The new album from British composer Daniel Elms, Islandia, takes its name from an Austen Tappen Wright’s utopian novel, and includes five separate pieces that evoke both folk traditions and some of the repetitive yet hypnotic phrasing from minimalist composers of the late 20th century. Elms uses a distinct ensemble for each composition, and at any given moment you might hear a string quartet, or synthesizers, or a horn section, or voices. You might even hear Elms playing an electric guitar. Islandia is both a relaxed and majestic album, much in the tradition of Elgar, but with modern touches that propel this music into the present.
Daniel Elms and his music are very much grounded in the UK. Recorded at Abbey Road in 2017, Islandia has that cool, cloudy and windswept feel of an English spring near the ocean, which is fitting since Elms was inspired by “island enclaves, folk songs, roots, and chants borne upon vast, rolling seas.” The title track uses a muted trumpet to mimic the sound of a lonely voice calling out to the sea, waiting for an answer that may never come. “North Sea Quartet” is about Elms early years in Kingston-upon-Hull and uses electronic pulses to recreate the image of tides and waves and a distant churning sea. Much of this music conveys the feeling of a single person confronting the vastness of the ocean and finding both solace and loneliness.
It’s not all about the UK and the sea, however. “The Old Declarn” is based upon a book of Appalachian folk music that Daniel Elms found in someone’s home. Elms slowly builds layers and then subtracts them in an effort to show how many different traditions exist in the Appalachians, side by side, valley by valley. “The Soft Machine” is based upon the 1961 novel from William S. Burroughs and sounds like an unlikely companion to the other compositions–this is where Elms plays his electric guitar along with the string quartet to show how quietly these ideas can blend together into a surprising whole.
As I mentioned, Britain is the undercurrent here–apart from its Abbey Road origins, the artwork comes from local Hull and Yorkshire residents, and the nearly silent LP pressing was done in Yorkshire. I think it’s important to have a superior pressing when you’re dealing with music this introspective, especially when you ponder the spaces of silence that permeate this work. This is a gentle album from a presumably gentle soul, a modern classical work that draws heavily from the past while sounding like the 21st century in its willingness to merge seemingly disparate elements. This is a rainy day work from Daniel Elms, one meant to be enjoyed while looking out the window, preferably upon an open view of the ocean.
Daniel Elms, Islandia is available on vinyl from Amazon.