Icelandic composer Bjarni Biering engages us with everyday beauty
The Andvaka Suite by Icelandic composer Bjarni Biering goes beyond beauty to grace, and beyond grace to the wordless lands where conditioned action is stilled, and memories are made and conjured. You will not hear a more beautiful, powerful, and affecting album this year.
In simplest terms, The Andvaka Suite is Satie via Iceland, or Charles Ives in the post-La Monte Young/Pauline Oliveros universe of gentle yet adamant noise and the spacious hums that know our deepest secrets. Taken as a whole, this 13-movment suite of reckoning and resolve, meditation and self-examination, identity and non-identity is something much, much bigger and more beautiful than words can testify. But this does not mean it is anything foreign, noisy, or extreme – in fact, it is an enormously welcoming piece of music. Like the work of the late Thich Nhat Hanh, who put Buddhism at our fingertips and made it not just simple but logical, with The Andvaka Suite Biering takes an “extreme” – a long form composition, in this case – and births something eminently utile, human, loveable, moving, melodic but full of spine and strange.
I ask that rock ‘n’ roll be graceful and ridiculous, humble and pompous, aspiring and obvious. Mostly, I ask that it always seek the heart, and express something words cannot. All music is rock ‘n’ roll, so says I, so I use this word where others may not. The whistle high in the bare winter trees in the reverb-less land of the standing stones in Wiltshire, England, that’s rock ‘n’ roll. The holler, thump and drone song of the slaves building the pyramids at the dawn of the written word and the holler, thump and hallelujah song of the slaves picking cotton in the age of America’s original sin, that is rock ‘n’ roll. The rousing salute of the horns on the first beat of the first bar of the second act of La Boheme as a blue-lit, bustling winter city is drawn in music, that is rock ‘n’ roll. rock ‘n’ roll is what rocks and rolls your heart and your mind. It is mnemonic and tonic. It is the Treniers and it is John Cage, it is Satie and Discharge, it is mostly Bo Diddley and Moondog and everything in between that tells the truth. Rhythm and heart, space and heart, silence and heart, pain and heart, celebration and heart. The shiver of nothing but that which compels us to listen! The roar of noise that forces out all other thoughts!
Artist: Bjarni Biering
Album: The Andvaka Suite
Label: Curious Music
★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
It’s all rock ‘n’ roll. It is the hill I die on, the hill of the heart, the hill of memory summoned and colored in. It is Charley Patton and the Collins Kids, Stuart Dempster and the U.K. Subs. rock ‘n’ roll is the place where there is no space and the place where there is nothing but space. It is the echoes of slave ship and the foreshadow of spaceships. But mostly, rock ‘n’ roll is memory, memories within out tiny, short lives and ancestral memories we don’t stop long enough to hear.
And that’s The Andvaka Suite by Bjarni Biering, too.
The greatest rock ‘n’ roll conjures a memory that eludes words, may even elude the pin-drop of time and place. It is the mind’s Polaroid where there was no camera (and maybe this is where/why it dies, because rock ‘n’ roll is a memory conjured or memory made, not memory frozen in a picture on the phone). For me, rock ‘n’ roll is something that causes me to recall lying in a crib at sunrise under a thin and soft blue blanket, staring up at an impossibly distant off-white ceiling, listening to the trucks rumble by on old Route 17 near Ferndale. It is also the memory of standing on stage with Glenn Branca (in my ridiculous early 20s) at that moment when the noise makes you feel like you are levitating, and you swear you can hear 80 gladiator-film horns that aren’t actually there. And it is the feeling – not just the memory, but the feeling — of sitting in silent mediation at the feet of Sogyal Rinpoche, and the Guru suddenly shrieked, and you heard silence as you never heard it before. rock ‘n’ roll. And it is the trapped peace of the MRI tube, where rhythm and noise and the relief of immobility and inability to affect the world lull me to sleep. All I have time for is music that brings me to these places, or brings me to a place where memory has yet to find a name to attach to experience.
Oh, and that’s all The Andvaka Suite by Bjarni Biering.
Another first thing you know about this album is that it is almost impossibly beautiful, but not impossibly beautiful, because it is possibly beautiful. The Andvaka Suite is the beauty of possibility and memory and that moment where you watch the moon and notice it is moving, that moment when you pray silence and sit and feel your spine insisting on gravity, that moment of evening when you see the outline of the darker tree against the dark sky. These are the loud quiet moments, moments of grace and tension and the place where memory is conjured and memory is made. And nor does The Andvaka Suite dissolve into the fey and useless land of spa music because it is full of concept and tension, weighted space and dissonance.
The thirteen movements here – processional and humming, tinkling and melodic, mechanical and organic, distant and present, glowing and rich –are full of tension and resolve, questions and answers and questions that resolve to remain unanswered. The whole suite is a voyage to the place where the mind’s most thrilling thoughts of peace and beauty burst into a realization that is below and above and beyond words, the place where we can use object to separate silence and sound (just barely), and it all is a kind, visible/invisible fog of opal ash and grace. The Andvaka Suite is there/not there, ferocious/placid, rock ‘n’ roll/a dream of clouds.
So how about that.
Oh, now would be a good time to mention that I don’t think The Andvaka Suite has any connection to the slowly creeping, squid-ink-drooling Icelandic doom metal band Andvaka, or maybe it does? Both Biering and (the band) Andvaka summon the spirits of a world full of insistent space. But the band Andvaka work under a starless sky where forward movement is trapped by the cruel loop of weed (it apes the screams of slavery), while Biering’s world is full of all manner of light, nuance, motion, and a hope that transcends the bullshit of this world.
If it helps at all, while experiencing The Andvaka Suite I kept on thinking of three of my favorite pieces of music: “Forgotten Dreams” by Leroy Anderson, “The Unanswered Question” by Charles Ives, and “Bird’s Lament” by Moondog. These compositions seem to describe the land of practical dreams, sweet and bitter imagination materialized into sound, and the constancy of life’s sad/happy. The Andvaka Suite fits in perfectly with those, sums all of these songs up, touches on all the same moments of foam and fire, in one long composition. So, please note: “Forgotten Dreams” + “The Unanswered Question” + “Bird’s Lament” divided by Roedelius and/or Satie and La Monte Young = a simulacrum of this glorious composition, this moment of gravity, grace, and outline of resolution.
Finally, I think The Andvaka Suite is this, too:
All composed things are like a dream,
a phantom, a drop of dew, a flash of lightning.
That is how to meditate on them,
that is how to observe them.
— Thich Nhat Hanh, From “The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion.”
VIDEO: Bjorn Biering “I Embrace My Dreams”