Tone Poem Tuesday

Reading Alex Ross’s book Listen to This, a compilation of his columns from The New Yorker, I was reading a chapter on Icelander singer Björk, and I came across this passage:

Modern Icelandic music begins with Jón Leifs, who lived from 1899 to 1968, and whose 1961 work Hekla helped bring Björk and her chorus together…Hekla, which is named after Iceland’s largest active volcano, has been described as the loudest piece of music ever written. It requires nineteen percussionists, who play a fantastic battery of instruments, including anvils, sirens, bells, ship’s chains, a sort of tree-hammer, shotguns, and cannons.

I mean, come on. How could I not want to hear that?


Hekla depicts the 1947 eruption of the volcano of that name, which Leifs witnessed.  The mountain already had a fearsome reputation stretching back to 1104 when a huge eruption led to a belief throughout Europe that Hekla was the gateway to Hell – a belief that only died out at the approach of the 20th century.

Characteristically, Leifs thought little about the practicalities of his piece, and called for an array of instruments that were either unobtainable – massive church bells for instance – or unplayable, such as rapidly repeating shotguns.  Rocks that ring with musical pitches were found, and ships’ chains and steel tubing were scrounged from the Reykjavik dockyards.   Whether or not the exact sounds in the composer’s head made it to the concert hall, the effect at its 1964 premiere would have resonated throughout the musical scene in Iceland, liberating a surge of edge-of-the-world originality which has yet to cease.

Here it is. And yes, you need to turn it up…but be careful. This thing is like the last part of the 1812 Overture and the storm from Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie, jammed together, given multiples doses of steroids, and blasted from the heavens.

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