Music: Johann Johannsson’s ‘Drone Mass’

Jóhann Jóhannsson, who was involved in classic music theatre, and film often used both acoustic and electronic drones – sometimes gently underpinning the music, sometimes drowning out everything else.

Photo: Cover – Drone Mass Jóhann Jóhannsson (cropped)

24 March 2022 | James Porteous | Clipper Media Org

Jóhann Jóhannsson’s ‘Drone Mass’

01/25/2022 | Deutsche Grammophon

The previously unrecorded Drone Mass was described by its composer, the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, as “a contemporary oratorio”.

Written for voices, string quartet and electronics, it was commissioned and premiered by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, aka ACME, who toured and recorded with Jóhannsson for almost ten years.

Now they have made the world premiere recording of this richly atmospheric work, in collaboration with Grammy Award-winning vocal ensemble Theatre of Voices, conducted by Paul Hillier, also a multiple Grammy Award-winner.

The members of both ACME and Theatre of Voices worked closely with the composer many times, both in the studio and in multiple live performances and tours, before his untimely death.

The album was released by Deutsche Grammophon, digitally as well as on CD and 180g vinyl, on 18 March 2022.

Drone Mass is an extraordinary, mysterious accomplishment which at times bears comparison with the meditative minimalism of composers such as Arvo Pärt or Henryk Górecki.

Beginning with strings and voices, but slowly integrating Jóhannsson’s electronic techniques into its landscape, the work represents what the Icelandic composer called “a distillation of a lot of influences and obsessions”.

As the title suggests, those obsessions include his fascination with the musical device of the drone.

This was something Jóhannsson felt as a visceral presence, “a fundamental vibration that anchors music and gives you a foundation”.

He often used both acoustic and electronic drones – sometimes gently underpinning the music, sometimes drowning out everything else.

According to J¢hannsson, “Drone Mass is a 60-minute contemporary oratorio which fuses the sounds of string quartet, electronics and vocals, and is inspired by texts from the Nag Hammadi library, sometimes referred to as the Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians.”

The new meaning the word has acquired in modern times gave it additional layers of resonance for him. Here, his drones have a motivic-like role, shifting and shimmering with hypnotic effect, conjuring different moods, from unsettling to uplifting, as the work progresses.

Adding to that mesmerising effect are the vocal lines, at times redolent of Renaissance polyphony, particularly in “Two is Apocryphal” and “Moral Vacuums”.

Having long been interested in writing a large-scale vocal work, Jóhannsson found his source material in the so-called “Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians”, part of the Nag Hammadi library discovered in 1945.

Among other texts, he uses a hymn described as consisting of “a seemingly meaningless series of vowels”. Both the enigmatic nature of these Gnostic writings and the sheer beauty of the vocalise-style writing add to the spiritual quality of the work as a whole.  

Given the origins of the Drone Mass texts, it is particularly appropriate that the work’s 2015 premiere took place in the spectacular setting of the Egyptian Temple of Dendur at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Jóhannsson’s music filled this majestic space, captivating all present.

Drone Mass Performed live in Temple of Dendur at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2015.

Alongside the ACME players were Grammy Award-winning vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, with the composer himself controlling the waves of electronic sound.

The album was recorded during May 2019 at the Garnisonskirken in Copenhagen. It was produced by Francesco Donadello, another friend and regular associate of Jóhannsson’s. ACME were joined by internationally renowned Danish vocal group Theatre of Voices and their Artistic Director Paul Hillier.

They too have a very close connection with Drone Mass, having performed it twice in the US, and in Krákow, with Jóhannsson and ACME.

Most recently, ACME and Theatre of Voices gave a further performance in Athens, just four months after the composer’s death.

Theatre of Voices also appear on other recordings of Jóhannsson’s work, including OrphéeEnglabörn & VariationsArrival and Last and First Men. The composer was known for his organic and inclusive manner of writing and performing, along with his collaborative spirit, which is at the heart of this recording.

By the time Drone Mass was first unveiled, Jóhannsson was already enjoying considerable mainstream success, thanks in part to his score for Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario (2015), which followed his work on the Canadian director’s Prisoners (2013).

He won a Golden Globe in 2015 for his score to James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything, and a year later his contributions to Villeneuve’s celebrated Arrival earned him an Academy Award nomination.

In addition, 2016 saw the release of Orphée, his acclaimed debut album for Deutsche Grammophon. Jóhannsson died in Berlin on 9 February, 2018, aged 48.

This eagerly awaited recording of Drone Mass marks the belated arrival of one of the composer’s defining works. It is also a moving and personal tribute from some of those who knew him best.

ACME players for this recording are Clarice Jensen, artistic director and cello; Ben Russell, violin; Laura Lutzke, violin; and Caleb Burhans, viola.

Theatre of Voices singers for this recording are Else TorpKate MacoboySigne AsmussenIris Oja, Paul Bentley-AngellJakob SkjoldborgJakob Bloch Jespersen and Steffen Bruun
Paul Hillier
, conductor



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