Composer Daníel Bjarnason: ‘Surrounded by people you may still be utterly alone’

On 14 April the Irish Crash Ensemble was to play the Dutch premiere of Songs by the Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason. The cycle was commissioned by Muziekgebouw Eindhoven and Concertgebouw Amsterdam, where it would be repeated on April 15. Both concerts were cancelled because of Covid-19.


Bjarnason (1979) composed Songs for the Crash Ensemble and the Swedish performer Mariam Wallentin, and I interviewed him while he was still working on it. The cycle was premiered in incomplete form on 28 February at the New Music Dublin festival. The online Journal of music rated it ‘one of the standout concerts’.

Poetic background

Ireland and Iceland both have a long history, in which poetry plays an important role. No surprise then the Crash Ensemble asked Bjarnason to compose a new song cycle for them. On their website they announced it floridly: ‘We went to the land of the ice and snow to ask for music. Returning with the promise of songs with a Wildbird. Needing words for our songs, we asked one who broke waves, and he gave them with two hands.’

The ‘Wilbird’ refers to Mariam Wallentin, who has a reputation to lose as an experimental singer, percussionist, composer and voice actress. In 2007 she formed the duo Wildbirds & Peacedrums with her husband Andreas Werliin, with whom she released several successful cd’s. The epithet ‘one who broke waves’ refers to Royce Vavrek, whose poems Bjarnason set to music.

Off the beaten tracks

The Icelandic composer and conductor likes to step off the beaten tracks in classical music and previously worked with the band Sigur Rós and pop musicians/ producers like Brian Eno and Ben Frost. The Crash Ensemble has the same adventurous spirit, entering into partnerships with composers, universities, skateboarders and cinematographers. Bjarnason:  ‘When I said I wanted to write for Mariam Wallentin, they agreed without hesitation. Their only request was I write for their complete line-up of string quintet, flute, (bass) clarinet, trombone, electric guitar, piano and percussion.’

Bjarnason has known Mariam Wallentin for a long time: ‘I’ve been following her for about ten years, and we worked together once before, when she sang one of my Three Larkin Songs. I first got to know her through her band Wildbirds and Peacedrums and was immediately drawn to her voice and her singing. She has quite a dark timbre, which I find really beautiful, and I admire her sense of rhythm and articulation. Moreover she is very versatile.’

Mutual exploration

While composing the two worked closely together: ‘I sent her my music and she would answer with recordings of her singing, which was very useful and helpful. Also during rehearsals we constantly exchanged ideas. That’s exactly how I want it to be: a collaboration and a mutual exploration.’

The lyrics were written by the Canadian poet Royce Vavrek, much lauded for his libretti for the opera’s Breaking the Waves and Song from the Uproar by Missy Mazzoli. Though Bjarnason and Vavrek had already been discussing plans for an opera, the choice was not self-evident. ‘It was a long search, because I wanted to work with new lyrics. And only when Royce came in view my creative inspiration started flowing.’

However, since Bjarnason is becoming increasingly busy as a conductor, he was not quite able to meet the deadline for his new cycle. When I interviewed him a few days before the world premiere on 28 February in Dublin, he had only finished four of the intended six to seven songs. The premiere of the complete cycle was set for April in the Netherlands.

Cold and dark

Though Songs is very different from Three Larkin Songs, the subject matter is connected in some ways, says Bjarnason. ‘The overall theme is quite broad but I would say that it is about living in cold and dark atmospheres. In Northern latitudes, in isolation, loneliness and even depression. It’s about growing up in remote places where being different is not accepted. Where, surrounded by people you are still utterly alone.’

He hastens to add, though: ‘I must stress that the songs are not only gloomy, they also deal with connecting and finding warmth in that chilly environment.’ The main difference between the two cycles lies in their scale and scope. The Three Larkin Songs on texts by the British poet Philip Larkin are set for string quintet, piano and vocals and last only about fifteen minutes. The new cycle is three times as long and calls for a singer and an eleven-piece ensemble.

Shifting colours

The premiere of the complete Songs will (hopefully) take place in the coming season, so we can’t judge for ourselves, but the review in the Journal of music is quite promising: ‘Bjarnason’s musical language drifted seamlessly between jazz and trip rock without ever quite settling in any style definitively. His writing for each member of the ensemble was intricate and resulted in a backing texture of constantly shifting colours and complexity that perfectly intertwined with Wallentin’s sultry, soulful singing.’

About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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1 Response to Composer Daníel Bjarnason: ‘Surrounded by people you may still be utterly alone’

  1. Pingback: Composer of the Year 2022 Missy Mazzoli: ‘Being a woman in a male-dominated world is one of my big themes’ | Contemporary Classical – Thea Derks

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