haunting effect in the latter. They prep the ground for a remarkable feat of musical dramaturgy, calling in cavernous, sliding string pitches to match the banking chorale of ‘Triptych in Mass’, while ‘To Fold & Remain Dormant’ elevates the work further with its integration of aching electronic drone noise. There’s a truly jaw-dropping centrepiece in stately swell of electronics and deeply uneasy string pitches of ‘The Low Drone Of Circulating Blood Diminishes With Time’, with ‘Moral Vacuums’ providing necessary respite and catharsis, before the vertiginous flight of vox and bitterly textured noise in ‘Take The Night Air’ gives way to a finale worth the journey in ‘The Mountain View, The Majesty Of The Snow-Clad Peaks, From A Place Of Contemplation And Reflection’.
It doesn’t bear imagining what music Jóhann might have written recently if he was still around but, with pieces like this one, his work on this planet is more than enough already.