Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Sequences


Sounding Now Festival
Saturday, 13 April 2019 @ 7:30pm
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, Orchestra Hall

Contributed by Noah Diggs (BMus4, YST) and Ilysia Tan (BMUS2, YST)

Anna Thorvaldsdottir grew up in a tiny town in Iceland, Borgarnes, surrounded by nature. She first started studying music with her mother and aunt, playing cello. She pursued her education in music, studying cello performance in Reykjavik. It was here she became interested in music composition. She moved to the US, San Diego, to study composition at the Graduate and Doctorate levels under Rand Steiger. She is currently the composer-in-residence at the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and resides in England.

Sequences is written for bass flute, bass clarinet, baritone saxophone, and contrabassoon. “My music is often inspired in an important way by nature and its many qualities, but I do not strive to describe or literally incorporate elements from nature in my music,” she writes. “To me, the qualities of the music are first and foremost musical – so when I am inspired by a particular element that I perceive in nature, it is because I perceive it as musically interesting. The qualities I tend to be inspired by are often structural, like proportion and flow, as well as relationships of balance between details within a larger structure, and how to move in perspective between the two – the details and the unity of the whole.”

The piece begins with captivating air sounds, gusts of wind or steam hissing out of the bells of the ensemble’s instruments. One instrument will crescendo, the next takes over, and decrescendos. The playing here is as a whole, no instrument sticks out. There is an overall feeling of gyration, cycling, but no significant movement. A gradual building of momentum maybe, but nothing comes mechanically. The gestures are completely organic, alive even. From these hushes and whispers, a sort of murmuring, clicking figure emerges, sounds begin to come into focus after extending above the layer of air sounds. These sounds are short, unpitched runs in the contrabassoon, which occasionally squeak out accidental pitches. These runs foreshadow the emerging of a note, an E in the bass flute.

From there, the tones spread adjacently, to Eb, D, and F, forming a cluster around the main tone E. It’s hard to hear these as individual pitches, closer to a cloud of distortion circling around the E-area. The pacing of the entire piece is intriguing, showing us one side of the subject, then another, then one more, never revealing the full face. It always becomes obscured, sinking back into air sounds and obscurity. As the pitch increases, more variety is introduced. Key clicks and tongue rams pop in more and more, interrupting the undulating texture of the lower instruments. The pitches become a melody in the bass flute as more and more notes are introduced, slinking and chromatic. The lower instruments continue their droning completely on pitch now, circling around the Eb and D.

The music is incredibly insistent, throughout the entire piece there isn’t a moment of silence, the baseline is a continuous bed of low, gravelly soundmass. Just as the flute becomes more adventurous, the melody wilder, the bass instruments more agitated, it sinks back into nothingness. Listen and appreciate just how little she gives away in this piece, yet how satisfying it still is.

Thorvaldsdottir achieves this organicism through very fine control of dynamics and skillful dovetailing of each instrumental part. The transitions in timbre from one instrument to the next, and the way that each note is turned into a gesture through overlapping parts helps to create this never-ending spiral of sound. The illusion of movement with the reality of not moving is also created using these hairpin-style crescendo-diminuendos. She develops the texture and creates agitation using arpeggiating runs through each instrument’s range. Due to the bass-power and timbres of these instruments, each arpeggio sounds almost like a growl or a roar. The pitches aren’t always clear, but the gesture is always effective.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir is still an emerging composer, young yet breaking into the mainstream quickly and with wide success. Sequences is currently released on an album dedicated to Thorvaldsdottir’s work, AEQUA, performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble, released on the label Sono Luminus.

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