Rhízōma was one of the first albums we ever reviewed, back in early 2012. Our little site has grown a lot since then, and so has Anna Thorvaldsdottir, whose newest album fulfills the promise shown on the former work. Now on Deutsche Grammophon/Universal Classics, the artist is poised to take her work to an even higher level.
Iceland is a relatively small country, but it contains a disproportionate amount of talent. At any point, another artist is breaking through to the international community. Thorvaldsdottir is following the path of Valgeir Sigurðsson and Daniel Bjarnason, composing works for small and large orchestra while building a catalog large enough to sustain an album. She’s won numerous awards in her native land, including Album of the Year and Composer of the Year, but don’t be fooled by the seemingly small scope of these awards; Aerial is powerful enough to compete on a global scale. “Aeriality” (performed by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ilan Volkov) is easily the best modern composition piece I’ve heard all year, and I’ve heard thousands. An excerpt can be found here; we strongly recommend that you listen while you read. Or just listen. Each note is worth a thousand words.
The thirteen-and-a-half-minute piece begins with a clap of percussion and a simmering of strings. Something is struggling to break through, we know not what. Multiple harmonic frequencies detach and converge. This is visceral music, alerting the senses to shapes in the shadows and movements in the forest. Higher frequencies venture outside at the five-minute mark, searching for a hold in the physical world. Tentative at first, they swiftly grow more comfortable, breaking through with increasing alacrity. A brass warning sounds a call to arms (7:01); a minute later, the air crackles with sonic activity as the agitated strings begin to tremble. Such a buildup provides no expectation of a calm resolution, and yet this is exactly what is provided as a tiny melody visits in the ninth minute, setting up a pas de deux between consonance and dissonance. Even the interruption of harsh percussion, a final protest against the light, only furthers the dance.
Such a track is so different from the norm that it stands above its competition like Thorvaldsdottir above the tiny trees of the cover. (A famous joke in Iceland: if you’re lost in the forest, stand up.) But there’s much more where that came from. The brass and percussion of “Into – Second Self” provides a similar sense of foreboding, a crackling of lava cooled by the northern wind. “Ró” continues down this path, a chamber ensemble walking forward as its bread crumbs are eaten behind. And “Shades of Silence”, performed by Nordic Effect on baroque instruments, connects present to past in beguiling fashion, ending the album on a pensive note. As these notes waft through the atmosphere, one can imagine them drifting as far as they can before being weighed down by fog and dew. As for the artist, she’s taken flight, and there’s no indication that she’ll be landing anytime soon. (Richard Allen)