American Contemporary Music ensemble
Theatre of Voices
Paul Hillier (Conductor)
Drone Mass is a “contemporary oratorio,” Jóhann Jóhannsson once said. He wrote the mass for voices, string quartet and electronics – never before recorded – for the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, a.k.a. ACME, with whom he played concerts and recorded for nearly ten years. Now ACME and the Grammy Award-winning vocal ensemble Theatre of Voices, under the direction of the equally Grammy Award-winning Paul Hillier, present the world premiere recording of Drone Mass. Both ensembles knew Jóhannsson well; they worked closely with him in the studio, on stage and on tour. On March 18, 2022, the atmospherically dense work of the composer, who died much too early, will be released on CD, LP and digitally by Deutsche Grammophon Drone Mass is an extraordinary and at the same time mysterious opus, it begins with strings and vocals, successively electronic sounds are woven into the composition. It has been compared to the meditative minimalism of an Arvo Pärt or Henryk Górecki, while Jóhannsson himself called it “a distillation of many influences and obsessions.” Among those obsessions is Jóhannsson’s fascination with the drone – the titular drone – a “fundamental vibration,” he explained, “that anchors the music and gives it a foundation.” He used it both acoustically and electronically, sometimes merely underscoring the music, sometimes drowning it all out. The meaning of the word – drone in German – created an additional layer of resonance; in the music, however, the vibrations are like a motif: they shift, seem to shimmer, to hypnotize, creating different moods in the course of the work, unsettling, but also uplifting Also contributing to such hypnotic effect are the vocal lines, at times reminiscent of Renaissance polyphony, especially in the two movements “Two is Apocryphal” and “Moral Vacuums.” For a long time Jóhannsson had been interested in writing a large-scale vocal work. He finally found a source in the Coptic Egyptian Gospel, which survives in the Nag Hammadi writings discovered in 1945. Among other texts, Jóhannsson used a hymn consisting of a “seemingly meaningless series of vowels.” Both the enigmatic nature of these Gnostic writings and the sheer beauty of the vocalized script give the work a spiritual quality. It seems fitting, then, that Drone Mass premiered in 2015 at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in the spectacular setting of Egypt’s Temple of Dendur. At the time, the Grammy Award-winning vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth performed alongside the ACME players, while the composer himself controlled the electronic sound waves. It was not until four years later that the music was recorded, in May 2019 at the Garnisonskirken in Copenhagen. Francesco Donadello, another friend and regular collaborator of Jóhannsson, produced the album. This time ACME was accompanied by the internationally renowned Danish vocal group Theatre of Voices and its artistic director Paul Hillier. Theatre of Voices also has a close connection to Drone Mass. The ensemble has already performed the piece twice in the U.S., as well as in Krakow with Jóhannsson himself and with ACME. Most recently, ACME and Theatre of Voices staged Drone Mass in Athens, just a few months after the composer’s death. Theatre of Voices has also been featured in other recordings of Jóhannsson’s music, including Orphée, Englabörn & Variations, Arrival, and Last and First Men. The composer’s inclusive way of working favored such ongoing collaborations – a collaborative spirit that is also at the heart of this recording. When Drone Mass was first unveiled, Jóhannsson was already internationally known, thanks in part to his music for Denis Villeneuve’s films Sicario (2015) and Prisoners (2013). He won a Golden Globe in 2015 for his score to James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything, and a year later his contribution to Villeneuve’s acclaimed Arrival earned him an Oscar nomination. in 2016, his highly acclaimed debut album Orphée was released by Deutsche Grammophon. Jóhannsson died just two years later, on February 9, 2018, in Berlin at the age of 48. Although its release has been a long time coming, Drone Mass ranks among the composer’s most important works. That the oratorio is now being released is also a moving and personal tribute by people who knew Jóhannsson very well.