Thorvalsdottir’s “Aerial”

Front Cover

THORVALSDOTTIR: Intro – Second Self / Frank Aarnink, perc; Stefán Jón Bernarðsson, Fr-hn; Sigurður Þorbergsson, tb /  Ró / CAPUT Ensemble, cond. Guðni Franzson / Aeriality / Iceland Symphony Orch., cond. Ilan Volkov / Tacility / Duo Harpverk / Trajectories / Tinna Þorsteindottir, pno; Anna Thorvalsdottir, electronics / Shades of Silence / Nordic Affect / Aura / LA Percussion Quartet / Sono Luminus SLE-70025

I’m not sure what is going on with female Icelandic composers. Their music is inevitably slow but not calming; on the contrary, it often sounds as if it is depressed and the composer is oppressed. Some of it can be quite interesting, however, as in the cases of Sæunn Thorvalsdóttir (any relation to this composer?) and Kristín Þora Haraldsdóttir, whose Bloodhoof I absolutely loved despite its aura of sadness and agony.

This is actually a reissue of an album originally put out in 2014 on Deutsche Grammophon. In a certain sense, this can be classified as “ambient music” in that it creates a mood moreso than it presents pieces that can be followed in their musical progression. The opening track, dominated by the percussion, features very long-held notes played by the French horn and trombone. Cleverly, these are played overlaying one another, with one performer taking a breath while the other continues on, which creates the illusion of an unbroken musical line. It has a certain quality about it that reminded me of the opening of Wagner’s Das Rheingold. Towards the end, the volume crescendos into a cymbal wash that ends the piece. (Interestingly, the booklet for this disc contains absolutely no verbal descriptions or background info on any of these works.)

Ró, which is played by a chamber ensemble in which the piano assumes the role of percussionist, had a certain vibe about it that reminded me of some of Leif Segerstam’s early works except that it builds up more tension. Once again, Thorvalsdottir works with long-held notes behind which a bevy of percussion effects go on, although as the piece develops there is some harmonic and melodic movement—slowly, like a glacier advancing, but movement nonetheless. Interestingly, Thorvalsdottir scores the wind instruments in such a way that they sound like a harmonium.

In Aeriality she has an entire symphony orchestra to play with, and here she draws out her most extraordinary sound colors from her use of orchestral texture—again, scored very low despite the soft violin section tremolos which seem to be in the background. Also, with a symphonic percussion section, she is also able to create more menacing sounds there as well. This piece sounds like it would make an effective background for the ultimate scene in a horror film.

The problem is that these are not pieces that one would willingly listen to in sequence, since they sound so similar to one another, and this is evident in the three-part Tactility, which although played by smaller forces sounds like a continuation of Aeriality. In fact, I would say that this is Thorvalsdottir’s biggest weakness as a composer: she had but one voice with small but telling variants in the orchestration. Here, her big trick seems to be the twang of guitar strings that almost sound as if they are breaking as they are being played.

Perhaps, then—and only perhaps—this review might stimulate Thorvalsdottir to expand her range of keys and tempi in future pieces. This is, alas, a trap that too many modern composers fall into, the use of one “voice” in everything they write. There is clearly some potential in her work, but to judge by this CD she has a one-track musical mind.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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