Anna Thorvaldsdottir is an Icelandic composer whose work conjures entire environments of sound, surrounding the listener in a dark and forbidding landscape. Anna thinks sonically; her music comes from a deeply non-verbal place, and she has developed a brilliant workflow which allows these ideas to remain mostly whole and unmolested through her creative process. Anna often favors massive ensembles, writing delicate and detailed parts for every player, but even when she is writing for smaller forces, she somehow summons these massive sonorities — detailed, elegant tapestries with a seductive gravity, which pull the listener in with their gradually revolving color and texture. (NPR, Meet the Composer, Nadia Sirota, 11/9/2015)
Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s recent ascendance into the new music scene’s upper atmospheres has proved as ineluctable and stunning a sight to behold as ground-to-cloud lightning. Scanning the Classical Top 10 lists at the close of 2014, readers might reasonably have wondered if an editorial dictate had been handed down from on high, reserving a slot expressly for “Albums by Icelandic Composers Named Anna.” The near-universal critical acclaim has certainly been richly deserved, as Thorvaldsdottir’s new Aerial is a record that unfurls vast and bewildering sonic panoramas before the listener, confounding in scope and yet familiar in a way that renders the experience utterly visceral and intimate. These sounds, alternately as intimidating as a legion of ancient carnyx horns and as hushed as twirling samaras, deposit the listener in the midst of colossal external landscapes—landscapes that could also, and just as plausibly, have originated from within the fanciful bounds of one’s own cerebral cortex.
Listening to a recent album of Icelandic music from the chamber ensemble Nordic Affect is a bit like driving across the country from which its composers hail: The terrain changes radically every few minutes, but a sense of the uncanny unifies the landscape. “Clockworking,” released last month on the Sono Luminus label, forms an absorbing and persuasively performed snapshot of Icelandic composition today. The album brims with compellingly quizzical sounds, from Thuridur Jonsdottir’s “INNI” — in which electronic samples of a babbling baby accompany a shimmering Baroque violin — to Hafdis Bjarnadottir’s “From Beacon to Beacon,” which draws on recordings made at lighthouses to create twitchy grooves.
The most captivating music on “Clockworking” comes courtesy of Anna Thorvaldsdottir, recently named the New York Philharmonic Kravis Emerging Composer. In her “Shades of Silence,” tactile effects — a harpsichordist drags a mallet across her instrument’s strings, a cellist sustains gritty glissandos — swirl into an aura of mystery.
Thorvaldsdottir is a self-described introvert, but she also invites a conversation with her audience. Her themes are the natural world, musical influences, the creative process, fame and the entrancing aspects of her native country, Iceland.