From Iceland — Between Two Worlds: Anna Þorvaldsdóttir premieres Metaxis at the Reykjavík Art Festival

Between Two Worlds: Anna Þorvaldsdóttir premieres Metaxis at the Reykjavík Art Festival

Published May 31, 2024

Between Two Worlds: Anna Þorvaldsdóttir premieres Metaxis at the Reykjavík Art Festival
Photo by
Red Illuminations for The Reykjavík Grapevine

Composer Anna Þorvaldsdóttir premieres her newest piece Metaxis to the world

Listeners familiar with the work of composer Anna Þorvaldsdóttir are aware of the artist’s expansive control of the orchestra, playing it as she would a single instrument. Already critically acclaimed, Anna’s work has gained increasing traction over the last few years, cementing her as a superstar of the classical world.

Anna’s canon includes dozens of compositions spanning orchestral, ensemble, chamber, and choir works. Her meticulous pieces evoke the power of unstoppable forces, brimming with dynamic energy — explosive yet solemn.

As part of the Reykjavík Art Festival’s opening celebration, Anna’s newest piece, Metaxis, will see its world premiere in Harpa on June 1. Her seventh orchestral score — and also one of her most unconventional compositions — will be performed by the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Eva Ollikainen.

When I find elements in nature, that are musically inspiring, and serve kind of a musical purpose — that’s when I get inspired by nature.

Part concert, part installation, Metaxis is performed by a “deconstructed symphony orchestra,” performing the piece while arranged throughout Harpa’s enormous foyer. Harnessing the spatial qualities to introduce new dimensions to an otherwise conservative format, guests are invited to walk among and between the performers, experiencing different perspectives to the music along the way.

Natural elements

Given her home country’s often unstable and extreme weather patterns and nature, Anna’s work has unsurprisingly been compared to embodying elements of nature, invoking the tremors of tectonic plates striking one another or the like. According to Anna, those stylistic choices are ambiguously produced.

“It’s not so much that I focus or obsess about nature. It’s more that when I find elements in nature, that are musically inspiring, and serve kind of a musical purpose, that’s when I get inspired by nature,” the Icelander explains from her adopted home in England.

“Inspiration comes from everywhere around us. But there are elements and forces in nature that are particularly inspiring and you can find some resonances with them when you’re working with large groups of instruments,” she continues. “So it’s actually quite ambiguous. It’s never about describing nature. It’s much more raw and something that ambiguously finds its way into the music.”

Sketching it out

Equally awe-inspiring is the artist’s approach to the creative process itself. In the early stages of a piece, Anna sketches huge drawings denoting every single minuscule detail she can think of. Although purely for Anna’s personal use, these illustrations serve as the blueprint for her pieces, which she ultimately transcribes into more universally legible musical notation.

“It’s a mnemonic device that really helps to remember the music that I’m working on each time,” Anna explains. “In the earliest stages, I allow myself this headspace and time to find the music. It’s impossible throughout months and months to remember everything in the music. So I created this technique to sketch out sounds that I can relate to on the page.”

“It never looks exactly the same. But I always know what every single line or text on that page means. It’s something I’ve done for a very long time, I think it came about very naturally, because I was always trying to remember in my head, ‘Oh, yeah, I can’t forget this.’”

From the get-go, Anna’s outlook towards her upcoming pieces is reflected in this holistic method, slowly but surely structuring the piece.

“From the very, very beginning, it’s more about the overall image. So one of the first things that I find or imagine is a structure so that I can have a sort of sense of where the piece lives. And then all the details, one by one, start to emerge,” Anna remarks.

The in-betweenness of Metaxis

Since premiering ARCHORA at the BBC Proms concert series in 2022, Anna has been working on Metaxis. By introducing a participatory element within the piece, Anna erodes the usual hierarchical notions surrounding orchestral and classical music. Given the genre’s historical reputation of classism and inaccessibility, efforts to bring such an ambitious work of art into direct connection with the people are laudable — it’s an effort doubled down upon by the Reykjavík Art Festival’s commitment to accessibility.

With Metaxis, it was really important to me to invite people into the music. You are invited to explore the music in space.

Although musical development has surpassed American composer and theorist Milton Babbitt’s 1958 criticism posited in the article “Who Cares If You Listen?” — an argument that composers wrote “advanced” music that is disinteresting to the common person — curiosity called to enquire about Anna’s thoughts on composing in consideration of the general audience.

“It’s impossible not to think about the audience when you’re making music. But it’s a balance. I’m not obsessing over whether people will like it or not,” she replies. It’s about being human. “I’m making music I’m trusting that this will carry and that people will find in it something for themselves,” she says.

“With Metaxis, it was really important to me to invite people into the music. You are invited to explore the music in space and the musical textures travelling in the physical space,” Anna says, describing the feeling of entering the installation where the orchestra is situated around the listener.

“You will hear how the layers are travelling from instrumental groups and between individual performers,” Anna continues. “As an audience member in this space, you will get a chance to direct your own listening in a way that you can choose where you position yourself in the audio environment.”

Ancient Greek philosopher Plato coined the term metaxy to describe the in-betweenness characteristic of human nature — it’s a concept Anna’s Metaxis adopts and builds upon. “It’s about these two worlds coming together in this installation where you are going through the installation, but also being inside a piece of music.”

With a new cello concerto on its way, to be premiered next year, Anna’s creativity shows no signs of slowing down.

The world premiere of Anna Þorvaldsdóttir’s Metaxis takes place June 1 at Harpa, performed by the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Eva Ollikainen. Entrance is free, but tickets need to be booked beforehand at



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