Great Performances: Jonsi and Alex with The Latvian National Choir and The Hilliard Ensemble

On Monday night, I went to the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in Columbus Circle to see the Hilliard Ensemble, the Latvian National choir and three members of Sigur Ros perform an evening of mostly new Icelandic music. The concert was part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival, which commissioned three of the four pieces of the evening. The church is enormous and is full of hidden caverns on all sides, making the sound echo tremendously as it travels throughout the spaces. The lights were consistently dim throughout the evening, even as we were being seated, as though to try to stymie the buzz of excitement of the sold out audience. This barely worked; we were not able to quiet ourselves until all the lights truly went down and the Hilliard Ensemble took the stage.

The Hilliard Ensemble kicked off the evening with a medieval, a cappella choral piece by Busnoys entitled In hydraulis. A piece like this, so stark and harmonically weaving and strange, has the potential to be dull, but the Hilliard Ensemble’s power lies in their ability to draw the listener’s focus to certain vocal lines, clearly showing the arcs of the piece. The ease with which their voices blend, their consonants match and their harmonies intertwine is impeccable. These are men who breathe with each other in the most subtle and natural way. Listening to their voices echo off the vaulted ceilings and overflowing pews was magical. I maintain that we were supposed to have clapped after this piece and before the next one, but we were all in such a mystical trance that not even one hand touched another during that silence. The second piece they performed was by Kjartan Sveinsson, the guitarist, keyboard player and orchestral arranger for the band Sigur Ros and was entitled Cage a Swallow Can’t You but You Can’t Swallow a Cage. The text for these pieces were a series of five sonnets by Anne Carson inspired by Icelandic artist Roni Horn’s work. Having just seen Roni Horn’s huge exhibit at the ICA in Boston, I felt very lucky to have some background for these pieces. Horn draws inspiration from her cold, dark homeland and her work is meditative and cold, though not in an unfriendly or alienating way. The music echoed this stark, lonely feeling, in sharp contrast to Kjartan Sveinsson’s pieces later in the program. It was hard to follow distinct sections in the music as the winding, longing echoes of the voices of the Hilliard Ensemble transported me to some distanct, icy peninsula from which not even the creaking pews could pull me back. Sonnet II was perhaps the most beautiful and the words that struck me most as they careened around the corners and into the pews were, “After the snow, after the husbands/ can the swallow have wishes/ can she know the way/ her soul restless/ as a night in broad day/ what a strange feeling to fly so high/to fly very high/ into that big/ silence”

After an almost religious experience with the Hilliard Ensemble, the Latvian National choir took the stage to join the Wordless Music Orchestra. The following two pieces by Sveinsson have blended together in my mind, though I think this is not a bad thing. This concert was so moving and emotional that the mood created was maintained throughout the intermission. I felt as though I were underwater for the entire evening, submerged in ambient, floating sounds, deep blue light and electrified instruments. The Wordless Music Orchestra are, for the most part young. In fact, they mostly looked to be in their twenties and thirties and this alone was surprising. I am very used to feeling like the youngest person at the symphony and the entire evening, from the performers to the audience down to the sound engineers was an entirely mixed bag of ages. Credo closed the first half of the program and was an amalgamation of ideas from Sigur Ros’ traditionally ethereal music and the simple, yet brilliant, chord progressions of church music. The text for the piece was a series of Latin words for things in which Sveinsson believes, be they positive, negative, spiritual or corporeal. A soprano solo in the middle of the piece stands out as a memorable moment; her voice was pure and clear and rose above the choir and the orchestra in a way reminiscent of Barber’s Adagio for Strings arranged for a chorus.

The real gem of the evening was Selections from Riceboy Sleeps by Jonsi and Alex from Sigur Ros. The tracks were originally released last year as an album from the two artists without Sigur Ros. They focus on mainly on a combination of electronic sounds droning under a cycling motif of a major second played by acoustic stringed instruments. Whether or not that last sentence made any sense to you, the dramatic effect is similar to that of the Vorspiel of Das Rheingold by Wagner. The repetitive motion is never boring, but is, in fact, transcendent. While listening, I felt that I was swimming deeper and deeper underwater (the blue lights, fog and sound effects of electrified violins added greatly to this) to some magical, underwater fairy land. The material continued to hover in the same key and around the same five or so notes, however the clusters of notes sung by the choir and Jonsi’s unique, otherworldly falsetto voice combined to create an entirely spiritual experience. Listening to Riceboy Sleeps now, I find it to be a little less heart-rending without the added 80 or so people playing and singing the various parts, though its beauty is undeniable. Jonsi’s solo tour of the past year is, sadly, over but you can find much of this music floating around on the interwebs. Happy listening!


One response to “Great Performances: Jonsi and Alex with The Latvian National Choir and The Hilliard Ensemble

  1. What an extraordinary experience. I wish I were there. This piece of writing made me go back to my stack of CD and try to fish out all the Hilliard Ensemble disks + more.

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