Saturday 5 September 2015

The slowly unfolding canvasses of Icelandic composer Anna Þorvaldsdóttir reveal many subtle colours and textures on this new release from the International Contemporary Ensemble on Sono Luminus

Icelandic composer, Anna Þorvaldsdóttir (Anna Thorvaldsdottir) (b.1977) studied composition at the University of California, San Diego, USA gaining her MA and PhD with her music now frequently performed in Europe and in the United States by such conductors as Ilan Volkov, Christian Lindberg, Rumon Gamba, Daníel Bjarnason, and Bernhardur Wilkinson.

The Icelandic CAPUT Ensemble conducted by Snorri Sigfus Birgisson has also premiered and recorded major works by her and she has worked with other ensembles including BIT20 Ensemble, Musiques Nouvelles, and the International Contemporary Ensemble. Anna Þorvaldsdóttir was awarded the 2012 Nordic Council Music Prize for her orchestral work Dreaming.

It is another leading ensemble, the International Contemporary Ensemble or ICE that has recorded Anna Þorvaldsdóttir’s works for Sono Luminus . On this new release they perform In The Light of Air for viola, cello, harp, piano, percussion & fixed electronics and Transitions for cello.

The composer tells us that In The Light Of Air (2013/14) is a tetralogy of works that together form a structure of a single piece. The four movements are entitled Luminance, Serenity, Existence and Remembrance. They are connected by short transitions to form a seamless flow throughout the work. The musical material is constructed with focus on subtle nuances and poetic textures that form lyrical gestures throughout the work. Parts of the work are constructed around the idea of each performer being a ‘soloist’ in the setting of a chamber ensemble, in the sense that the performers alternate between traveling through fields of collective instrumental alliances and moving into soloistic approaches.

The piece was written for the International Contemporary Ensemble and premiered by ICE at the Reykjavik Arts Festival on May 25th 2014.

Luminance seems to emerge from the air on a long held note around which there are subtle textures, a beat of a drum as Anna Þorvaldsdóttir creates a real earthy, primeval atmosphere. The music is allowed to develop through the layering of textures, slowly increasing in dynamics. Pin points of sound appear, strings slide and bring points of pizzicato. The strings shimmer and glow in this ever changing music. Piano chords add to the texture and lead to the slowly quietening coda where the atmospheric sounds of the opening return and we are led straight into Serenity where the piano and strings bring resonant chords. Percussion add lovely colours as the harp and piano play a descending motif. There are a myriad of light textured descending phrases before the cello provides a deep resonant anchor to the music as it builds in richer sonorities. There are many fine little details that subtly add to the colour and texture of this music. I particularly love the way disparate textures and motifs gently slide into focus and blend together before a rhythmic pattern takes us into the next movement.

Existence brings deep resonant sounds heaving around in the depths, out of which a viola, then piano bring a theme. Various instrumental ideas shift around, weaving a rich tapestry lightened by wiry string phrases as the harp maintains an insistent pulse. There is a lightening of texture as we move towards Remembrance where percussion add delicate shades of colour to a slowly unwinding string motif. Soon a more prominent, though delicate, percussion passage arrives before a string line appears again with gentle piano and harp. The piano gains prominence in a lovely, flowing rippling theme, the piano slowly gaining in dynamics over a long held string accompaniment. A lovely viola melody takes the lead to which a deeper cello accompaniment and subtle little instrumental details are added. A variety of drum sounds arrive as deep string resonances underpin the music. Eventually all falls quieter as the piano brings a delicate descending motif against string phrases, a point at which the feeling of distant memory is palpable. Sudden piano chords sound out that themselves grow slowly quieter as, with lovely string sonorities, we are led to the coda where a distant gentle harp theme brings about the conclusion.

This is a wonderfully cohesive work that is full of subtle colours and textures, brilliantly played by ICE.

The composer tells us that Transitions (2014) explores the theme of man and machine. The music opens with a wavering cello theme over a side drum before alternating with drum and side drum. As the music tries to heave itself up there are sudden little harmonic motifs. Soon the cello brings a richer melodic moment as the music moves ahead slowly. There is a remarkable subtle sense of forward momentum created. Deeper richer sonorities are developed with short interrupting phrases adding a sense of movement. These sonorities reach a more flowing passage but it is short lived, the shorter phrases returning. Drum beats interrupt but the cello moves on, developing a long rich, resonant, undulating theme. The drums return with alternating short string phrases until a sustained string phrase in held over the drum taps leading to a kind of resolution in the coda. 

Anna Þorvaldsdóttir’s music is not to be confused with minimalism. She brings so much more to her slowly unfolding canvasses. My download shows a very fine recording with great detail. 

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