Echo Collective (Margaret Hermant, violin; Sophie Bayet, violin; Neil Leiter, viola; Thomas Engelen, cello). Deutsche Grammophon 0289 483 7218 8.
By Karl W. Nehring
The late Icelandic composer Jöhann Jöhannsson (1969-2018) is perhaps best known for his film scores such as those for the movies Sicario and Arrival. His compoaitions often combined elements of classical, electronic, and ambient music to great effect. Among his other attributes, the composer had a remarkable gift for writing music conveying an atmosphere of sadness that is deep, moving, but somehow neither morose nor depressing. On this posthumous release of music that was unfinished at his death but brought to life by the Brussels-based ensemble Echo Collective (more on that process below), his music for string quartet spurs the listener to reflect, perhaps even to grieve, but not to despair; to contemplate darkness, but not to be engulfed by it; to remember the disappointments life brings, but not to succumb to bitterness; to confront the inevitability of death while simultaneously savoring the transient but immediately embracing wonder of life.
These dimensions of Jöhannsson’s music take on a special poignancy in light of his tragically short life. He died at 48 in Berlin, the German autopsy report indicating that the likely cause of death was a fatal conjunction of cocaine and flu medication. On the surface, that might strike some readers as an indication of a character flaw or another case of some high-flying celebrity being brought down by wretched excess, but it is highly plausible that the story is deeper and more tragic than it might first appear, involving the pressure of composing music for high-profile film studios. But that is speculation to which it is best not to take too far, lest we ourselves succumb to our own dark and very possibly untrue thoughts. Let us instead turn to the music at hand on this release.
The musicians of Echo Collective had worked with Jöhannsson to realize some performances of his music that combined elements of classical and electronic approaches. According to the Echo Collective on their website and in the liner notes for this CD (which once again are nearly impossible to read because of small print plus very little contrast in color between the background and the lettering – what was the design team thinking?!), in the wake of their collaboration:
“Jöhann approached us to work with him on his project. He intended for Echo Collective to help him finish the composition of the Quartet. The score Echo received after Jöhann’s death was uncommonly sparse in the sort of markings classical composers typically include to convey their wishes in terms of dynamics, phrasing, and articulation.
As musical interpreters, we have an almost visceral need to perfect a music's intended tone, and to connect its audience to an authentic emotional experience. While a score lacking detailed direction can sometimes frustrate that goal, Echo Collective's musicians found a freedom in Jöhann's music which allowed them to create without feeling constrained by reference standards or critical comparisons. When Jöhann died, it became Echo Collective’s responsibility to determine how the music should sound and what emotions it should convey. Our previous work with him on Orphée, and the many discussions and time spent together, provided us with the tools needed to honour his request to the highest possible standard. Inspired and informed by the memory of the composer’s energy and masterful command of timing, tension and silence, Echo Collective was able to articulate a musical journey such that every listener could individually experience something meaningful and personal. We have followed through on what we fully believe were Jöhann’s intentions for these Quartets.”
The end result comprises twelve tracks of music for string quartet. The music is serious in tone, personal and reflective. It is for the most part somber, but not maudlin. Although not in the format of a typical string quartet, it is clearly music for string quartet, very musical and very moving. The musicians of Echo Collective have done a remarkable job of completing Jöhannsson’s composition and producing this remarkable recording. The only complaint some might have is the length of this CD, which clocks in at less than 42 minutes. Still, it is a truly moving musical experience – one can only wonder what other treasures Jöhannsson might have gone on to compose had his life not been cut short.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: