Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s recent ascendance into the new music scene’s upper atmospheres has proved as ineluctable and stunning a sight to behold as ground-to-cloud lightning. Scanning the Classical Top 10 lists at the close of 2014, readers might reasonably have wondered if an editorial dictate had been handed down from on high, reserving a slot expressly for “Albums by Icelandic Composers Named Anna.” The near-universal critical acclaim has certainly been richly deserved, as Thorvaldsdottir’s new Aerial is a record that unfurls vast and bewildering sonic panoramas before the listener, confounding in scope and yet familiar in a way that renders the experience utterly visceral and intimate. These sounds, alternately as intimidating as a legion of ancient carnyx horns and as hushed as twirling samaras, deposit the listener in the midst of colossal external landscapes—landscapes that could also, and just as plausibly, have originated from within the fanciful bounds of one’s own cerebral cortex.
Thorvaldsdottir is a self-described introvert, but let it be said that she also has a high tolerance for the persistent, dropped call pageant that is the Skype interview. Between bubbly-sounding reconnection alerts, an extensive conversation ensued, dipping into themes that touched on the natural world, musical influences, the creative process, fame—and why the hell everyone is so entranced with Iceland.
So grab a good pair of headphones and fire up that Spotify account: with Aerial’s track list as our point of departure, we will attempt to unearth just what it is that makes this music so captivating, while also examining some of its biographical wellsprings and exploring what comes next for a composer whose (only) second album landed a spot on the exalted Deutsche Grammophon roster.
into – Second Self
For 4 horns, 3 trombones, & 4 percussionists. Performed (with overdubbing) by Stefán Jón Bernharðsson (horn), Sigurður Sveinn Þorbergsson (trombone), & Frank Aarnink (percussion)
Wire brushes on a tam-tam rustle like frozen eyelashes pulling apart. Before vision refocuses, a deep tremor vibrates, radiating up from the soles of boots stiffened by raw snow.
One element that can be traced through Anna’s catalog is a certain seamlessness, the instantaneous immersion of the listener in a given piece’s sound world. There is no “getting acquainted” period to speak of within the language. Timbre provides the immediate entryway, and the use of pitch is concise but inexorable. While the composer doesn’t often incorporate obscure noisemakers or flurries of novel instrumental techniques, an exception is made here for the rolling of a giant metal wheel across the stage (the tremor). There is a theatricality to the revolution of this steel, as its handler is the only performer on stage save the conductor. Four horns, three trombones, and three more percussionists are instead positioned around the hall, enveloping the audience in pitch-less drafts of wind sound, unisons stretched apart by quarter-tone deviations, and hieratic, ceremonial pronouncements from the alpine bells. The vista is scarred by the wind, but not desolate…nor uninhabited. The question is, inhabited by what?
“Second self” may be the most fitting term for the adaptations a shy personality must necessarily make to pursue a public career. Since the release of her debut album, Rhízōma, in 2011 (on the Innova label), Anna has been navigating a full slate of commissions from top-shelf institutions like the International Contemporary Ensemble, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, the Oslo Philharmonic, and forward-slashers Yarn/Wire and Either/Or. Trophies, and the extroverted glad-handing they call for, arrived from the Iceland Music Awards (2011) and Nordic Council (2012), among others. This spotlight is more than a few lumens removed from the natural wattage congenial for a musician who, laughing, admits, “I was terrified of showing anyone what I was doing,” when discussing her first classes with John Speight at the Sigursveinn D. Kristinsson of School of Music in 1998. Though she grew up in an artistically tolerant home, one that happily encouraged the development of a mind thronging with all manner of melodic fancy, the young composer was initially petrified at the prospect of divulging her early efforts to fellow students and teachers.
For bass flute, bass clarinet, piano, percussion, 2 violins, viola, & cello. Performed by CAPUT Ensemble, Guðni Franzson (conductor)
Dampened piano thwacks pummel the earth like stone pylons, the desiccated grass of string tremolos curling inward around them. Striking the subterranean crust, they hum glowing overtones, embracing the bystander. Everything within view begins to vibrate, sympathetically.
As is the case with most of her recorded pieces, Anna edited and mixed most of these tracks herself. What is so striking about both her albums is how they situate the listener right at the nexus of their constellations of texture—inside the music. It’s as though you’ve commandeered an invisibility cloak, stolen onto the concert hall stage, and tucked into the center of the ensemble, the stage pulsating beneath you. When it comes to Ró, which translates as “tranquility,” this trespass is not nervy, but serene and restorative.
For an imagination overflowing with such immense, and at times frightening, aural impressions, Anna’s early musical years were by contrast rather stormless. Born in 1977 in the small town of Borgarnes, outside Reykjavík, to a carpenter and a music teacher, her early training did not include locked practice room doors or aggravated stage parenting. “I was always singing,” she remembers, adding that Mom and Dad were, and still are, enthusiastic proponents. In an audacious parental maneuver (what with recent horror stories of frustrated conductors bringing concerts to a embarrassing halt to admonish the parents of inattentive children), her mother brought a five-year-old Anna to the opera. Though she does not recall the specific piece or production, she can still affectionately summon up the memory of exuberantly conducting along with the music, the sounds permeating her being in a way she had never previously experienced. The episode eventually led her to the cello, which she began studying at the age of twelve. Having experimented with a number of alternatives, she fell in ardent love with the instrument, feeling as though she had finally hit on the most effective conduit for her brand of sonic expression.
For orchestra. Performed by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Ilan Volkov (conductor)
A peal of thunder dissolves the curtain enshrouding the orchestra as woodwinds enter one by one, coalescing on a unison F-sharp. We are adrift in a surging salt-water expanse, pitching and rocking at the whim of the waves. The sonar of the timpani signals toward the murky floor beneath, thousands of feet down. Strings churn the frothy ink around us as we attempt an ascent up to barely floating wreckage. The swirling is relentless and indifferent. The F-sharp returns: a distant glimmer of hope? The sounds of strings slapping against fingerboards, like more claps of thunder, diminish our prospects for rescue before this fever dream retreats back into the quivering darkness from which it emerged. It is a palindrome of fear, but we exit transformed.
It is a hoary adage to say that music of this kind invites the adjective “cinematic.” We’re more accustomed to imaginative vistas like those traced by Thorvaldsdottir addressing us from film screens—or, failing that, if you’re standing at the base of Victoria Falls, trekking through the Kolob Canyons, or (having hacked Richard Branson’s checking account) enjoying the pleasures of commercial space flight. For this reason Anna’s compositional approach is concise, almost conservative. Each instrument in employed for an individual role; there is little to no volleying of motives or phrases. It’s as if each instrument has been whittled down to its timbral essence in service of this spectacle, one in which the listener relinquishes some of their agency, having been caromed, suspended, and submerged.
“In the beginning, it’s excruciating,” Anna says of her early days, when she dipped her toes into the elusive pursuit of writing music. She is quick to credit John Speight with gently coaxing her into sharing her first sonic endeavors, and it was precisely this innocence and inexperience that helped her to bypass any initial fears with regard to the question of whether or not a career in composition might be quixotic. That women in this field remain dismayingly underrepresented on concert programs and within academia became a concern mostly in hindsight. Gender disparity is no less of an issue in Iceland than abroad, but it was only later on in the course of her studies that Anna actively sought out the work of female composers in particular.
For many performers and composers, graduate school is where the real work begins, where the craft is honed in earnest and the challenges of the so-called “real world” begin to sharpen. Anna describes arriving at the University of California at San Diego as eager to soak up new approaches to musical construction and creative expression, but also resolved not to abandon the inner voice she had already uncovered:
I thought I knew what I was going to be doing, and what I would learn, and what path I was on. I’ve always been very determined in my music. But new people, a new environment, and new inspiration…they bring you something that you just can’t predict. There I learned all kinds of things I could have never imagined, both in life and music.
Like Speight, UCSD professor Rand Steiger guided the young composer out of the warm, hermetic cove of inchoate inspiration and into the garish light of being able to articulate concrete thoughts about her music. She describes the tutelage as metamorphic for her development as a composer and future public figure. She found the open and validating “vibe” of the school a good match for her personal, exacting approach, saying, “I am very demanding on myself, and UCSD allowed me to explore, rather than forcing me into a structure. I knew I wanted to allow my voice to resonate.”
Tactility [movements III, I & II]
For harp & percussion. Performed by Duo Harpverk
A sliver of cold light begins to emerge from behind this lunar eclipse, swelling with each passing second as its glow delicately outlines the silhouette of a slumbering, ancient colossus. Only the gentle rise and fall at its peak, almost imperceptible, betrays the secret that this mountain is animate. Tiny avalanches of dust, scales, and stone flitter down to the ground in constant harmony, lofting a phosphorescent resonance into the night air. Suddenly, a deep, intestine-reshuffling bass oscillation is emitted from within this beast, leveling everything within its circumference before its song materializes. It calls to mind the delectable twang of the Japanese koto, its pitches scooping earthward as each string is plucked. The insistent knock of a drum releases innumerable cascades of debris as sleep diffuses with the growing light. The koto melody melts into a series of phantasmal scales, shaking the human imposter below from his trance. If this leviathan wakes, our wayfarer won’t be making a return voyage. Shouldering a battered shield, he sprints in a wide circle at the base of the beast, dragging it along the smooth rock underfoot and provoking a calming drone, like that of a Tibetan prayer bowl, one that mercifully delivers the mountain back into somnolence.
“Fluidity” is the through-line, the fundamental element interconnecting each of the components of Anna’s oeuvre. It is this organic movement, into and out of a piece and within its aqueous boundaries, that calls to mind parallels with fellow timbre wranglers like György Ligeti, Kaija Saariaho, and György Kurtág. She finds these comparisons flattering, but is emphatic that her inspiration is derived from sources going far beyond any one composer: “You can be listening to music very different from what you’re searching for, and it opens something up inside. It’s so strange how inspiration works like that.” She does concede that George Crumb’s string quartet Black Angels and Krzysztof Penderecki’s landmark string orchestra score Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima were two works that helped show the way towards the immense, untapped sonic potential still present in even the most traditional of instruments. But the source of inspiration Anna is more eager to discuss is that of nature, which is fundamental to her creative consciousness. While not seeking explicitly to replicate any sounds or processes she finds in the wild, the composer does cull much of her source material from her time interacting with the natural world. The cover artwork of Aerial is telling, as it features its creator weaving her way through a cairn garden, which appears as the only feature in every direction for miles.
A footbridge between the formalized constraints of notation and the plasmic character of the composer’s ideas is crucial. This comes by way of Anna’s distinctive graphic studies, elegant color sketches of root structures and exploratory vectors that ultimately outline the shape and direction each score is to take. (Scroll back up to the banner image for an example of one of these colorful studies.) “For me, they are like a mnemonic device,” she explains, noting that these drawings allow her the mental space to focus on sound, instrumentation, and timbre without having constantly to call back the piece’s form. Browsing her finished scores, one sees how meticulous notation has completely replaced these tantalizing graphics, and while the printed page is rigorous in its directives, the layering of voices is conceived in a way that encourages elasticity. “I want the performers to feel natural, not restricted by parsing quintuplets,” she says. Like Saariaho and Ligeti, fluency, and not rigidity, is what escapes off the page.
For piano & electronics. Performed by Tinna Þorsteinsdottir (piano) & Anna Thorvaldsdottir (electronics)
What instrument is more versatile, more full of possibility than the piano? Its sustain, prodigious, and its power, gargantuan. One could spend a day just dropping objects on its strings and ruminating on the spectra of articulation and resonance produced. Detune it, and a simple, monophonic arpeggio is transformed into a gripping, psychological horror soundtrack. Cuff the lid with the palm of the hand, and a faint chorus surfaces. Even the lifting and shutting of the keyboard cover offers a satisfying acoustic event.
Trajectories repels us down the piano’s inner walls, fixing tiny objects to the instrument’s ligaments. Staccato messages from wood and felt hammers punctuate the misty shroud of electronics while a plectrum (an expired credit card, perhaps) dispatches a perforated sonic contour as it is drawn along the ribbed surface of the taut strings. A falling motive pulls us continually back inside the cavern while prismatic overtones from the piano’s unencumbered keys flare out of the dusky interior. Like a primordial vapor, the pervasive electronic undercurrent gives birth to autonomous organisms, sending them hurtling to the far reaches of a crepuscular universe. It’s as though the echoes of Carl Sagan’s golden record, long since ejected from Voyager, are finally bouncing back to our atmosphere, the waves elongated but resembling the original just enough to be recognizable.
Anna’s path, while by no means facile and by all means earned, has traced a determined course from ebullient, five-year-old armchair conductor to internationally known, compositional ace. In 2011, the same year that saw the release of Rhízōma, she applied for and secured a spot in ICElab, the creative composition crucible launched by the International Contemporary Ensemble in New York City. Referring to it fondly as a “blank canvas,” Anna was drawn to the creative freedom ICElab offered for the development of a concert-length work. In tandem with her debut album, the residency provided many new music fans with their first exposure to the imagination of the Icelander. The result, the four-piece cycle In the Light of Air, was finally premiered by ICE in May 2014 and is slated for release on the Sono Luminus label later this year. This April, the Ensemble will be rebooting the work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, with the composer in tow.
In the midst of this period of fast momentum building, Columbia University’s venerated Miller Theater Composer Portraits series hosted an evening-length survey across the Thorvaldsdottir catalog, with Either/Or essaying compositional entries like the 2010 chamber orchestra score Hrím (a piece using the transformations of ice crystals as its poetic launching point, and perhaps her most widely-known offering) alongside Tactility and Ró.
The move to major label Deutsche Grammophon did not just materialize out of nowhere, however, despite growing interest among listeners and presenters. Then-Vice President of Digital Sales and Marketing at Universal Music Classics and Jazz, Collin J. Rae, provided the introductions, and talks began as to which of the company’s labels would best fit the bewitching sounds of Anna’s next album. Home to ECM, Decca, and Mercury Classics, Universal landed on DG, a label that has not expended significant energies on new music in many years, but one boasting an immense and loyal listenership. It is safe to say that the partnership between Anna and DG looks to be a symbiotic one: a young composer gains credibility through a release on a revered label, and a traditionally-minded label gains credibility through its alliance with an original, young composer.
2015 finds Anna giving a rare solo piano recital during the Tectonics Festival at the Harpa concert hall in Reykjavík, as well as the premiere of her first chamber opera (the working title is UR_), commissioned by the Far North Cultural Network and debuting at the Theater Trier in Germany (near the Luxembourg border). Like the ICElab residency, the terms of this new opera were creatively open-ended. Taking advantage of this leeway, the piece assigns three different singers to cover its sole character, and while there is a narrative—one the composer refers to as “atmospherical”—the libretto is far from traditional. The singers deliver a kind of linguistic collage, with non-sensical texts that require them to take on an almost instrumental role. The magnitude of the project has necessitated even more extensive graphic sketches: “There is so much paper. My walls are covered in drawings!”
Shades of Silence
For violin, viola, cello, & harpsichord. Performed by Nordic Affect
There is no such thing as silence. Here we sit, in a handsome room, surrounded by ancient instruments. Even before we pick one of them up off the silk rug, the sound of blood rushing in our ears provides an ostinato, a substratum for improvisation. You drift toward the harpsichord, plucking out major seconds and perfect fourths as I agitate a set of gut strings with a trembling hand. We grow restless and select new noisemakers, bending pitches narrowly up and down but always finding each other at a central equator. This collection of vibrations wafts around us, liquefying the centuries separating us from paintings that hang in their thick, gold frames. Outside it is chilled and damp, but within this room, all is warm and hypnotic.
Performed on Baroque instruments, this recording by early/new music ensemble Nordic Affect is easily the most intimate track on Aerial. There is often talk in instrumental circles that Baroque tuning, noticeably lower than our contemporary North Star of A440, feels somehow more natural, more organic. Anna’s embrace of these darker sonorities opens up a sumptuous tonal palette unavailable for the most part in modern orchestral instrumentation. While the other selections on this album seem to create a headspace in which the listener becomes a solitary figure in an illimitable landscape, Shades of Silence plays equally well as a wistful, lonely meditation in front of a rain-streaked window, or an alluring rendezvous between confidants. It plays as whatever the listener brings to the experience.
In 2013, Anna moved back to Iceland, for reasons both practical and artistic. Splitting her time primarily between Europe and the United States, Iceland is neatly situated between the two by plane. Her husband, Hrafn Asgeirsson holds a post-doctoral research position at the University of Iceland, where he specializes in Philosophy of Law. The two have been married for thirteen years, and Anna is effusive about him, speaking of him as a creative catalyst for her work: “His effect on my music is all-dimensional. He is an absolutely invaluable part of my process, and his influence resonates throughout my music.”
Though much of the bashfulness she used to feel when talking about her work has long since dissipated, Anna found herself seduced by the prospect of returning to the outskirts of Reykjavík, where the creative isolation she prefers is much less difficult to find. The artistic community back home was also a draw: “It is such a small country, but it has a vibrant music scene, which is rare.” While the promise of seclusion may have been a motivation to stay, the composer is far from cut off from the next generation of talent, which is eager for her guidance: “It’s how this works! You desire advice from others and they need advice from you.” Above all, Iceland’s diminutive birch trees and vast expanses of volcanic rock remain fertile terrain for the extraction of more quaking bass drum lines and iridescent harp glissandi. As is true of the experience of listening to Aerial through headphones, though, it seems that for Anna the aural scenery can—even more essentially—be plucked and conjured from within. The surroundings are simply the origin.
Doyle Armbrust is a Chicago-based violist and founding member of the Spektral Quartet. He is a contributing music writer at WQXR's Q2 Music, Crain's Chicago Business, the Chicago Tribune, and formerly Time Out Chicago.