Einar Jóhannesson

Atli Heimir Sveinsson: Meditation

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Iceland is a country of extremes -- extreme weather, extreme geography, extreme arctic contrasts between the lengths of days and nights -- so it's no wonder that that characteristic is reflected in the music of Icelandic composer Atli Heimir Sveinsson, born in 1938. His Meditation inspired by the 24th Psalm of David, "His Lift up your heads, O ye gates," is one such work, scored for a single instrument, a clarinet, that plays one extremely long unbroken movement that lasts an hour and a quarter. A great deal of it is extremely quiet and extremely slow-moving. The composer writes, "At its best, music can awaken a sense of spirituality in our hearts, making us more receptive to the divine. That was the primary aim of this work." It certainly succeeds as a piece whose unhurried pace gives the listener ample time to contemplate each minute shift in pitch, volume, and timbre, and there are plenty of very long silences in which to listen, in a Cageian way, to any other sounds. Sveinsson uses two other clarinets, but their isolated clicking keys and brief moments of playing are so rare that the composer's designation of the piece as a solo seems reasonable. Einar Jóhannesson delivers a remarkably focused and timbrally gorgeous performance. Especially noteworthy is his control of dynamics; his ability to seamlessly emerge out of, and recede into, silence almost defies belief. The piece will probably elicit extreme reactions : either bore listeners out of their skulls or hold them in rapt wonder, depending on their individual inclination. The sound is very clean and beautifully ambient.

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