Deutsche Grammophon is honoured to release the eagerly anticipated world premiere recording of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Drone Mass. Described by its composer as “a contemporary oratorio”, this exceptional work is written for voices, string quartet and electronics. It was commissioned by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME), who have now recorded Drone Mass together with vocal ensemble Theatre of Voices and its Artistic Director Paul Hillier. Both ACME and Theatre of Voices worked closely with Jóhannsson on many occasions – in concert, on tour and in the studio. Out today, 18 March 2022, in digital format as well as on CD and 180g vinyl, this new album not only immortalises one of the Icelandic composer’s defining works, it also stands as a moving tribute from some of the long-time collaborators with whom he worked closely during his illustrious career.
Drone Mass is a profoundly atmospheric work, at times reminiscent of the meditative minimalism of composers such as Pärt or Górecki, and represents what Jóhannsson called “a distillation of a lot of influences and obsessions”. One of these was, as the title suggests, his fascination with the musical device of the drone. Here, his drones have a motivic-like role, shifting and shimmering with hypnotic effect, conjuring different moods, from unsettling to uplifting, as the work progresses.
Beginning with strings and voices, but slowly integrating Jóhannsson’s electronic techniques into its landscape, Drone Mass draws on material from the so-called “Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians” – part of the Nag Hammadi library discovered in 1945 – including a hymn the composer spoke of as “a seemingly meaningless series of vowels”. Both the enigmatic nature of the chosen texts and the sheer beauty of his vocalise-style writing add to the spiritual quality of the work as a whole.
The album was recorded in May 2019 at Copenhagen’s Garnisonskirken (Garrison Church) and produced by Francesco Donadello, another of Jóhannsson’s regular collaborators. ACME were joined by internationally renowned Danish vocal group Theatre of Voices and their Artistic Director Paul Hillier. They too have a very close connection with Drone Mass, having performed it twice in the US, and in Krákow, with Jóhannsson and ACME. Most recently, ACME and Theatre of Voices gave a further performance in Athens, just four months after the composer’s untimely death in Berlin on 9 February 2018, at the age of 48. Their recording of the mysterious, and timeless, Drone Mass is a further reminder of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s rare visionary talent.