Less than a month after Anna Thorvaldsdottír’s inclusion on Nordic Affect’s Clockworking, a new collection of her work has been issued. This four-movement work (plus a concluding piece) premiered only a year ago, and is performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble. At the 2014 Reykjavik Arts Festival, a series of breath-activated lights enhanced the experience, while many klakabönd (metallic ornaments known as a bind of ice) were used as percussion. Much of this is apparent in the clip below, but home listeners might imitate the experience through creative lighting and sound-and-motion activated appliances.
Not that any of this is necessary to enjoy the album, a combination of filigree-thin solos and remarkable convergences. Thorvaldsdottír honors both the contributions of the individual performers and their work as an ensemble. At this point, fifteen years and five hundred premieres into their career, ICE’s resume is so long that it causes the eyes to gloss over; it’s the only dull thing about them. Their control is impressive, their execution impeccable, and with compositions such as “In the Light of Air”, their exquisite talent shows through. Called upon to exercise the greatest of restraint, the ensemble stops short of explosion, over and over again, sewing sheets of strings that eventually grow strong enough to bear any weight.
Viola, cello, harp, piano, percussion and electronics seem to wander their own paths, again and again, yet in a room small enough that their paths often intersect. Each time they seem to grow closer: more familiar and thus less shy, able to converse for longer periods without withdrawal. Midway through the third movement (“Existence”), the principals gather in a group at the center of the room, comparing notes, both literal and metaphorical, in indoor voices. This sets up “Remembrance”, the percussive finale, partially based on a theme written by Thorvaldsdottír’s husband. The tracings and tappings seem like prelude to the album’s largest, saddest themes, which dominate the movement’s fifth minute and continue to haunt throughout. First the strings, then the piano, then even the drums eventually shift to their outdoor voices, beating their breasts in mourning. Toward the end, a series of dissonant notes imply that nothing is resolved, although the final, subtle minute illuminates the path.
The more playful “Transitions” shifts the mood, although not in any jarring fashion. This cello piece explores the tension between “man and machine” by counterposing periods of structure and emotion. It’s more effective without the explanation, as the emotion never runs high enough to provide a clear contrast; in short, the machine wins. As such, the work succeeds more as a performance than as the reflection of a concept; but the execution is pure.
In the Light of Air is another jewel in the crown of Thorvaldsdottír, who is quickly becoming one of the globe’s greatest composers. The future of modern composition is safe in her hands. (Richard Allen)
Release date: 28 August