Classical CD Reviews

ANNA THORVALDSDOTTIR: ‘Rhízōma’ = CAPU Ens., Iceland Sym./ Daniel Bjarnason – Innova

This interesting, complex music requires total concentration at least.

Published on November 23, 2011

ANNA THORVALDSDOTTIR: ‘Rhízōma’ = CAPU Ens., Iceland Sym./ Daniel Bjarnason – Innova

ANNA THORVALDSDOTTIR: ‘Rhízōma’ = Hrím, Hidden – Inwards, Hidden – Our, Dreaming, Hidden – Stay, Hidden – Rain, Streaming Arhythmia, Hidden – Past and Present – CAPUT Ensemble/Iceland Symphony Orch./ Daniel Bjarnason – Innova recordings innova810 (Distr. by Naxos), 60:00 ***:

This is the debut recording for composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, a young, prominent Icelandic composer who – interestingly – studied at the University of California at San Diego with Chinary Ung, Roger Reynolds and Steve Schick, among others: all prominent names in the vibrant SoCal new music scene.

Hers is a very intricate style of music and the minutest attention to elements of timbre, pitch and dynamics are evident. However, the first piece of advice I have in listening to this disc is to be aware that this is not a casual listening experience. Anna’s music is, in this collection, mostly very quiet, very difficult to follow in any informal way and things progress slowly but in a most interesting way. I found it to be a rewarding experience but, again, the art and value of the works herein is to be had in concentrating fully. (Do not turn up the stereo. Just clear the room of all distraction and listen while reading the interesting booklet notes by Daniel Tacke)

Thorvaldsdottir’s music comes from a very introspective, almost transcendental base. For example, she uses the analogy of rhizomes (a form of botanical underground stem from which other plants emerge and sprout) as a way of explaining how her music evolves within a work as well as the connections between works. Her resultant sounds are based in part on chance elements at the control and discretion of performers and the conductors as well as from a means of scoring that does control duration, intensity and timbres. It is heady, complicated fare but which sounds quite interesting.

For example, Hidden is actually a five movement work wherein the sections act as responses to each other. “Stay” is comprised of motives based on fifths; “Rain” acts as a kind of counterpoint to that, utilizing glissandi among other things. “Past and Present” also bears some stylistic and philosophical relationship to the others and, according to the annotator Tacke, arises from the “unfamiliar depths of memory”.  It is also clear that Thorvaldsdottir views all the works on this disc as Rhizoma – in that sense of interconnectedness. Similarly, the opening work, Hrím, is built on a series of small distinct textures intended to be akin to the small ice crystals (called hrím) of which entire bergs and glaciers are formed.

The best way to really approach music like this, however, is not to dwell too much on what the composer is trying to say or how she wrote it the way she wrote it but to just listen and react (which I emphasize, again, should really be done minus distractions).

For me, I found merit and enjoyment on some level with all these works and appreciate the strange but creative use of timbres and the slow but intriguing pace. My favorite work in this collection was “Anna’s Dreaming,” a fairly long, pensive work for large orchestra. It does evolve slowly and mysteriously but the sonorities and the amazing combinations of subtle harmony in a very exotic context reminded me just a little of Saariaho with her ethereal orchestrations. I had a similar response to the fancifully titled “Streaming Arhythmia,” an even longer foray into extremely delicate combinations of pitch, register and timbre.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir approaches her music in a very sophisticated, academic and provocative manner. Her music has been performed and promoted by Rumon Gamba and Christian Lindberg, whose work I greatly admire, as well as Daniel Bjarnason and she is developing quite a reputation in her home country and elsewhere. While this disc will certainly not appeal to everyone, I think that the sound – especially that of her orchestral works – is at least intriguing and, I think, fascinating. The CAPUT ensemble and the forces of the Iceland Symphony (whose playing I have been increasingly impressed with) is first rate. Kudos to Innova, as always, for presenting daring repertoire in outstanding performances and for providing helpful, as well as artistic, packaging.

—Daniel Coombs




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