At first, there’s a loud hissing, like a hard wind whipping up sand from a barren plain. It’s joined by a high, persistent screech wrung, perhaps, from a violin at full stretch. Steadily and purposefully, other elements start to appear in this suggested space; some woody knocks provide a foreground that’s distinct from that rasping, dusty foundation. Bass starts to rumble beneath it all, and the gaps in the swirling mass of sound are gradually filled by short string shrieks, tremulous gong strikes, and alarming scrapes and scratches from a menagerie of instruments that quickly become difficult to discern from one another.
As the range of sounds expands, they tumble together, picked up and thrown around invisibly as if by a violent night storm. Those knocks were, in retrospect, the first clattering pebbles of a sonic avalanche that now sweeps down, enveloping the listener like a wall of wild weather. It rises and intensifies to a mighty crescendo, peaking and abating, unravelling and settling into a barely audible drone, over as suddenly as it began.
I’m not even half way through listening to Anna Þorvaldsdóttir’s ‘Streaming Arhythmia,’ and I’m both enthralled and exhausted. The evocative power of this opening salvo—and, as I’ll discover, Anna’s oeuvre as a whole—is breathtaking. The piece seems to channel not just the atmosphere of a specific place or scene, but to conjure up an impression of the unknowable scale and power of nature itself.
Big nature and open space
Sitting in the airy café of Harpa some days later with sun streaming colourfully through the faceted windows, Anna’s sound world seems like a half-remembered dream. The petite black-clad composer sits sipping from a cup of green tea, upright and attentive. Her dark eyes gleam and a smile crosses her lips as her childhood home of Borgarnes is mentioned. Anna spent some of her formative years is this small town, surrounded by a dramatic vista of the ocean and the ever-changing skies.
“When you grow up in a place where you’re surrounded by water and mountains, and you can get quickly into untouched nature, this is what you feel is normal,” she says, softly and thoughtfully. “I would listen—both internally, and also to the way that nature sounds. We had so much wind, and all these natural phenomena that I felt very close to. I feel that I still carry that now—these roots have stayed with me.”
As well as paying attention to what was around her, Anna was foundationally shaped by what was absent. Unlike the busyness, cacophony and clutter of urban environments, she became used to a feeling of small-town ease under the wide sky, and between distant horizons and the unencumbered openness of the Icelandic countryside.
“There’s so much space,” she says. “You can usually see quite far in Iceland. That space is present in my music, and it’s another thing that has stayed with me. I didn’t really recognise this initially. It was just there, and I didn’t know how it related. But as I have continued, and people ask me more questions, I realised that it probably came from those roots. It plays a big part.”
Anna is also quick to point out that her work isn’t “about” nature, so much as it takes cues from natural forces. “From the point of inspiration, it’s more about proportions, flow, and natural phenomena,” she explains. “I’m not trying to describe nature—I’m breathing in inspiration. A lot of my music is constructed around this natural flow and how different elements can come together seamlessly through transitions. And nature does that beautifully.”
Setting the focus
Anna’s music, in all of its diversity, certainly has a grand scope in mind. Her orchestration is based more on drones, events and transitions than melodic progressions—sounds often linger for long periods, mingling together and creating a tense scene-setting atmosphere before the introduction of new elements, whether it’s a slow build or a shocking one-off burst.
However, even at its most subtle and discrete moments, it rarely contains any true emptiness. “I feel silence always has a presence,” Anna says. “In my music, with very few exceptions, there is never complete silence. I do intuitively feel that there’s an undercurrent in the music, and many layers. Sometimes when you remove some layers, and leave just one or a couple, you get different perspectives. That’s something I work with a lot in my music: how do you set the focus? How do you zoom in on some things, or zoom out? How do you use perspective between looking at the whole thing, or the details within that structure?”
This careful description of building a composition offers some insight into the methods and perhaps even the concerns of Anna’s music. Her orchestral works can begin quietly and unfold slowly, building a tense atmosphere as a foundation on which a further narrative is based; or, they can start emphatically and spiral onwards from there.
“I’m obsessed with structure, and that’s something I spend a lot of time working on in the initial stages,” Anna explains. “Finding the structure is one of the first things that comes with each piece. In these initial stages I spend a lot of time finding materials for the various places in the music, and deciding how it’s built in the flow. I do, very much, build atmospheres. That’s one way I experience sounds, and think about sounds and music. To me, after getting a good sense of where you are, then you can go somewhere else. If you set the ground, then you can go to different places, and that‘s something I try to think a lot about when I’m working.”
Layers and structures
Anna speaks most animatedly when discussing the possibilities of writing for orchestra. “My kind of listening—that is, internal listening—resonates very well with orchestra,” she says. “I have a huge passion for writing for large ensembles and orchestras. I think one of the main reasons for that is that I like to build many layers and large structures. And they don’t have to be loud to be large. You can make a—quote, unquote—drone; that is, a very complicated ocean of sound. And that’s something I really enjoy doing.”
Working to create a detailed, immersive composition is a process that begins with Anna, and is then passed on to the conductors and musicians who perform her music. She speaks with high regard for the people who execute her taut, layered music.
“It’s so important in that kind of situation that you listen, and are connected to the other performers,” she explains. “Also, a bit more technically, the way I write is to move the layers between groups. A layer might be carried by the winds, but move through to the strings; the winds start doing something else, and the strings continue. When you start to know the music, then you start to learn that process—that something is being passed to you. That creates a different kind of perspective as you move through a piece.”
“A musician can, of course, read the notes on the paper and play their part,” she continues, warming to the theme. “But they might not realise at first that their part is being passed to them from another performer or group of performers. It can speed things along if I am there to point that out. There are various degrees to why it’s interesting to work with performers—they are, of course, the experts on their instruments, so I learn a lot from them too. I can’t always be there in person when my music is performed, but I try to go as much as I can to the largest performances.” She smiles. “It’s a luxury problem.”
The composer that you are
Anna’s rise to prominence has been sure and steady. After going to music school and studying for her bachelor’s degree in Reykjavík, she moved to San Diego in 2006 to pursue a Masters and doctorate at the University of California. “It’s a very good department for contemporary music, for many reasons,” Anna explains. “But primarily because everyone is keen to work on contemporary music there, and there’s a lot of openness to embrace the personality of the composer, rather than steering them into a certain channel. There are so many paths you can take as a composer. And I really appreciated that in San Diego you’re allowed to become the composer that you are.”
As she finished her studies in 2011, Anna released her first portrait album, entitled ‘Rhízōma,’ referring to rhizomes, or exploratory roots. “I spent a lot of time finding the right title for that album,” she says. “As a composer, when you release an album, the pieces might have been composed over five years. You’re not creating an album so much as curating pieces into an album. ‘Rhízōma’ was my first portrait album, and I wanted it to have references to roots, and the way I think about music—creating layers that grow in and out of each other. And that’s how we found this title.”
Work hard and be sincere
‘Rhízōma’ had long been in development, both musically, and in terms of the release arrangements, financing and planning. But the release would prove to be a decision that would shape Anna’s career. “I didn’t realise how important it would be, at the time,” she remembers. “When I was moving to California I’d already decided I would release it when I graduated. It was a long-term goal, and it was very expensive, so I had to save up for a long time. I didn’t really have high hopes for it. You never know what’s going to happen. So it was a beautiful surprise that people paid attention and were encouraging. I found that people got to know my music through that album.”
One of the two centrepieces of the album is ‘Dreaming,’ a 17-minute composition for orchestra that would go on to win the prestigious Nordic Music Council Prize in 2012. “That led to the Deutsche Grammophon release,” says Anna. “Colin Rae, who was distributing ‘Rhízōma,’ had said to me that he would help make sure my music was put out on a large label.” She stops, and smiles, appreciative and mystified by the path that led her to this moment. “I strongly believe in working hard, and being sincere in what you do,” she continues. “Although this was nothing you ever could have planned… it worked out.”
Talking amiably with Anna on a summer’s day about the open horizons of Borgarnes, the rich multi-disciplinary arts culture of Reykjavík, and her stints living in California and, later, Australia and England, it’s easy to forget about the seriousness and weight of her music. Although her catalogue of works is rich and diverse, it’s also characterised by certain moods that fly counter to her sunny disposition; particularly, recurring dark, ominous, and even violent moods and elements.
“You’re not the first person to say this,” says Anna. “I’ve also had people who know me describe this contrast between my personality and my work. Some people read my work as dark and scary, but that’s not really how I think about it.” She pauses, momentarily reconsidering. “Actually, maybe I am just making scary music. But I don’t know where this darkness comes from. I make it intuitively and naturally… but certainly not intentionally.”
She peters out, staring into the middle distance. “However, I do love the lower registers and bass. Perhaps that fundament that I give to that register plays into this experience of the music.”
I wonder out loud if her music gives voice to aspects of herself or personality that aren’t top-of-mind in day-to-day life. “Certainly, doing music is very therapeutic,” she smiles, “but I’m never angry when I write, but I am sometimes sad. Writing music is a very emotional thing for me; I allow the music to come into existence through this human experience. But something I do believe in is tension in music. It’s very important in creating structures and contrasts and how things flow from one to the next. Maybe it’s this tension that comes across as darkness.”
Balance with the abstract
Whatever it is that makes Anna’s music so captivating, she’s continuing to thrive and develop, winning the Martin Segall, Lincoln Center and Kraviz Emerging Composer awards, as well as prized commissions from The New York Philharmonic Society, The Gothenburg Symphony and The Iceland Symphony, to name but three. She’s released three more albums—’Aerial,’ ‘In The Light Of Air,’ and ‘AEQUA’—and The Financial Times recently described her as “the most exciting force in Icelandic music since Björk.” In 2018, ’Aion’ pushed the envelope again with the inclusion of choreography by Erna Ómarsdóttir and the Icelandic Dance Company, and ‘Metacosmos’ will be performed at the BBC Proms later this year at the Royal Albert Hall.
For Anna Þorvaldsdóttir, it seems the sky’s the limit. But what comes across most of all is her deep love for her calling. “I really believe in music for music,” she says. “It’s difficult to describe, but the way I have always worked comes from the music listening space—I feel a strong sense of connection between sounds and textures that might not be considered harmonic or traditionally musical, but I love working with sounds in a lyrical way, finding the balance with the abstract.”
Once again, she’s describing her ocean of sound. “It is really the way I think about it, and feel it, and hear it,” she finishes. “With all these elements that are there, you might not notice all of them—because they are there to be part of a whole. You don’t pay attention to each drop, but when they all come together—it’s then they create the ocean.”
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