International Contemporary Ensemble Performs Anna Thorvaldsdottir ~ AEQUA

What a treat to hear new music from Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, teaming up once again with the International Contemporary Ensemble, who made 2015’s In the Light of Air such a delight.  ICE has an obvious love for the composer’s music, drawing out its intentional intricacies as well as its emotional resonances.  Thorvaldsdottir has been one of the most consistent composers of the modern age, every album a cause for celebration.  We’ve been enjoying these new compositions one by one as they’ve debuted in various settings, whetting the appetite for this collection.  But as much as we like streaming, there’s nothing like a hard copy, in this event a CD packaged with a Blu-Ray edition, courtesy of Sono Luminus.

An early version of “Scape” was first made available on the New Sounds website.  Cory Smythe’s prepared piano is a perfect way to launch a complex album, as the attention is drawn to a solo instrument.  At first, there’s just one declarative note, reverberating through the speakers.  But listen carefully, and one can hear things rattling in the strings.  The snippets sneak like mice through the walls.  At some point, one suspects they will all make a break for it, but they never do; the tension continues throughout.

“Spectra” is performed by a string trio, an early demonstration of the album’s diversity.  The piece has an aching quality, the intertwining lines desperate for connection despite their proximity.  It’s as if the colors of a rainbow forgot their overlapping nature.  A percussive hit quickens the pace, but again only one.  The cello plays lamentation while the violin experiments with glissandos, a disorienting contrast. When the wooden taps grow more insistent, one expects a cluster of sounds to follow; instead, there is near silence.  This is the strength of Thorvaldsdottir.  Her music seldom heads where one expects, but after one hears it, one sighs, of course.

The album grows in density with “Aequilibria,” exposing a sequential trajectory that was not apparent when these pieces made their individual debuts.  Composed for large ensemble, this piece is the planet around which the smaller pieces “orbit,” according to the composer.  It’s easy to hear its gravitational force: huge notes in conversation, swirls of serenity, phrases of amazement and discovery.  From this piece, we learn that the album is about balance, a quality apparent in each individual composition, as well as the album as a whole: the balance between nature and humanity, light and darkness, fear and hope.  Can equilibrium be reached?  As the volume surges in the ninth minute, one side appears more powerful than the other.  But remember the other tracks, the smaller voices (by size) a counterpart to the single large force, a useful metaphor should one choose to apply it in other arenas.

We seldom have the chance to compare two versions of the same piece, but “Reflections” also appears on the latest Nordic Affect album, also on Sono Luminus and both coincidentally in the six spot.  Both are excellent, the one here a minute shorter with more subdued utterances.  “Illumine” is the album’s other standout, a succinct 7-minute summation of Thorvaldsdottir’s themes.  The early strings seem foreboding, coiled, like the shadows before the light is flicked.  In the final minutes one can hear the light approaching from the edges, an irrepressible sunrise.  The highest notes are reached as the piece concludes.  As closer “Fields” descends into a breath of static, it completes the thought at the end of “Reflections,” like a blank note, a conversation waiting to unfurl, simultaneously closed and open: balance.  (Richard Allen)

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