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Jóhann Jóhannsson - Virthulegu forsetar

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Artist: Jóhann Jóhannsson

Album: Virthulegu forsetar

Label: Touch

Review date: Dec. 9, 2004

Compared to last year's exceptional Englabörn, it would be accurate to think that Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Virthulegu forsetar moves at a glacial pace. All music/Icelandic metaphors aside, the composer's second solo effort does initially seem a little too preoccupied with differentiating itself from his first. While Englabörn was filled with three- to five-minute haunting compositions, Virthulegu forsetar is a little more laborious – four untitled tracks, all fairly similar on first listen, with more drone-like silence than violins or electronic percussion. It's a tough piece to swallow whole, but well worth it.

The centerpiece of the album is a reoccurring three-note theme. Both deceptively simple and familiar, it’s almost as if it had been snatched from a triumphant moment in a Hollywood war film. Over the 50-plus minutes of the album, this not-quite leitmotif appears in a constant ebb and flow, retreating for extended periods only to return with a different purpose. For instance, the album's opening moments introduces the three notes immediately, giving the listener access to the album's peak without any of the exertion. The theme returns throughout the piece, but never with the same grandeur. At times the horns linger on the second note, neglecting the third, other times it seems to rush through the theme with little or no effort. It returns throughout the piece in various incantations, much like a jazz musician might repeat and alter a theme.

The original performance of Virthulegu forsetar was voted the No. 1 musical experience of the year by Iceland's leading paper. One can imagine why: performed on a late summer’s eve, the 12 musicians inhabited a church, positioning themselves to the front, back and the side of the audience. As the sun set through the windows, the composition’s evolving theme revealed itself and as the mini-orchestra sauntered its way to the finale, balloons fell from the ceiling.

While one could easily dismiss the album with an “I guess you had to be there” mentality, Virthulegu forsetar is a surprisingly dense and intricate listen. The album is packaged with both a traditional CD and a DVD that allows those with proper surround-sound capabilities to experience it as it was performed in that church in Reykjavík. A generous offering by both Jóhannsson and the label Touch, an initial listen to the album’s guttural offerings demonstrates the essential role in listening technology in recreating a specific experience. For an album that spends nearly three-quarters of its time in minimalist drone, computer speakers do not do it justice. And while the album successfully exists on its own, the experience of it inhabiting a room, incorporating its space, its bare sound, is breathtaking.

Melodies, often so quiet listeners might feel compelled to adjust the volume and smush the headphones deeper, unfold throughout the four parts in a variety of moods and styles. Often trumpets or the synthetic rumble hold the notes, obscuring the familiar theme. It's almost as if the piece was divided into four parts arbitrarily; none of the pieces have a discernable beginning or end. Together, though, they create a tangible and enchanting whole.

By Addison MacDonald

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