ICE in Iceland, Music of Anna Thorvaldsdottir


In the Light of Air Sono Luminus DSL 92192

In the Light of Air
(Sono Luminus DSL 92192)

For some years now I have greatly enjoyed the contemporary music coming out of the Nordic countries.  Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and the Faeroe Islands.  But I have also been aware of the truly rich musical culture of neighboring Iceland which, it seems, is less well known for its musical heritage.  Composers such as Jón Leifs and Thorkell Sigurbjornssen (among others) have created some wonderful music in the twentieth century that definitely needs to be heard more often and the present composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir is certainly a rising star in the twenty-first century, a proud example of Iceland’s best

Þorvaldsdottir (in Icelandic script) was born in 1977 in Iceland.  She earned a B.A. in music composition at the Iceland Academy of the Arts in 2004 and went on to an M.A. and Ph.D. in composition at the University of California, San Diego finishing in 2011.  She has received numerous awards, most recently the Nordic Council Music Prize in 2012 for her orchestral work, “Dreaming” (2008).

Anna Thorvalsdottir accepting the Nordic Council Music Prize in 2012.

Anna Thorvalsdottir accepting the Nordic Council Music Prize in 2012.

Her music can be found on 8 CD releases of which three, including the present disc, are devoted entirely to her works. The other two discs devoted to her music can be found on Deutsche Grammaphon  and, now only available as a digital download, a disc originally released on Bandcamp and now also available on Innova.  Worth noting is another disc on the Sono Luminus label that contains her chamber work, “Shades of Silence” (2012).  Here her work is presented along with that of several other Icelandic composers placing her in context with her peers.

In the Light of Air (2013-2014) is a five movement suite written for and performed by ICE (The International Contemporary Ensemble).  The work is scored for viola, piano, cello, percussion, fixed electronics and installation. There is an intended visual component here and there is a high definition video of a performance of this work on Vimeo.  It puts this reviewer in the mind of the work of George Crumb some of whose chamber works (Black Angels and Vox Balenae for example) require various stagings that are not conventional in standard chamber music performances.  You can judge for yourself as to whether the staging enhances the work but the music does stand on its own.

The five movements, Luminance, Serenity, Existence, Remembrance and Transitions flow seamlessly into one another evoking a dream-like, even impressionistic feeling.  It would appear that this composer has studied a great deal of compositional techniques and has integrated those most useful to her in her work.  We hear microtones, glissandi, harmonics, alternate tunings, vocalizations, drones, even some spectral passages.  But throughout these techniques do homage to the past by their use in this clearly 21 st Century music.  There is an overall mysterious, somber and meditative tone that seems to evoke the sometimes barren landscapes of the composer’s native Iceland.  She seems  to travel in sound worlds not too distant from Morton Feldman but also Pauline Oliveros with a dash of Debussy perhaps. I don’t know, but quality (and sometimes lack) of light north of the Arctic Circle must certainly affect the way people think and create.  But keep in mind that Iceland consistently makes the top ten lists for happiest countries in the world. Perhaps funding for the arts, such as they provide, contributes to that happiness.  When the result is music like this one can’t help but feel at least hopeful.

ICE executes the performance with their usual virtuosity and care adding another significant work to their large and growing repertoire of contemporary music.  The recording, in keeping with the Sono Luminus mission is lucid and detailed.  (Unfortunately I was unable to evaluate the DVD 5.1 audio which is included in this release.  I have no doubt that this is a great listening experience but that will have to wait until I upgrade my sound system.)

Having heard this disc and some of the excerpts of other works available on the composer’s web page I think this is an artist whose work certainly deserves attention and one whose star will no doubt rise further.   Kudos to Sono Luminus on promoting this music.  Highly recommended.

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Far Famed Tim Rayborn Takes on the Vikings


Close your eyes and listen intently in the darkened hall.  From the back of the hall comes first a growling gutteral sound in an unfamiliar language.  This is followed by beats on a drum and the sound of a rattle.

Slowly the primitive creature comes up the center aisle growling, chanting, reciting and playing his drum and rattle moving slowly towards the stage and into view in the light.

He is seated on the stage and continues his chanting, speaking and playing.

He is playing unfamiliar instruments and telling unfamiliar stories.

There is both precision and passion in his playing and reciting.

Tim Rayborn is a resident of Berkeley, a multi-instrumentalist, singer and performer, familiar to local audiences in both his solo performances and with his group Canconiér.  His area of focus is authentic performance of music and poetry of the middle ages and before.

But how does one determine the authenticity especially as one goes further back in time and finds fewer records and accounts of how these performances sounded?  In the pre-concert lecture Mr. Rayborn spoke of this project, ‘The Far Famed Ones-Music and Poetry of the Vikings’.  He told the audience that there are no scores of this music and, like the languages in which the poetry was written, we have only the barest clues as to how these things must have sounded some 1000 years ago.

The clues, he explained, come from archaeology, linguistics and a few extant bare threads of oral tradition…there are pieces, an immense puzzle that some scholars say can’t or shouldn’t be solved.  But Rayborn asserts that these puzzles, if not able to be completely solved, are worth time to approximate the answers.

In a very real way this music, this performance is entirely new comprised of minimal facts, educated scholarship, conjecture.  No one can ever know what this body of work sounded like without travelling back in time to hear it.  Failing that we have the laborious work of Rayborn and his fellow scholars attempting to piece together an approximation of this work, not unlike the re-creation of dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (albeit without the attendant dangers)…a few pieces of evidence held together with educated guesses producing something new, an opportunity to hear these reconstructions of music and ritual as it may have existed those thousand years ago.

viking01 (18)

The stories and poetry, like the music are very different from what we think of when we use those terms today.  The performance of these poems integrating music were a medium of entertainment and communication in a pre-literate society.  They varied greatly from one performance to the next dependent on the performers choices.  Even the musical instruments varied in style and construction.

In a sense, all performance is an approximation.  Any musical score or performance text require interpretation and vary from one performance to the next dependent on the artists’ choices.  But choices are more limited in work whose performance practices and directions for performance are more completely communicated and understood.

With this work Tim Rayborn reaches further back than almost anyone has into the darkness of the dark ages to attempt to illuminate some portion of these traditions that would later evolve into poetry, prose and musical compositions.  The Viking Age lasted from the 790s to the Norman Conquest of 1066.  And while history knows this era for its battles and plunders it was not devoid of culture.

Rayborn is an affable, genial man who is first a serious scholar and a performer second.  He speaks with great precision leaving as little ambiguity as possible as one finds with serious academics.  His joy and enthusiasm, love for this work combine with that scholarship to make his performances a riveting experience.

He described this performance (January 27th, 2013) at the little church hall in Albany as a ‘work-in-progress’ evolving over time, being tweaked with each new performance to reflect the scholarship and the instincts of the experienced performer.  Rayborn is part scholar, part musician and part actor.  He is as serious, precise and joyous in each of these endeavors.

Following the opening comments there was a brief intermission which led into the performance without interruption (as the performer requested) of all the pieces on the program.

What followed was an integrated program of performance, poetry, song and music making of perhaps one hour’s duration.  There was drama and humor in this entertaining mix.  The audience sat respectful and engaged to the end when Rayborn stepped out of character to acknowledge the conclusion.  And the far-famed ones came just a little bit closer.

The audience stood applauding loudly this ‘new’ old music dredged from the darkness of the ages like relics recovered from a peat bog, and restored as best as anyone can to most closely resemble what they originally were.  What was once thought lost to time has now been restored.