Music for Empty Flats may have been recorded before the pandemic, but the conditions of its genesis are so fitting that the album now seems prescient. While alone in an undecorated flat in Reykjavik, Martina Bertoni spent a good amount of time listening to her favorite music while watching the snow through the window. To the outside world, a Christmas spent in such a way might seem forlorn, but to Bertoni it was the seed of inspiration. The lush green of the cover, coupled with titles such as “Bright Wood,” “Moving Nature” and “Distant Tropics” speaks of the lushness of a fertile mind.
Now the calendar has completed a circle around the sun, and the Northern Hemisphere is once again in winter ~ a winter in which many of us are in a similar situation, staring out our windows while enjoying our favorite music, albeit with furniture. There are new “empty flats” ~ businesses shuttered, homes foreclosed, and the landscape of minds stuck in isolation. Bertoni’s music speaks to these latter souls, hoping to cut through white with green.
Music for Empty Flats could just as easily fallen into our Modern Composition section; Bertoni’s cello is layered and processed in a manner that produces the effects of drone. The album’s closest relative is possibly Galya Bisengalieva’s Aralkum, which provided a score to the Aral Sea. Bertoni’s compositions rustle and stir; they bubble like the hot springs of Reykjavik’s suburbs and sometimes spill over. Their turbulence is an answer to the stillness of winter: wave upon wave of agitation that says, get up, get moving, never lie down in the sub-zero snow. In “Bright Wood,” wind whips through the low-lying trees.
Is the music lonely? To quote Wallace Stevens, “One must have a mind of winter … to behold … the spruces rough in the distant glitter of the January sun; and not to think of any misery in the sound of the wind.” Bertoni has a mind of winter. To her, an empty flat is not a source of loneliness, but of freedom, an invitation for the mind to wander, as is a far-flung spectacle of snow. It’s a natural extension of her first album, All the Ghosts Are Gone, which reflected a hard-won peace following a period of exhaustion. From this biographical statement we glean encouragement: it can be done. Wintering need not defeat us; as Katherine May writes, it can be a source of rejuvenation. On a literal level, the empty flat can be viewed as an invitation to decorate, just as a new year can be seen as a chance to start afresh. The opening notes of “Fearless” are declarative: outside, all is frozen; inside, I am thriving. (Richard Allen)