The Icelandic band Sigur Rós make music of long vocal sighs and bowed-guitar drone suspended in oceans of reverb. So singer-guitarist Jónsi Birgisson and pianist Kjartan Sveinsson surely felt at home at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in Manhattan, where they gave live premieres of respective individual works, outfitted with orchestra and choir, on November 15th as part of Lincoln Center’s White Lights Festival and the independent Wordless Music series.
Sveinsson, who arranges the strings on his band’s records and wrote much of Sigur Rós’ 2002 orchestral project, Odin’s Raven Magic, debuted two Lincoln Center commissions. Cage a Swallow Can’t You But You Can’t Swallow a Cage was a pure-vocal setting for five sonnets by the poet Anne Carson, performed by the early- music quartet the Hilliard Ensemble. The four men, standing on a platform set back in the nave, sang hearty climbing harmonies in a massive echo that dissolved Carson’s spare lyric tumult (“If storms don’t kill you / Radio towers might”) into ancient liquid tongue — the pure sound of humbled wonder, in a space that let the notes hang long past the singers’ breath.
Sveinsson’s Credo, performed by the Wordless Music Orchestra (conducted by Jeffrey Milarsky) and the 34-strong Latvian National Choir, was sumptuous and rhythmically deliberate. Strings hovered in alternating drawn-out chords, like a slow velvet march; the voices towered over and behind the orchestra, like overlapping mountains. The effect was not unlike a Sigur Rós piece in the band’s early epic prime, minus rock drums and the bowed-guitars, with the dream-space acres in the quartet’s performances filled with more explicit grandeur.
Birgisson and his partner, Alex Somers, gave the first concert performance of six songs from their 2009 album, Riceboy Sleeps, rescoring the original laptop-manipulated atmospheres with live orchestration and robust fountains of choral singing. Birgisson’s own high floating tenor in “Indian Summer” was a strong natural countervoice to the choir, who sometimes sounded too big for the intended intimacy. But the mix of crackling samples and slipper-walk strings in “Sleeping Giant,” plus the slow billowing blend of orchestra, voices and music-box-like piano in “Atlas Song,” moved through the church, in the long reverb, with immersive grace. The music started in front of you, on the stage, but never stayed there.