Weird Modern Cello Music by Sæunn Thorsteindóttir

DSL-92229 Album Cover

VERNACULAR / PÁLSSON: Afterquake. JÓNSDÓTTIR: 48 Images of the Moon. SMÁRASON: O. HALLGRIMSSON: Solitaire / Sæunn Thorsteindóttir, cel / Sono Luminus DSL-92229

Sæunn Thorsteindóttir is an Icelandic-American cellist who, though she has spent most of her life outside her native land, dreams in Icelandic. As she states in the booklet,

My native language shows itself in other ways too, as I found out early in my musical development when my teacher pointed out that I am extremely sensitive to the textures and harmonic overtones, prob­ably related to the abundance of unvoiced consonants in Icelandic. It is an old language, preserved by isolation, adapting to a quickly changing world. I see classical contemporary music sharing a similar process, finding new sounds and ways of expression through old means in a dynamic dialogue with our way of life.

The first piece on the album, Afterquake by Páll Ragnar Pálsson, sets the tone for the entire CD. It is an edgy piece seemingly made up of small, jagged shards of music, with the cellist frequently playing on the edge of the strings, not only in sustained notes but also in fast bowed passages. It’s more of an atmospheric piece than a tightly-structured one, though the attentive listener will sense the underlying musical progression of the piece. And yet this is a very slow-moving afterquake, more of an undulating, intermittent yet very scary musical image of the ground moving.

48 Images of the Moon by Þurídur Jónsdóttir is a piece cut from the same musical cloth, except that the taped sounds of insects and amphibians are overlaid on the music. If anything, this piece is even sparser and less structured than its predecessor, but it creates a dark, interesting mood.

Halldór Smárason’s O, written for Thorsteindóttir, is described as “an exploration of light and darkness in three movements.” This, too, resembles the first two works and at the 3:29 mark there’s a passage that sounds as if it is being playing by a violin on the edge of the strings. This is clearly not an album for the musical faint of heart; yet, much to my surprise, in the third movement (titled “Slokkna”) the cellist actually bows most of her music, albeit in a slithering microtonal fashion. Some of this music reminded me of the works of Julián Carillo (see my article on him HERE).

The music of the final work on this disc, Haflidi Hallgrimsson’s Solitaire, also uses more conventional cello playing in the service of its strange atonal structure, and—odder yet for this album—even a more regular rhythm in places. Some of the music sounds more Middle Eastern in its modes than Scandinavian. This is in five moments, titled “Oration,” “Serenade,” “Nocturne,” “Dirge” and “ Jig.” The last-named, though clearly not a jig that an Irishman would play or dance to, has a strong, driving rhythm, the only piece in this recital that does.

This is really one freaky album, not for the faint of heart, but I liked it for its weirdness. I guess this is what you get when you dream in Icelandic. Try playing it at your next Sunday brunch when your “clah-ssical”-loving friends come over, if you dare!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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