(Anna Thorvaldsdóttir: program note on Dreaming)
There is the slow breath of the earth – the growth of plants, the turning of the seasons – and this is perhaps what the Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdóttir is hearing in her music, the flowing unfolding of rich detail within wholeness. She has worked with various media, from symphony orchestra to studio electronics, but always with a sense more of listening than imposing, of allowing sound to form itself.
Born in 1977, she graduated from the Iceland Academy of the Arts in 2004 and then studied with Rand Steiger and Lei Liang at UCSD. By the time she received her doctorate there, in 2011, her reputation was established. Three milestones had come in 2006: the Iceland Symphony Orchestra gave the première of A Moment of Peace, her Six Minutes for flute, percussion, and harp was presented at the International Rostrum of Composers in Vienna, and another chamber piece, Aton, was recorded for CD. Another important moment was the first performance, in 2010, of her orchestral Dreaming, which last year was honored with the Nordic Council Music Prize. A portrait album, Rhizōma, was released in 2011.
She has become quite prolific in recent years. Apart from the items on this evening’s program, works she has produced since Dreaming include another orchestral score, AERIALITY, as well as scape for partly prepared piano, – aura – for percussionists, Shadows for brass and percussion, and Shades of Silence for string trio with harpsichord or piano. She also composed the music for Martein Thorsson’s movie XL, which was released earlier this past summer.
into - second self (2013)
First performed in April this year by members of the Iceland Symphony under Ilan Volkov, this ten-minute piece is scored for four horns, three trombones, and four percussion players. The musicians are to be dispersed around the performance space, though with at least one percussionist on stage, for reasons as much dramatic as musical.
From out of faint noises, the dim light of pitched tone begins to appear: a medium-low G, soon wavering with slow glissandos and quarter-tone displacements, then bulging and disappearing – but not for long before a different light enters, that of B flat, this time with octaves and fifths, a sound that, reproducing overtones, speaks of raw nature. Again there is a kind of heaving stability, with narrow slides and quarter-tone roughnesses, and again the percussion players seem to be sounding the sound. The implications this time, though, are mightier, as the new sound spreads to embrace the old and, in the process, be transformed.
Ró / [Chinese character] (2013)
The dual-language title, “Serenity” in Icelandic and Chinese, honors the occasion of the first performance, which was given by the Icelandic new-music ensemble Caput at this year’s Beijing Music Festival, just a month after the première of into. There are correspondences between the two works, not least in duration, but also differences that spring from the instrumentation, which here comprises two low woodwinds – bass flute and bass clarinet – plus string quartet, together with percussion and piano (played on the frame and directly on the strings, with fingers, a superball mallet, and an electronic bow, as well as on the keyboard). Pitched sound arises from noise and may always fold back into it, the noise produced as much from the string and wind instruments as from the percussion and piano. Natural harmonics – octaves and fifths in the ensemble texture, and harmonics played on the instruments – create an effect of sound resonating in its wild state, even while the composer’s definition of that sound is scrupulous and sophisticated. There is also a similar progression, from an A center to a C, but here with flickers of melody measuring a much faster time than that of the main substance.
“When you see a long sustained pitch,” the composer advises her performers in the score’s preface, “think of it as a fragile flower that you need to carry in your hands and walk the distance on a thin rope without dropping it or falling.” And this: “Brokenness…indicates a fragile state of wholeness.”
Union, it will already be clear, is a principle with Thorvaldsdóttir. Here it comes about from the arrival of two musicians, different in aptitude, training, and repertory, at the one instrument: a grand piano. The first performance of the piece, which plays for twelve minutes or so, was given in 2009 at the Dark Music Days, Iceland’s annual wintertime new-music festival, by Tinna Thorsteinsdóttir and Frank Aarnink.
Both musicians are, of course, using their special skills: the pianist at the keyboard, the percussionist using mallets and wire brushes as well as fingertips. But both, too, are taken into less familiar territory, especially in exploring the instrument’s interior. Mutual supportiveness is of the essence, through clusters to which both players contribute, melodies that move from normal piano sound to less normal and back again, harmonics they produce together, altered sound that comes when the pianist at the keyboard plays notes being struck or muted by the percussionist working directly on the strings, and so on. As the field of action widens and narrows and widens again, two become one.
Composed for another two-person team, the Duo Harpverk (Katie Buckley and, again, Frank Aarnink), this piece opens a different route to alliance, the musicians now in their own spaces, on their own instruments, but often blending in sound – and in how sound is produced. Tactility = touch. The harp, like the guitar and lute, is an instrument that requires the touch of the performers’ fingers on its vibrating elements, its strings, and Thorvaldsdóttir applies that approach also to her percussion writing, asking for the direct bodily contact of hands, fingertips, or fingernails on the instruments: bass drum, tam tam, a wooden object, and a klakabönd (“ice links”), a metal disk about ten inches across that looks like a circle of frozen drips. Even when using mallets and other implements, the percussionist is more to coax than strike. Meanwhile, the harpist goes some way toward acting like a percussionist, tapping on the wood of the instrument with fingers or mallet, brushing hands over the strings, and so on.
Watching all this is important. “Every touch,” the composer writes at the head of the score, “every preparation, placement of objects, and gesture is a part of the musical work.”
Unlike all the other pieces on this program, Tactility is in separate movements – seven of them, though only four are heard, the even-numbered ones being silent. The piece had is first performance in Washington, D.C., in March of this year – which makes a total of three Thorvaldsdóttir compositions heard for the first time within a three-month period on three different continents.
In the three and a half years since Caput gave the première, at the National Gallery of Iceland, Hrím has been heard widely, tonight’s being its fourth performance in the U.S. alone. There are good reasons for its success. It makes a nod to one of the founding masterpieces of the new-music ensemble repertory, the Ligeti Chamber Concerto, but, within the scope of eight minutes, it creates a whole world of its own, poetic and exquisitely crafted.
“The piece is,” the composer’s note states, “inspired by the notion of dispersion, represented as release and echoing in the sense that single elements in the music are released and spread through the ensemble in various ways throughout the process of the piece.” This is something like the art of canon, except that the imitating voice will often be slower than the original, perhaps lapsing before the melody is complete – and Hrím is full of beautiful melodic gestures. Dispersion can lead so far that only one note is left: E in octaves about half way through the composition. Thorvaldsdóttir marks this significant moment “freeze,” which might be nicely taken as a pun, as not only does the music here stop in time but also it conveys – as it does, too, in its tremblings, its twinklings, its breathy sounds, its delicacy – the sense of its title, meaning “Hoarfrost.” New energy is soon being pumped in by piano, brass, and bass clarinet, but the dispersion continues to another, final point of rest.