Daníel BjarnasonDaniel works equally as conductor and composer and has worked with many different artists including the London Sinfonietta, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, the Nieuw Ensemble, the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester, Musica Viatae and the Caput Ensemble. In 2003 he was one of the founders of the Ísafold Chamber Orchestra and has since been its principal conductor and artistic director. He regularly conducts at the Icelandic Opera and with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra.
A Tasteful Procession
A Tasteful Procession
Daníel Bjarnason studied piano, composition and conducting in Reykjavík before going on to study orchestral conducting at the Freiburg University of Music in Germany where he graduated cum laude in 2007.
Daniel's compositions have been received with acclaim and his works have been performed worldwide. Daniel has won numerous awards and grants for his music-making including the Icelandic Music Awards 2007. He participated in the Operagenesis project for young composers at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden in 2007-2008. In 2008 Daniel was awarded 2nd prize and a special recommendation for his work for chamber orchestra: “All sounds to silence come” at the International Rostrum for Composers in Dublin.
Daniel’s versatilty as an arranger and conductor has also brought him into contact with a broad array of musicians outside the classical field including Sigur Rós, Amina, Ólöf Arnalds and Hjaltalín. He has also written music for film and theater.
Daniel recently signed a contract with the record label Bedroom Community and his debut album “Processions” will be released worldwide in February 2010. Two CDs with Isafold Chamber Orchestra, with a range of 20th century compositions, among them his own work “All sounds to silence come” were released in 2006 and 2007.
First of all, tell us about the new CD, Processions – what’s the genesis of the project?
The album is comprised of three different pieces that all have their own separate genesis. So there is not a singular theme running through the whole album but rather three different stories. What unites the pieces is the way they are recorded and produced - and of course the fact that I composed them.
Did the project enable you to reach into any “virgin territories” musically speaking?
I think that whenever I write something new it’s already “virgin territory” for me. Every time it’s almost like starting for the first time. This can be extremely frightening but I think it’s important, to explore new things and not just rely on older truths. So in that way all the pieces are different for me, purely compositionally and in terms of instrumentation. But having said that, the greatest novelty for me was working so closely with Valgeir Sigurðsson in the studio, both with the recording of the music and also with the editing and mixing/mastering. That collaboration spilled into the way I composed and is probably mostly felt in “Bow to String”, which is in a way composed for the studio. If you were to play the version on the album live you would need 60 or 70 cellists for some bits. We decided from the offset that we didn’t necessarily want to do a “correct” rendition of the pieces the way they are written in the score but rather to use all the possibilities that the studio has to offer in making the music a listening experience that would not necessarily be the same as you would get in a concert and not the same you would get with most classical recordings.
Would you consider it a ‘narrative’ album in any sense?
If you mean narrative in the way that there is a program or a story behind the music I would have to say no. It’s all rather abstract. However I think I am probably a dramatic composer and people who hear my music often seem to get a strong visual impact from my music. Each piece has it’s own dramatic logic but I like it that if they want, people can fit their own story into it because there’s nothing getting in the way, only the titles which can evoke certain feelings and do so for me, but they are open enough to leave space for the listeners own imagination. The last piece Skelja does have one quite clear image connected to it in my mind though. It is the act of putting a sea-shell to your ear and listening to the ocean. When I was a kid I was always told that if you did that you could actually hear the ocean and so, if you kept a sea-shell in your pocket you could carry the sound of the ocean with you wherever you went. I liked that.
There’s a lot of intensity and discordance on the record, contrasted with more introspective material - what does that represent?
"Bow to String" is written for cellist Sæunn Þorsteinsdóttir who is a good friend of mine. She originally asked me to write a solo cello piece and I said OK. Then that piece turned into a piece for a lot of cellos and then even more. I think that the fact that I was writing for her had a big impact on how the piece turned out. I simply couldn’t write something for Sæunn that was not dramatic, that would have been out of the question. The form of that piece is a calming down, or like a long diminuendo. Actually the first movement ("Sorrow Conquers Happiness") was written last because I wanted to write something suitably crazy for Sæunn. And I was also into that kind of thing and that movement is written at the same time as Red-handed in Processions. In Processions I think the drama of the piece is more connected with the fact that it is a piano-concerto and I wanted to confront that historic aspect of the romantic or heroic concerto. And I also had a great pianist (Víkingur Ólafsson) who I knew would really embrace that. Having said that I don’t really make a deliberate decision to be dramatic or write music with contrast, it is just something natural and obvious for me. It’s how I think it should go.
Why did you choose to work with the other musicians featured on the record?
All the people on the album are people that I chose to work with and write for and each piece is written with specific performers in mind. They are also my friends and I am very lucky to know these people and to have them perform my music.
When and how did you get involved with Bedroom Community – and was this album recorded for them specifically?
I got involved with BC about one and a half year ago when myself and Valgeir decided to make this album. I already knew Valgeir, Ben and Nico and there had been some talk about doing something but I think they were maybe waiting for me to become clear about what I wanted to do. So when I finally went to see Valgeir one day and said that I wanted to make an album he was just said: “OK, let’s do it”. And we both agreed on how we wanted to make the album and that we wanted to move away from the standard practice of recording classical music and feel free to play around with the recordings a bit more. So I would have to say yes, this album is very closely connected to BC and the Greenhouse Studios. We have actually already recorded two other quite big pieces that were supposed to be on the album but then there wasn’t room for them so they will be on the next release.
Which composers – classic or contemporary - would you say you have a close affinity with?
There are too many: Ligeti, Lutoslawski, Britten, Varese, Shostakovitch, Debussy, Ravel, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Cage, Takemitsu, Webern…of the younger generation of composers I would say Thomas Adés has been a major inspiration for me.
What sort of music do you listen to outside of the classical realm?
Lately I have been listening to Grizzlybear, the XX, Beirut, Vampire Weekend, Oren Ambarchi, Fennesz (Black Sea), Salif Keita, Ben Frost and Hjaltalín. Long time favorites are Radiohead and David Bowie. And also Chet Baker and Nat King Cole. And Michael Jackson. And thousands of others.
When did you found the Isafold Chamber Orchestra - and how did this come about?
The orchestra was founded in 2003. At that time we were most of us finishing music school in Reykjavik and going abroad to study more. We wanted to make an orchestra on our own terms, where we would be in charge of everything and could play what we wanted; which was music from the 20th century as well as new music. At the time there wasn’t anything like that for musicians of our age. The first thing we did was rent a bus and drive all around Iceland doing concerts in small towns around the country. That was so much fun that we did it again the next year. Most of the people in Ísafold live abroad (and money is sparse) so we can only do projects once or twice a year. But it’s always so much fun when we come together, like a family reunion.
What have been the ICO’s biggest achievements since forming?
Those trips around the country were a pretty big achievement looking back. But apart from that I am really proud of the two albums that we released and also winning the Icelandic Music Awards for best performer in 2008.
You’ve worked a lot with a lot of pop musicians, most notably Sigur Rós and the London Sinfonneta – how did that come about?
Kjartan asked me to conduct the orchestra and choir for their recording at Abbey Road and of course I was more than happy to do that. The whole thing was being filmed so it was decided that everyone would have their best suits on in the studio and the boys choir had their uniforms and it was all very grand and festive and kind of funny, even though it was just a studio recording. Of course recording at Abbey Road with all their old microphones and all that history was a great experience as well.
What have been your other most interesting experiences of composing or working in the non-classical idiom?
Apart from those Abbey Road recordings I have had a great time working with Hjaltalín this year. Also making arrangements for Ólöf Arnalds and recently Olivia Pedroli has been very rewarding.
When did you start conducting, and is that something you’d like to do more?
I started conducting almost 10 years ago. It’s important for me to find the balance between conducting and composing because they are both very time consuming activities even though they do compliment each other in many ways.
Do you consider the Icelandic classical scene healthy at the moment?
I think it is great. People are so willing to do everything and try everything and there is really a sense of community. And not just within classical music but between musicians from all genres. It may sound like a cliché but it feels like walls are coming down little by little. Actually, I don’t like to think there are any walls any more, but maybe that is naive. In recent years Symphony Orchestras have often squeezed the new pieces in between older and more popular works because they are afraid that this is the only way people can be persuaded to listen to the new pieces. This is some kind of new-music smuggling. And although I don’t have anything against programming new and old music together I think that we are moving into the period where people come to the symphony orchestra concert not despite the new piece on the program, but because of it. And I think this is going to happen and I think it is already happening to some degree.
Daníel Bjarnason's Site