The compositions of Daniel Bjarnason, Valgeir Sigurðsson, Anna Thorvaldsdottir and more are brought to life by Nordic Affect and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra on a pair of Sono Luminus releases. Together, they represent a strain of both Icelandic music and modern composition: one that appeals as much to the mind as it does to the heart. We’ll be reviewing one today and one tomorrow.
The all-female Nordic Affect (Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir – violin; Guðrún Hrund Harðardóttir – viola; Hanna Loftsdóttir – cello; Guðrún Óskarsdóttir – harpsichord) has received a great deal of international fame since the release of Clockworking. On Raindamage, they tackle new compositions by Úlfur Hansson, Valgeir Sigurðsson and Hlynur Aðils Vilmarsson. The twist is that each composer contributes an electronic work alongside a more classically-tinged piece.
While it’s no surprise that the first and last pieces are the strongest, it is a surprise that they hail from different artists. One may play Sigurðsson’s title piece after Hansson’s closing “Skin Continuum” and feel a sense of continuity; the percussive hits land like the rain of the title, providing a sonic link. To listen while driving through a downpour feels apt. Hansson’s piece seems wrung out, as if the rain is falling from lifted gutters or knotted clothing. The ambient background rests in stark contrast to the active foreground. “Raindamage”, on the other hand, begins with a swift turn of strings, along with a signal warning, before entering into a tunnel of glissandos, like weighted clouds. When the melodies develop, they offer form to the downpour, or more likely to its aftermath: the homeowners standing outside, looking in. This is what it feels like to be smaller than life’s events. Hansson’s “Þýð” includes wordless choir, offering a touch of elegant drama, the higher vocal pitches balanced by cello and offset by violent draws of the string: nearly dissonant, but not quite. The appealing tonal contrast bodes well for his upcoming album Arborescence, while Sigurðsson’s pulsating “Antigravity” raises anticipation for Dissonance. It’s going to be a great season for Icelandic composers.
Vilmarsson’s contributions are more abstract than those of his companions. On “noa::ems”, electronic tones wander from speaker to speaker like firing neurons or electric sparks in a cumulonimbus cloud. Something seems always ready to burst, but never does. In “[:n:]”, the sparks have died, replaced by castings of the bow, but the sense of impending rupture has not. This time the harpsichord carries the droplets, and finally lets them go. And this brings us to our most important statement: it’s one thing to write effective music, but an altogether different thing to perform it. Nordic Affect does justice to these powerful compositions, highlighting their vibrant colors while less accomplished performers might have muted them. Their humble role here can not be overstated ~ as tireless advocates for new and traditional music, as well as for the impact of women in music, Nordic Affect is a multi-disciplinary force of nature. If their rain does damage, all the better. (Richard Allen)