MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Listening to Iceland

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With just a few hours here and there over the years spent during layovers at Keflavik Airport, I have yet to make a proper excursion to Iceland (and that most certainly is on my list). But for the time being there’s the composer Anna Thorvaldsdottír.

Her recent release on Sono Luminus, titled In the Light of Air, might seem like another “soundscape” to the casual ear: a cinematic evocation that comfortably conforms to the images we’ve filed away for a specific place on the planet.

A lot of Sibelius gets talked about this way, and it’s happened to John Luther Adams and Alaska as well. But — as with Sibelius and JLA — that’s only a superficial point of entry with Thorvaldsdottír. If these are soundscapes, they’re filled with surprises that question the clichés.

The pregnant repetitions of notes, eerie glides along the strings, the harp’s piquant fall: they all become strangely, even disturbingly, alluring, their gathered patterns distilling an unusual blend of calm and unease: Thorvaldsdottír awakens slumbering mysteries.

Scored for viola, cello, harp, piano, percussion, and electronics, In the Light of Air is a suite comprising four movements: “Luminance,” “Serenity,” Existence,” and — the longest of the four — “Remembrance.” Thorvaldsdottír builds lucid but unpredictable textures using this lovely instrumentarium, with each player eventually emerging as a soloist against the context of the others. The result touches on the archaic, with early musicy drones, but also brings to mind a sci-fi adventure Morton Feldman might have imagined.

Thorvaldsdottír conceived In the Light of Air as an installation integrating music and a lighting design that reacts to both the playing and the breathing of the musicians: the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), who premiered the work at the Reykjavik Arts Festival on May 25th 2014.

“Internally I hear sounds and nuances as musical melodies and enjoy weaving various sounds together with harmonies and lyrical material,” says the composer. “Structurally I like working with perspectives of details and the unity of the whole and the relationship between the two.”

Thorvaldsdottír additionally designed an installation of metallic ornaments tom complement her music — known as klakabönd (“a bind of ice”) in Icelandic — which were realized by Svana Jósepsdóttir. Here’s a video that gives at least a little flavor of that experience:

Filed under: CD review, new music

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