In this day and age, it would not be unreasonable to imagine that there would be some people who, upon getting ready to attend a concert named “Drone Mass,” might expect a concert where there would be tiny machines flying around the auditorium emitting music and effects. In fact, I would not be surprised if there are already composers working on such a performance. (If not, perhaps I should copyright this idea). “Drone,” however, in the musical sense, is just the opposite of the new-fangled flying machines that do everything from deliver packages for Amazon to spying and dropping bombs. It is more a persistent, sustained anchor for the rest of the music and is and has been a part of the music of nearly all cultures for centuries, if not millennia.

Duke Performances presented a rare performance of Jóhann Jóhannsson‘s Drone Mass, a contemporary oratorio for singers, string quartet and electronics at Duke University’s Baldwin Auditorium. Jóhannsson is an Icelandic composer who in the last decade has become one of the most renowned film composers and was nominated twice for an Academy Award for best film score. This work is celebrating its second anniversary as it premiered in March, 2015 in New York at the remarkable Temple of Dendur exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Joining the composer, who played the electronics parts from an Apple computer while he discretely sat at the side of the stage, was a string quartet from the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (Ben Russell and Yuki Numata Resnick, violins, Caleb Burhans, viola and Clarice Jensen, cello) and one of the most famed vocal groups today, Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices. Conducting this unique ensemble was Donato Cabrera. Richie Clark served as the quite integral sound engineer.

Because this was still, in essence, a work for chorus and string quartet, the demographics of the audience indicated to me that there was probably an expectation that this would be an unusual, post postmodern, atonal and strident work; that description could not be further from reality. Using a text from an ancient Egyptian Coptic hymn and other Gnostic texts, as well as singing only wordless vowels, there is a timeless and resonant quality to this work that embodies music as disparate as Indian ragas to bagpipes to Mahler symphonies.

The physical setup and lighting was a big player in the overall ambience and spiritual connection to the audience. The eight singers, tastefully amplified, were in a semicircle behind the four string players. The very low wattage of the stand lights, combined with an overall very pale lavender background splash, made it nearly impossible to even discern facial features of any of the musicians. The conductor Cabrera was as unobtrusive as musically feasible (something that generally conductors are not). With the female voices starting the work with clear, pure, ethereal tones followed by the low pulsating strings, we were transmitted to a realm of paradoxes and contradictions: stasis with unending motion, clearly enunciated words that are meaningless, newly discovered sounds that have been with us since the dawn of time.

Jóhannsson has his own thoughts on the meaning of the text as well as “drones,” both musically as well as to the sounds of our bodies if capable to stay silent long enough, but as an experienced film composer he knows well to allow his creation to affect each listener without a “this means such and such” sermon.

The vocal parts were quite demanding, especially some tortuous high soprano entries without any cues, but all performed with assurance and ease. The string parts were, for the most part, low-key and sustained harmonies. Special notice should be given to violinist Resnick who played the same repeating five-note pattern at one point for about eight minutes and did it with conviction and no sign of boredom or fatigue: very difficult to do! Overall, the “electronics” part of it, which perhaps is what attracted a certain segment of the audience, was rather minimal and at times indistinguishable from the strings.

An oft-used technique in contemporary composition is saving traditional harmonies or cadences to emerge from unexpected places. There were several moments where a beautifully orchestrated major chord arose out of the chaos and had such a profound effect on the audience that you almost had an audible emotional melting. When music is described as “washing over you,” that is usually meant as a denigrating comment, almost akin to Muzak. But sometimes you need to not be concerned with this kind of musical political correctness and allow yourself to luxuriate in the sheer beauty of what’s being given to you.

Drone Mass has not yet been recorded so I can’t say if it would have a similar effect that way, but if you get a chance to see and hear it live, it may be the best hour you’ve experienced in years.