By Barbara Jepson
NEW YORK – Composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, whose music was the focus of a Mostly Mozart Festival concert on Aug. 19 by the inimitable International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), came to international attention around 2011 after Innova released a recording of her compositions. The disc, Rhízōma, landed on several “best classical releases” lists for the year, and in 2013, Miller Theater at Columbia University devoted a “Composer Portrait” program to her, but her music is not yet widely played in the U.S.
It should be. Here is a composer with a distinctive sound world, and the ability to choose, from a wide textural palette, the most apt instrumental effect for a given moment. Yet, unlike some who toil in the au courant genre of the soundscape, she also knows how to build and sustain tension and convey emotion while evoking the vast sweep of the ages. Images of desolate, wind-swept glaciers come to mind at times, though the 37-year old Iceland native disclaims any programmatic intent.
The concert took place at the historic Park Avenue Armory, whose 55,000-square-foot Drill Hall has proved to be an incredibly adaptable space, capable of heightening the impact of opera productions or even becoming an element in them. For the ICE concert, one of three by the Chicago- and New York-based ensemble during its Mostly Mozart residency this year, the performance began in a large hallway outside the Board of Officers Room.
Most of the audience stood throughout Shades of Silence (2012), an ethereal eight-minute piece with low drones on the cello, whispered violin and viola passages, delicate rattling or tapping noises, and a harpsichord that was so lightly touched at times as to be barely discernible.The latter’s strings were stroked with a soft-headed mallet or, alternatively, a soft brush. Overall, the work was the musical equivalent of a minimalist painting, with subtle splashes of color stringently applied to a white canvas.
Just when the distinctive sonic effects were wearing thin, Thorvaldsdottir introduced a compelling melodic fragment that revitalized my interest – a tactic used to even greater effect in the concluding composition, In the Light of Air. Then the audience of about 100 parted as a lone musician, hitherto unseen, made his way down the hall, sounding a small, circular brake drum rubbed by a drumstick. He led us into the Board of Officers Room.
As we were seating ourselves, Into—Second Self (2012) began. A vibrant, involving antiphonal work, it deftly deployed ICE members in all four corners of the wood-paneled room and points in between, as well as in a designated “stage” area. Scored for four horns, three trombones. and percussion, including large drums, it was first performed on various levels of the Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Center in Reykjavik as a sound-installation, then reconceived for more typical performing spaces.
Into—Second Self displayed a wider dynamic range than its predecessor and included a multiplicity of subtle percussive effects, like taking a mallet and gently sliding it over a gong. Low, guttural trombone tones recalled the chanting of Tibetan monks; in fact, there were moments when the piece had a slightly Asian flavor. At one point, I thought I heard intimations of the opening to Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra in the brass; later, two trombonists walked down the aisles while playing. Near the end, a harpist, cellist and other players for the next piece made their way to the stage area, turning their backs to the audience as “Into—Second Self” concluded and In the Light of Air began.
This proved to be the program’s emotional climax. In the Light of Air received its world premiere in 2013 in Reykjavik and was created during Thorvaldsdottir’s involvement in ICElab, a year-long program that selects a handful of rising composers for collaboration with ICE performers. The approximately 40-minute piece employs a portable lighting structure hung with light bulbs and Icelandic ornaments called klakabönd (“a bind of ice,” according to the program notes) that looked like large snowflakes and sounded like gongs or cymbals depending on how they were played. In some mysterious way, the breath of different musicians activated the dimming or raising of the lights. It was an eerie, hypnotic effect, yet like so much of what Thorvaldsdottir does, it came across as totally integral to the piece.
In the Light of Air has four segments played without pause. The intimate, square-shaped Board of Officers Room may have cramped the players’ style a bit; the musicians reportedly are normally arrayed in a circle. There are solo turns for ICE’s expert instrumentalists, who included a violist, cello, harpist, and pianist.The piece also employs electronics. After 20 minutes or so, my preference for discernible thematic development reared its ugly head, but soon afterwards, the composer rescued me with a series of increasingly gripping episodes, particularly for piano. Throughout the evening, the members of ICE performed with uniform excellence and intense concentration.
György Ligeti and George Crumb have been cited as among Thorvaldsdottir’s influences, and she certainly draws from the same bag of extended techniques they used — although manipulating harp strings with a rope or cord was a new one for me. I would also include Kaija Saariaho and John Luther Adams in her artistic lineage. But what struck me as this immersion in Thorvaldsdottir’s music ended was how each work created an imaginative and highly personal aesthetic landscape, one I look forward to traversing again soon.
The final concert in ICE’s Mostly Mozart series takes place at the Park Avenue Armory on Aug. 21 and includes music by Dai Fujikura, Alvin Lucier, and Olivier Messiaen.
Barbara Jepson is a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal’s Leisure & Arts pages. Her articles have also appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Arts and Leisure, Opera News, and other national publications.