written by Ben Hogwood
What’s the story?
Drone Mass is one of the last completed works from the late and much missed Jóhann Jóhannsson. It was commissioned by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, and given its first performance in 2015, at the Temple of Dendur in New York’s Metropolitan Music of Art. Jóhannsson took part in early performances of the work, but due to his sudden and sad death in 2018 was not present for this recording, made by ACME and their director Clarice Jensen in 2019. Joining the members of the ensemble were Theatre of Voices, conducted by Paul Hillier, who also took part in the early performances.
As Jensen makes clear in the booklet, Drone Mass is ‘neither a setting of the mass nor a piece that simply drones’ – but it is a sacred piece that has recurring drones throughout the work. It also has new technology as a background theme, Jóhannsson using his mastery of electronic music to write about drones as a force in the world today. The work’s vocals are drawn from the ancient Nag Hammadi scriptures and are written in Coptic, leading to a billing for Drone Mass as ‘an electroacoustic oratorio’.
What’s the music like?
The music takes its lead from the vocals, bringing together elements of ancient polyphony and new, drone-filled electronic textures. Because of this it is possible to approach Jóhannsson’s music from several directions, hearing old, unaccompanied melodies that can switch to electronics with little to no warning. The two work well together, especially as Jóhannsson’s music moves at a relatively slow pace. His language takes its lead from the ‘holy minimalism’ of Arvo Pärt and John Tavener, but is never derivative, searching as it does for a successful fusion of old and new methods of communication.
That search breeds a great deal of tension, which brings depth to the Drone Mass. The work starts with what sounds like an old, ornamented melody on One is True that gradually evolves into a substantial statement from all performing forces. Two Is Apochryphal is a meditative study with high, remarkably pure vocals, then Triptych In Mass contrasts plaintive violin arpeggios with two vocal lines, one drone like and the other much more mannered. The emotional centre of the work, however, lies in the two Divine Objects settings. Part one has a particularly haunting motif which develops into a powerfully wrought statement.
Does it all work?
It does. Although its constituent sections work well out of context, the Drone Mass is at its most effective when heard beginning to end in one sitting, taking shape and growing slowly but surely as it proceeds. The standard of performance is commendably high, too – thanks to outstanding singing from the Theatre of Voices, holding the sustained notes with impressive surety and accuracy. Meanwhile ACME provide the exquisitely shaded instrumental contributions.
Is it recommended?
Yes, without hesitation. Often pieces like this go for too many gestures or try to hit the harmonic sweet spots too often. Jóhann Jóhannsson is different, writing fluently to a larger scale, with music that grows in stature across its hour-long length. It leaves us with much to ponder, the only shame of course being that its composer is no longer around to hear what a fine recording has been made in his honour. In Drone Mass, he leaves a deeply felt and starkly effective representation of our times.
You can purchase this compilation at the Deutsche Grammophon website, where you can hear more clips and read more about the project.