#MusicForWriters: Anna Thorvaldsdottir, A Light Air Of Restraint

Image - Hrafn Asgeirsson
Image – Hrafn Asgeirsson

‘To Perform The Audio Visually’

As you’ll know if you’ve been following our Music for Writers series here at Thought Catalog, we seem to be in a golden era of new composition in contemporary classical music. And while New York City is generally recognized as the world center of this robust moment in musical development, there are several other key hubs.

2015-08-26_15-52-02One is Reykjavik, the seat of the “Icelandic school” of singularly influential composition. There, for example, are Ólafur Arnalds; Daniel Bjarnason (one of my favorites, for his relentlessly concentrated Solaris with Ben Frost); Bjork, of course;  Jóhann Jóhannsson; Valgeir Sigurðsson, a founder of the Bedroom Communitylabel and collective, and known for his work with  Sigur Rós and others; the widely popular Jón Þór “Jónsi” Birgisson; and his partner Alex Somers. The American Nico Muhly is closely associated with the Icelandics, having been recorded by Bedroom Community at the beginning of his career. You can guess at influences on his work right through his evocation of the Internet’s vast scale in Two Boys, his opera based in social media.

And then there’s Anna Thorvaldsdottir. If Iceland had produced no one else, we’d be in its debt for her work. It’s no wonder that she’s one of the new season of five artists (as is the excellent Muhly) chosen for Nadia Sirota’s and Alexander Overington’s Q2 Music Meet the Composer series.

Thorvaldsdottir is our featured composer this week, as her new album, In The Light Of Air is released on Friday by Sono Luminus. Thanks to the good work of New York Public Radio’s Q2 Music and its Album of the Week series, we’re able to call your attention to this work, which Elena Saavedra Buckley writes (she’s correct) involves “cacophonous spaces.”

Thorvaldsdottir’s work, for writers, is as rich as a volcanic plain — bleak only if you want it to be. Fortify yourself for its wide-eyed stare across an expanse of questions: you’ll find your characters’ loneliest moments here, your plots’ timeliest mysteries, and your own most eloquent misgivings. You’ll get whispers of styles from aesthetic characters as diverse as John Luther Adams  and film composer Craig Armstrong.

The album is a departure of sorts for Thorvaldsdottir, whose typical forces are much larger than the small command unit dispatched here by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) for which the piece was written. ICE can field as many as 35 lead players when required. But here, Thorsvaldsdottir’s exercise is for only five musicians — Kyle Armbrust, viola; the articulate cellist Michael Nicolas; Nuiko Wadden, harp; Cory Smythe, piano; and a strikingly precise Nathan Davis (a composer, himself) on percussion — are the bringers of all Thorvaldsdottir’s sound this time, exploring her shadowy, meditative depth.

These five intensely focused players have achieved a lot of intimacy with their composer and with each other to produce this kind of densely integrated, and starkly restrained work.

[pullquote]“I wanted to have several lights that would be cued by the performers’ breaths and instrumental performance…it creates a subtle visual layer to the work that is directly connected to the audio source in the music, and this is where the title is drawn from.”
Anna Thorsvaldsdottir[/pullquote]

And restraint is the key to the regal quality of light and air you hear in Thorvaldsdottir’s work. She is a quiet spirit of her time. Nothing runs away with you here, even when Smythe has the wide-chord elegance of some of her most memorable writing for piano yet. And when percussionist Davis’ work suddenly tumbles into the hollow gourd-resonance of the Klakabönd “ornaments” that artist Svana Jósepsdóttir created as a practical installation for performance of In The Light Of Air, he holds it together: he’s pouring on tension, tightly lensed.

Thorvaldsdottir’s music is always strangely an experience of resolution for me. There’s an inevitable air of a gathering, a sense of bringing together things that need to be examined, sorted, put either to rest or at least into their proper places. Like a story of understanding, of recognition, these dark ruminations are never about confusion or despair as much as they’re about acceptance and recognition. You feel more complete at the end of one of her works, more whole. You feel sorted, as if the raw materials of her work have been your worries, your needs, your longings, not hers.

So it’s a special treat to hear Thorsvaldsdottir render her voice in such a refined, compressed company of artists. And the very economy that’s about to unnerve you when you hear this work is where I started when I was in touch with the composer for our interview.

I’ll embed a Vimeo of the ICE players working In The Light Of Air here at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in April.

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There’s more: Read the full story at Thought Catalog

By Porter Ander­son

Writing on the Ether:  Music For Writers: Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Light Air Of Restraint

Originally published by Thought Catalog at www.ThoughtCatalog.com




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