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Scape, for piano (2011) [7:44]
Spectra, for string trio (2017) [9:12]
Aequilibria, for ensemble (2014) [12:22]
Sequences, for bass flute, bass clarinet, baritone saxophone and contrabassoon (2016) [6:09]
Illumine, for eight strings (2016) [7:21]
Reflections, for string trio (2016) [8:25]
Fields, for ensemble (2016) [5:51]
Cory Smythe (piano)
International Contemporary Ensemble / Steven Schick
rec. 2018, Oktaven Audio, Mount Vernon, New York
SONO LUMINUS DSL-92227 BD-A/CD [57:10]

Bj÷rk Gu­mundsdˇttir and her former band The Sugarcubes had an awful lot to answer for in the mid-1980s, daring to materialise in our lives from a place like Iceland, a country that seemed as odd and remote as Mars to those of us who were studying in Leeds at the time. Despite being an avowed Scandophile, to my shame at that point I was not even aware of the extraordinary music of Jˇn Leifs, and so Bj÷rk was the absolute embodiment of Icelandic culture, bless her. Thirty-odd years on, and Iceland suddenly feels like the epicentre of cool. A country with a population the size of Coventry boasts a cultural life that is the envy of the rest of Europe, and churns out impressive quantities of superlative architecture, television, and especially music. Every other person seemingly either writes poetry or novels, sings, acts, paints, tells jokes, sculpts, plays an instrument, makes TV and films, plays football for the country that beat England at Euro 16, or in the case of Hannes ١r Halldˇrsson, both of the last two.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir is one of the most highly regarded of the current generation of Icelandic composers. Like her contemporary Daniel Bjarnason, she has enjoyed the patronage of major international orchestras, ensembles and performers. Her music has already featured on a Deutsche Grammophon portrait, Aerial (DG 4811363; by the way, DG’s first Icelandic signing had been the prolific film composer Jˇhann Jˇhannsson whose untimely death last year at 48 came as a massive shock). This new disc is not the first from the fine American audiophile label Sono Luminus to be devoted to Thorvaldsdottir. She actually studied in the US at the University of California in San Diego, and NYPO appointed her in 2015 to a young composer-in-residence-type role. The fine International Contemporary Ensemble recorded in 2015 a disc of two pieces entitled In the Light of Air (I responded far more positively to this than did my colleague Brian Burtt in his review). Her orchestral work Dreaming appears on Recurrence, a remarkable compilation of new Icelandic orchestral music on the same label (review).

With titles like ‘Scape’, ‘Fields’ and perhaps even ‘Illumine’, one is likely to come to this album with something of a topographically influenced mindset. Such perceptual set will only be reinforced by Thorvaldsdottir’s compelling sonorities. I have just (literally) watched the final two episodes of season two of the excellent Icelandic noir thriller Trapped, in which the darkly filmed remote landscape is arguably the main star. It should not come as a surprise how Thorvaldsdottir recognizes that it probably provides some sort of subliminal influence –she uses the telling descriptor “an ecosystem of sounds” to characterise her work. (In a poignant coincidence, I noted that this series of Trapped was actually dedicated to Jˇhann Jˇhannsson’s memory, an indication of the communality of all the arts – and artists – in Iceland.)

The strident, long sustained note that begins the prepared piano solo Scape conceals a multitude of activity in its undergrowth. Its scrapings and strummings are adroitly positioned, but ultimately this spare music relies on the drone, and the mystery it conveys at times has an Oriental elegance and precision. The carefully arranged monodic lines that ensue descend into the murk of the piano’s lower register as Scape unfolds, amid splashes of cimbalom-like sounds. Cory Smythe’s account is intense and focused; the sound on the stereo CD is breathtakingly lifelike. I shall comment on the Blu-ray later.

There are two pieces for string trio. Reflections has been recorded before (on yet another Sono Luminus album ‘He(a)r’ featuring the ensemble Nordic Affect – DSL 92224). The piece seems to be centred upon a cantus firmus around which interloping and outlying notes rise and fall, seemingly resisting the pull of a drone which slowly ascends as the piece twists in and out of focus, leaving quiet fragments of melody in its wake. Static notes coalesce and die in this spooky landscape. Reflections is an oddly claustrophobic work, hinting at Lachenmann in its unworldly scraping sounds and Sciarrino in its breathings. Spectra is more recent and slightly longer. Its tremelandi rustlings scatter to reveal faint traces of what seem like the tvÝs÷ngur harmonic patterns that predominated in ancient Icelandic music. Spectra is sparse and sad, clear and beautiful, and indubitably the creation of an Icelander.

The opening gesture in Illumine for eight strings is a tentative chord in the violins, which are eventually joined by the lower strings, projecting percussive, rather Ligetian textures. Thorvaldsdottir’s command of extended techniques is especially impressive in this more thickly textured piece. Its austerity is interrupted by repeated, irregularly deployed descending figures which roughly halfway through meld together before dissipating into a microtonal, spectral fog. Towards the end a harmony emerges in the violins which is briefly redolent of a folksy accordion but this is short lived and drowned out by the moans and sneers of the lower strings before Icarus-like glissandi seek the heights at the work’s conclusion.

Sequences is a fascinating work for a quite possibly unprecedented quartet group comprising bass flute, bass clarinet, baritone saxophone and contrabassoon. At its outset, sounds are seemingly produced exclusively by mouthpieces; sea sounds, thunder,echo. Bass flute and bass clarinet mimic each other competitively amid a swirl of breathy noise. Over a drone provided by the sax (or the contrabassoon, or both…) the piece fills out, the bass flute becomes more pained and expressive, juxtaposing textures that are by turn delicate and assertive. Sequences is an unexpected delight, an interesting study in repetition and the subtle effects of seemingly tiny distortions.

Fields, for a small, mixed ensemble, involves at its outset a series or low thuds on a piano, set amid a halo of deep, echoey rumblings. A cello presents an ornate melody over harp-like sounds presumably played by an electric guitar, figurations that in turn are imitated by the piano. The cello melody seems to be reiterated on the clarinet. Thorvaldsdottir creates something truly other-worldly in this odd work with its haunting arabesque-like patterns.

The composer’s brief note provides little if any detail regarding the specifics of each of these brief compositions, but she speaks with eloquence and clarity about the essence of her aesthetic goals and technical strategies. On this album, she states, the smaller works considered above can be seen as satellites which orbit around the largest piece here, Aequilibria, a twelve minute work for twelve performers which is inspired by the tension in nature ”…between expansion and contraction, and the perspectives of translucence and opacity”. She draws a ravishing sequence of timbres from this ensemble, with swirling winds and strings, and close Ligetian harmonies whose changes are barely perceptible. Horn and trombone provide the dark, sombre tones which are brightened by the piano’s reimagining of harp textures and birdsong-like string glissandi. This is music of tension and release, although the idea of the drone is never far away. Sombre, long sustained notes are drawn out at the work’s end over a restrained hubbub of col legno and pizzicato. Aequilibria is a compelling listen at every turn.

As is often the case with Sono Luminus, a Pure Audio Blu-ray disc is included. While Aequilibria sounds especially stunning in the 5.1 guise, all of these pieces give up new details through this medium. There is a real immediacy and honesty to this immersive experience which I found unusually convincing. But the two-speaker option is no less riveting in its own way.

The more I hear of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s music, the more impressed I am. Each piece on this superb disc has something new to say. Spectral and special, her work revels in its conjunctions of the earthy and the ethereal. The International Contemporary Ensemble (under Steven Schick in the pieces requiring larger forces here) clearly know where she is coming from; their dazzling performances provide the best possible advocacy for her singular North Atlantic inspirations.

Richard Hanlon


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