In anticipation of the New York Philharmonic's performances this weekend of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Aeriality, this profile discusses her inspirations from nature and her compositional process, and provides an in-depth listening guide to Aeriality.


Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s music is powerful and visceral. Merely saying that it represents nature does not express the depth of her compositional process. Many composers are inspired by the natural world, but what makes Thorvaldsdottir’s works unique is her imaginative rendering of nature—her ability to create the affect of tangible, physical landscapes through sound. She is enthralled by large-scale ensembles, and writes detailed orchestral scores that draw the listener in with layers of sonic perspectives. In recent correspondence, she wrote:

The sense of space and openness is very important to me, and is something I feel comes from my roots having been brought up in Iceland. The closeness to nature is very touchable, and having been born in a small town surrounded by mountains and the ocean is something that lives with me. Also the sound of the wind and the constantly changing weather is a part of nature here... I feel that this “natural drama” is very much a part of me, the dramatic change in light throughout the year (darkness in winter, light in summer), the changing weather, closeness to nature and sense of space: this is all a part of nature here and a part of me because I am a part of this nature.

I took [this] video of the snow and wind: that snowstorm only lasted for a couple of minutes, then it was completely calm again and the sun was shining.Thorvaldsdottir

Last month, when I interviewed Thorvaldsdottir, we talked extensively about how growing up near mountains and the ocean changes the way you experience perspective—how landscapes affect one’s sense of being. Hearing Thorvaldsdottir speak about Iceland, with its lava fields, expansive mountains, and relationship to the ocean, I couldn’t help thinking that she could be describing my own home, Hawaiʻi. Growing up around these elements, it doesn’t seem incongruous to have molten lava and snow so close together. In Hawaiʻi, one does not give directions in relation to north and south, but rather towards the mountains or towards the ocean. I grew up knowing that a healthy fear of the power of nature is also connected to a sense of strength and place within nature.

As Thorvaldsdottir explained in her dissertation:

Nature provides me with my greatest inspiration when it comes to writing music. These inspirations—and the internal listening that results from them—provide me with musical concepts that motivate me to portray these visualizations in music... Landscapes and various other portraits from nature have for a long time nurtured my creative imagination and they seem to have different ways of inspiring me for every new piece I write.


Process: Knowing Something That is a Part of You

Thorvaldsdottir is currently writing the piece that the New York Philharmonic will premiere next season as a part of her winning the Kravis Emerging Composer Award. When we spoke last month about the piece, she said:

The inspiration behind the new work is focused around the natural phenomenon of chaos and its relationship to structure, order, and beauty. The balance of chaos and structure fascinates me and is a powerful inspiration for this piece—the focus point is to find ways to translate the inspiration into music rather than to describe it through the music. It is applied to the smallest details as well as to the overall structure of the work—the harmony is, for example, governed by a structure that is constructed of a fundamental harmonic progression but is disrupted on the smaller scale inside the whole. The overall structure of the work is also constructed with the opposing forces of chaos and order in mind.

Thorvaldsdottir’s creative process involves a lot of pre-compositional work that is about visualizing—both through fashioning visual representations of sound through graphs and other imagery, and through “inward listening and finding themes, materials, and textures” in her mind, as she put it in our interview. The drawings are manifestations of this inner sound world. The sound comes first, and she added, “these pictures are entirely the way I hear the piece. The pictures are working tools, and that starts to feed you.”

As far as the of structures of her pieces are concerned, Thorvaldsdottir said: “I always do it intuitively, spreading the papers on the walls or the floors to find the natural pace... Often the Golden Mean emerges.” (The Golden Mean is a proportion frequently found in nature in which the ratio of the smaller part to the larger part is the same as the ratio of the larger part to the whole.) She continued: “This is not always intentional, but we are also a part of nature—that is also who we are... Knowing something that is a part of you.”


Aeriality: Landscapes and Perspective

Thorvaldsdottir wrote Aeriality in the spring and summer of 2011. It was commissioned by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, and was premiered in November that same year. Aeriality offers a window into Thorvaldsdottir’s way of viewing and processing the world through soundscapes. In the program notes for the piece, she explains the title of the work:

Aeriality refers to the state of gliding through the air with nothing or little to hold on to—as if flying—and the music both portrays the feeling of absolute freedom gained from the lack of attachment and the feeling of unease generated by the same circumstances. The title draws its essence from various aspects of the meaning of the word “aerial” and refers to the visual inspiration that such a view provides. “Aeriality” is also a play with words, combining the words “aerial” and “reality,” so as to suggest two different worlds; “reality,” the ground, and “aerial,” the sky or the untouchable.

Grounded in the reality of the concert hall and its traditions, the piece invites the audience to focus on different aspects of the soundscape—at times treating it as a sound installation, as Thorvaldsdottir suggests. She asks the audience to have the willingness to explore these perspectivesand the requisite “unease”as they become a part of the resonant landscape of the hall. Thorvaldsdottir achieves the transition from “reality” to “aerial” by creating a clear progression of pitch away from its origin, and eventually through a timbral shift from pure tone to air sound. Sound itself is used as a way to change perspectives.

The piece begins on this ground level with a unison F-sharp in the orchestra. Drones of this fundamental pitch cascade through the orchestra, humming as little chromatic lines begin to emerge in individual parts, representing the outlines of various objects in a landscape when viewed from this horizontal point of view.

A video taken by Thorvaldsdottir showing a landscape from ground level

As the piece progresses, this basic opening material begins to evolve, as it is viewed from different sonic perspectives. The change of perspective happens via a slow pitch evolution wedging out from the initial F-sharp. As pitches are slowly added chromatically below and above F-sharp, various instruments hold onto them, creating lines of perspective.

Thorvaldsdottir writes to the players in the score:

When you see a long sustained pitch, think of it as a fragile flower that you have to carry in your hands and walk the distance on a thin rope without dropping it or falling. It is a way of measuring time and noticing the tiny changes that happen as you walk further along the same thin rope. Absolute tranquility with the necessary amount of concentration [is] needed to perform the task.

Giving the players individual parts (at one point there are fifty-three different voices playing forty-six distinct pitches), Thorvaldsdottir treats the members of the orchestra as organic objects, as a part of the natural landscape themselves. Concentration from the players in drawing these lines of perspective means that the overall focus of the orchestra is generally on these drones.

Perhaps some of the “unease” that Thorvaldsdottir refers to in her program notes is created by the blurring of pitch through quarter-tones. These pitches, which are not used in normal Western tuning systems, sit halfway between each of the keys on a piano. The closeness of pitch activates “beating” in one’s ear, and this creates an actual physical feeling of unease.

The change in perspective in Aeriality is achieved through the expansion of pitch, and the way the material evolves. Melodic material that is presented in one voice in the orchestra as a shape in the horizontal landscape becomes a sustained cluster of pitches, as though now seen from above. Other times, the attack of a sound—either its percussive start or an airy front—is “extracted” and presented as though one has zoomed in on that particular sound object within the landscape.

One example of a change in perspective comes with the brass and lower string attacks in the first section of the piece. There are six attacks emphasized with snap pizzicato in the basses, and later in the piece, once the perspective has changed to being “above” this sound object, the six hits in the brass and lower strings are much closer together, now a rapid sextuplet that serves a similar function of leading to the next event. The gesture is played much faster now that it “looks” farther away, and so is therefore condensed from the new sonic perspective.

Diagram by Thorvaldsdottir

Diagram by Thorvaldsdottir

Another example of this phenomenon is a cluster of wind notes around C and G at the beginning piece. After the ascent, this sound objects returns as a shorter, more faint, distant cluster in the flutes. These various musical objects find different forms as they are viewed from vertical alignment after their initial point of horizontal presentation.

As the chromatic wedge continues to widen and the drone moves farther away from F-sharp in both directions, there is a point at which Anna says the music “takes off.”

Pushed by the six attacks mentioned above, the instruments begin to produce more frequent small glissandi (smears), moving faster away from their original point of perspective. Finally, as more and more objects go from being seen as horizontal melodic fragments to vertical clusters of pitch, at the point of most tension, the orchestra holds a chord that gives equal weight to all the quarter-tones over two and a half octaves. Pitch gives way to noise as detail gives way to perspective. There is a freedom sonically of where the pitch can go from here because there is no center. In classical and romantic orchestral music, the harmonic tension will often build to a prolonged dominant in which the tendency of pitches is clearly dictated in terms of how they will resolve. However, in this prolonged quarter-tone cloud that serves the same structural function, there is no clear resolution of pitch. The tension is not in desiring a specific resolution, but in embracing this unease.

A video taken by Thorvaldsdottir showing a landscape from the level of the clouds

Released from this cloud of quarter-tones, the orchestra then moves briefly into what Thorvaldsdottir refers to as a “lyrical field.” She further elaborates in her dissertation: “This release can be likened to clouds clearing up in the sky, revealing the beauty that lies behind the mass.”

This lyrical field contains the only “melody” in the piece. Romantic orchestral writing is revealed here, showing for only a moment the traditional, nineteenth-century role of the orchestra. Thorvaldsdottir wrote in the program notes that this is “a brief lyrical field that almost immediately fades out at the peak of its own urgency, only to remain a shadow.”

The music cannot stay in this lush orchestral lyricism and falls back into drones now approaching the furthest pitch from its origin of F-sharp, C. Echoes of the initial attack are heard in the low quintuplets and triplets in the orchestra as all the instruments play only the quarter-tones above and below C. This final drone on C is foreshadowed in the condensed string lines at the very beginning of the piece, whose melodic fragments began with a leap from F-sharp to C. From this small act of courage, “collective orchestral efforts” begin to move their lines of perspective. Through this process, all members of the orchestra are able to find this new perspective, represented by the C drone. Having realized this goal, all the instruments move to air noise, ending with only the sound of the clouds themselves.

These final musical gestures blurred by quarter-tones remind the listener that this feeling of flying is both one of “absolute freedom” and “unease.” The idea of taking risks, putting one’s voice out there, or just going out of one’s comfort zone can be terrifying. Through musical perspective-taking, Thorvaldsdottir shows how these can be simultaneous emotions: that one does not have to be completely fearless to have the courage to take risks. Or perhaps, even in making big leaps, it is a part of the natural human landscape to also recognize one’s own fears.


Anne Lanzilotti teaches at New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.