The Spektral Quartet Plays Thorvalsdottir

DSL-92250 Cover

THORVALSDOTTIR: Enigma / Spektral Qrt / Sono Luminus DSL-92250

This strange little CD—and I say “little” because it’s only 28 minutes and 28 seconds long—presents the odd sound world of Icelandic composer Anna Thorvalsdottir. Ignoring the paid publicity about how the Spektral Quartet has been nominated three times for those fake, paid-for Grammy awards, the group is clearly comprised of top-notch musicians.

And odd this music certainly is. Thorvalsdottir’s music is “Written as an ecosystem of sounds where materials continuously grow in and out of each other.” From the very opening, I wasn’t really sure what I was listening to…it sounded like a swarm of percussion instruments, though only the quartet is listed as the musicians on the album. Doyle Armbrust’s liner notes read as follows:

If you would, coax your mind back to a time when you believed ducking your head beneath the covers was ample defense against the bogeyman. Do you remember, in the haze of half-sleep, seeing something or someone in your room that didn’t belong? As you breathlessly flicked on the light, you were relieved to find it was only a chair lopsided with laundry, or a vacuum propped against the doorframe. That faint halo of light, surrounding this once sinister and now innocuous object, that is the penumbra – that permeable border between light and dark. This is the space where Enigma lives.

We’ve all been living in an in-between of sorts for the last year, haven’t we?

Well, no, “we” haven’t, but I suppose “you” did. I took the precautions I was told to take but didn’t let it affect my mood or frame of mind. I just put on my big girl clothes and went about my life as normally as I could, cautious but unafraid.

Taken on its own terms, however, Enigma is a strange and powerful piece. I’d like to see the score to understand how the Spektral Quartet achieved the effects they did, as some of them are bizarre to say the least. At least the knocking against their instruments was clear to me, playing in a complex percussive manner behind the atonal drones of the viola and cello. As for the music, it does indeed grow organically, setting a frightening mood (which, I again emphasize, I didn’t buy into last year or even this year) and sustaining it throughout the length of the piece. Enigma is divided into three separate but untitled movements. The second opens with sounds that resemble a huge truck driving outside the studio, followed by a sort of siren—then more percussion effects. I didn’t care too much for this movement as it seemed less well organized and structured to me, sounding more like a string of effects, although a few snippets played by the viola had a sort of quasi-melodic form. Later on, the cello creates a sustained droning effect underneath as the other strings play melancholy, drawn-out phrases.

By and large, the best description I can give of this score is that it sounds like a bad acid trip. It also has an overly-whiny quality which is foreign to me personally, but if you buy into the concept it is certainly a strange experience, well worth hearing at least once.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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