ALBUM REVIEW: Recurrence by Iceland Symphony Orchestra with Daníel Bjarnason

by Maggie Molloy

Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in all of Europe—with a population just half the size of Seattle’s—and yet somehow, it has cultivated one of the biggest, boldest, and most iconic new music scenes of the 21st century.

Exhibit A: the Iceland Symphony Orchestra’s newest album.

Recurrence is a collection of five utterly ethereal works written by a handful of emerging and established Icelandic artists: Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Thurídur Jónsdóttir, Hlynur A. Vilmarsson, María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, and Daníel Bjarnason, who also serves as the orchestra’s conductor and Artist-in-Residence on the album.

It’s a lineup that is emblematic of Iceland’s radiant new music scene, known for its massive, slow-moving sound sculptures illuminated with delicate instrumental details. Each piece on the album is a gorgeously abstracted soundscape in itself, showcasing the small Nordic island’s all but unparalleled explorations of texture, timbre, and immersive, atmospheric colors in music.

The album begins with Thurídur Jónsdóttir’s surging “Flow & Fusion,” a sparkling sound mass for orchestra and electronics—but here’s the twist: the electronics are all derived from recordings of the actual instruments of the orchestra, creating a kaleidoscopic aural effect that plays off the concert hall’s acoustics. The sonic seascape ebbs and flows across the entire orchestra, swelling in glorious waves of sound and evaporating back into near-silence.

It’s followed by Hlynur A. Vilmarsson’s sprawling “BD,” which gradually transforms from an amorphous blur of low-pitched vibrations into a rhythmic, tightly-constructed sound off of nearly every distinctive timbre and extended playing technique in the orchestra. Muliphonics, glissandos, prepared piano, vertical bowing, harmonic overtones, and nontraditional percussion instruments all make an appearance in this playfully orchestrated exploration of the symphonic outer limits.

An entire ocean of sound comes alive in María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir’s “Aequora,” which takes its name from the Latin word for the calm surface of the sea. Sigfúsdóttir takes the image a step further, emulating the majestic beauty of the sea both under softly glistening sunlight but also under the exquisite lightning of an ominous storm: soft strings and whispering winds evoke the sustained surface of the sea amidst swelling percussion motives and brilliantly colored washes of deep brass.

The theatrical climax of the album comes with Daníel Bjarnason’s cinematic three-movement “Emergence,” an aurally arresting exploration of darkness and light. The piece traces the arc of existence from the vast expanse of total darkness to the life-giving warmth of breath, touch, and worldly textures—and all the way out into the luminous, incandescent light of outer space.

The album closes with Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s “Dreaming,” an icy and ethereal illumination of the beauty of utter stillness. Enormous sound masses sparkle with delicate orchestrational nuance in a sound world so stunning that it almost seems to halt time itself.

It’s a reminder, like so many of the works on this album, to be still, to listen—and to dream in shimmering detail.

Women in (New) Music: Timeline of Women Composers

by Maggie Molloy

women-in-music-timeline

“New” music didn’t just start up out of the blue. The contemporary classical music we know and love and treasure today is the product of centuries of innovation and experimentation in the field.

Likewise, women didn’t just pick up instruments and staff paper in the 21st century—we are the product of hundreds of years’ worth of women who fought to have their music heard. So if we’re going to celebrate Women in (New) Music, it’s important to pay tribute to the women who paved the way.

The following timeline briefly outlines the contributions of a number of history’s most influential women composers, past and present. Please note that this list is by no means comprehensive, but rather is meant to summarize some of the key accomplishments of women composers in the Western classical music tradition.

So the next time you’re looking for some fiercely empowering musical inspiration, check out some of these ladies:

HISTORIC COMPOSERS:

inanna

Enheduanna (2285-2250 BCE): Regarded by scholars as the earliest known author, poet, and composer (regardless of gender), Enheduanna was a high priestess of the moon god in the Sumerian city-state of Ur. Her temple hymns were held in high esteem, and were in use at temples across Sumer and Akkad long after her death.

Image is of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love, fertility, and warfare.

 


hildegard

 

Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179): Hildegard was a German Benedictine abbess, Christian mystic, and one of earliest female composers. There are more surviving chants by Hildegard than by any other composer from the entire Middle Ages, and she was one of the first composers (male or female) to create her own idiosyncratic compositional style.

 


maddalena-casulana

 

 

Maddalena Casulana (1544-1590): Casulana was the first woman in Western music history to print and publish her music, and the first to regard herself as a professional composer.

 

 


francesca-caccini

 

 

Francesca Caccini (1587-1645): Caccini had a successful career as a singer, teacher, and composer, and was one of the most prolific composers of dramatic music in the 17th century. She was also the highest-paid musician at the Florentine court.

 


barbara-strozzi

 

Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677): Strozzi was the most prolific composer, man or woman, of printed secular vocal music in Venice during the mid-17th century. Her father, a poet and librettist himself, nurtured her ambitions as a composer and introduced her to the intellectual elite of Venice. Unlike her male contemporaries, she was restricted to performing at intimate, private gatherings rather than for large, public audiences.

 


elisabeth-jacquet-de-la-guerre

 

Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729): Born into a family of musicians and instrument makers, Jacquet de la Guerre was the original child prodigy in music. From the age of five, she sang, composed, and played the harpsichord at Louis XIV’s court, supported by the king’s mistress. Throughout her life, she enjoyed the patronage of the king and dedicated most of her works to him.

 


maria-szymanowska

 

Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831): Szymanowska was one of the first professional virtuoso pianists of the 19th century. She toured extensively throughout Europe and composed for the court at St. Petersburg, gave concerts, taught music, and ran an influential salon. She wrote a number of piano pieces and songs which made her an important forerunner to Chopin.

 


fanny-mendelssohn

Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847): Later known as Fanny Hensel (after her marriage), she was the sister of the early Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn. Though she was as talented and musically precocious as her brother, a musical career was considered inappropriate for a woman of her wealth and class at the time. After her marriage she played piano and performed her compositions at small, private gatherings of friends and invited guests, and she published much of her music under her brother’s name.

 


clara-schumann

 

Clara Schumann (1819-1896): Clara Schumann was one of the most distinguished composers and pianists of the Romantic era. Though she was married to the composer Robert Schumann, she tended to be the more famous of the two, and was the main breadwinner for their family. Together, Robert and Clara championed the musical career of Johannes Brahms, and she was the first to perform any of his works publicly.

 


amy-beach

 

Amy Beach (1867-1944): A child prodigy, pianist, and composer, Amy Beach taught herself to compose by studying and playing the works of other composers. Though social conventions of the time excluded her from studying or teaching at any of the top universities, she went on to become the first American woman to publish a symphony and other large-scale works.

 


marion-bauer

 

Marion Bauer (1882-1955): Bauer was an influential composer, teacher, and music critic who played an active role in shaping American musical identity in the early half of the 20th century. She held leadership roles in a number of composers’ societies, and helped found the American Music Guild, the American Music Center, and the American Composer’s Alliance.

 


rebecca-clarke

 

Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979): Clarke was a classical composer and violist best known for her chamber music featuring the viola. She became one of the first female professional orchestral players. Most of her works have yet to be published (or have only recently been published).

 

 


florence-beatrice-price

 

Florence Beatrice Price (1887-1953): Price was the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer, and the first to have a composition performed by a major orchestra. Though she was classically trained, her music incorporated elements of African-American spirituals, emphasizing the rhythm and syncopation of the spirituals rather than just the text.

 


nadia-boulanger

Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979): Boulanger was a composer, conductor, and one of the most influential pedagogues of the 20th century. Many of her students went on to become leading composers of the 20th century, including Aaron Copland, Quincy Jones, Elliott Carter, Virgil Thomson, Philip Glass, Ástor Piazzolla, and many more. Boulanger was the first woman to conduct many major orchestras in America and Europe, including the BBC Symphony, Boston Symphony, Hallé, New York Philharmonic, and Philadelphia orchestras.

 


germaine-tailleferre

 

Germaine Tailleferre (1892 – 1983): Tailleferre was the only female member of the group of French composers called Les Six, who were known for writing highly individual works which drew from a wide range of influences, including neoclassical. She composed hundreds of works in all genres, including many film scores.

 


lili-boulanger

 

Lili Boulanger (1893-1918): Lili Boulanger was a child prodigy and a student of her older sister, Nadia. At the age of 19, she became the first woman composer to win the Prix de Rome for her piece Faust et Hélène, but her compositional career was cut short when she died at the age of 24 from chronic illness.

 

 


ruth-crawford-seeger

 

Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953): Seeger was a modernist composer and American folk music specialist, and she was the first woman to win a Guggenheim Fellowship in music. She was a prominent member of a group of American composers known as the “ultramoderns,” and her music influenced later composers including Elliott Carter.

 


LIVING COMPOSERS:

ellen-taaffe-zwilich

 

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich: Zwilich was the first female composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for music. She is one of the most frequently played living composers, and her works draw from a wide range of influences, including atonal, post-modernist, and neo-romantic.

 

 


libby-larsen
Libby Larsen:
 
One of America’s most prolific and most frequently performed living composers, Larsen has cultivated a catalog of over 500 works spanning virtually every genre. She was the first woman to serve as a resident composer with a major orchestra, and she went on to become one of the founders of the American Composers Forum.

 

 


julia-wolfe

 

Julia Wolfe: Perhaps best known as one of the three founders of the wildly innovative Bang on a Can new music collective, Wolfe’s compositional style is just as urgent and relentlessly powerful as her career. In 2015, she earned the Pulitzer Prize for music, and this year, she was named a MacArthur Fellow—the first full-time classical composer to receive this distinguished award since 2003.

 


jennifer-higdon

 

Jennifer Higdon: One of America’s most critically-acclaimed and frequently performed living composers, Higdon has both a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy Award under her belt. She enjoys several hundred live performances a year of her works, and her compositions have been recorded on over four dozen CDs.

 

 


lisa-bielawa

 

Lisa Bielawa: A prominent composer and vocalist both within and beyond New York’s thriving contemporary classical scene, Bielawa takes her inspiration from literary sources and close artistic collaborations. In 1997, she co-founded the MATA Festival, which has gone on to become New York’s leading showcase for vital new music by emerging composers.

 


amanda-harberg

 

Amanda Harberg: A New Jersey-based composer, pianist, and educator, Harberg’s music has been widely commissioned and performed both in the United States and abroad. She is also the founder and director of the Music in Montclair series, which pairs performances of traditional classical music with new works by living composers.

 


shara-nova

 

Shara Nova: Best known as the lead singer and songwriter for her chamber pop band My Brightest Diamond, Nova is also equally at home as a composer, mezzo-soprano extraordinaire, and musical chameleon. Career highlights include composing and starring in her own psychedelic Baroque chamber opera titled You Us We All and collaborating with practically every major musical voice in New York City (and beyond).

 


sarah-kirkland-sniderSarah Kirkland Snider: Perhaps best known for her rapturous and vividly orchestrated song cycles Penelope and Unremembered, Snider’s utterly immersive compositions have been commissioned and performed by many of the most prestigious orchestras, ensembles, and soloists throughout the world. A passionate advocate for new music, Snider also serves as co-director, along with William Brittle and Judd Greenstein, of New Amsterdam Records—a label which consistently churns out adventurous and thought-provoking new music.


anna-thorvaldsdottir

 

Anna Thorvaldsdottir: As a composer, Thorvaldsdottir is known for creating large sonic structures which immerse the the listener in their austere, somber, and utterly spellbinding soundscapes. She’s the recipient of the prestigious Nordic Council Music Prize and The New York Philharmonic’s Kravis Emerging Composer Award.

 

 


angelique-poteat

 

Angelique Poteat: A powerful compositional voice and new music advocate, Poteat is a Seattle-based composer and clarinetist whose works have been commissioned and performed by the Seattle Symphony, North Corner Chamber Orchestra, and many others. Her five-movement composition Listen to the Girls, scored for girl choir and large orchestra, explores harmful and unfair societal expectations of women.

 


kate-moore

 

Kate Moore: Moore’s award-winning compositions blur the line between acoustic and electroacoustic media, at times even crossing over into sound installation territory. She specializes in creating surprising performance scenarios which feature virtuosic instrumentalists and musicians set amidst unusual and alternative performance circumstances.

 


missy-mazzoli

 

Missy Mazzoli: Mazzoli is a Brooklyn-based composer and keyboardist who’s works flow seamlessly between chamber-operatic, electronic, and abstract sound worlds. She’s also the founder and keyboardist of the all-female new age art pop ensemble Victoire, a group dedicated to the performance of her works.

 

 


caroline-shaw

Caroline Shaw: Perhaps best known as a Grammy Award-winning singer in the boundary-bursting vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, Shaw is also a prominent violinist and composer in contemporary music. She has performed around the world as a violinist in ACME (American Contemporary Music Ensemble), and in 2013 she became the youngest ever recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music for her a capella composition Partita for 8 Voices.

 


Are we missing someone? We plan to continue updating and expanding this index of women composers as time goes on. Send your submissions to maggiem@king.org and we’ll make sure your favorite female composers are added to the list.

 

VIDEO PREMIERE: Heyr þú oss himnum á by Anna Thorvaldsdottir (Skylark Vocal Ensemble)

by Maggie Stapleton
8865168Skylark is a professional chamber choir of world-class musicians with a passion for small ensemble performance and their new album, Crossing Over, demonstrates a strong dedication to music composed in the 20th and 21st centuries.

To celebrate its March 25 release on Sono Luminus, we’re excited to present the video premiere of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s gorgeous, evocative, and other-worldly setting of an ancient Icelandic psalm: Heyr þú oss himnum á. 


Skylark: Crossing Over 
Matthew Guard, Skylark Artistic Director
[1] Elegy by Daniel Elder (b. 1986) [4:16]
[2-9] Butterfly Dreams by John Tavener (1944-2013) [12:13]
[10] Otche Nash by Nicolai Kedrov (1871-1940) [2:03]
[11] Requiem by Jón Leifs (1899-1968) [4:41]
[12] Heliocentric Meditation by Robert Vuichard (b.1985) [9:12]
[13-15] Carols of Death by William Schuman (1910-1992) [9:42]
[16] Heyr þú oss himnum á by Anna Thorvaldsdottir (b. 1977) [4:27]
[17] Funeral Ikos by John Tavener [5:55]

Pre-Order the album here.

view

Photo: artsatl.com

Skylark is a premiere a cappella vocal ensemble of leading American vocal soloists based in Atlanta and Boston. Formed in 2011 by Artistic Director Matthew Guard, Skylark has been described as “a gem… soloists who come together to create a dynamic and inspiring whole” (ArtsATL). Skylark strives to set the standard for innovative, engaging, well-researched, and dramatically presented programs that re-define the choral experience for audiences and singers alike. Since its founding five years ago, Skylark has branched out to perform its innovative programs in museums, concert halls, and churches in six states. In 2015, Skylark became one of the only chamber choirs in the U.S. to successfully perform Francis Poulenc’s Figure Humaine. In 2016, Skylark will make its Spivey Hall debut with a chamber performance of Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil. Skylark Artists have performed with other internationally renowned groups including Blue Heron, The Handel & Haydn Society, Lorelei, The Pheonix Chorale, Sante Fe Desert Chorale, Seraphic Fire, Trinity Wall Street and the Yale Choral Artists. A not-for-profit entity, Skylark also performs educational outreach programs with high school students in Atlanta and Boston and across the U.S. during its concert tours.

AnnaThorvaldsdottir2851_Edited

Photo: Saga Sigurdardottir

Anna Thorvaldsdottir frequently works with large sonic structures that tend to reveal the presence of a vast variety of sustained sound materials, reflecting her sense of imaginative listening to landscapes and nature. Her music tends to portray a flowing world of sounds with an enigmatic lyrical atmosphere.

Anna’s music is frequently performed internationally, and has been featured at several major venues and music festivals such as Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival in NYC, the Composer Portraits Series at NYC’s Miller Theatre, ISCM World Music Days, Nordic Music Days, Ultima Festival, Klangspuren Festival, Beijing Modern Music Festival, Reykjavik Arts Festival, Tectonics, and the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. Her works have been nominated and awarded on many occasions – most notably, Anna is the recipient of the prestigious Nordic Council Music Prize 2012 for her work Dreaming, and The New York Philharmonic’s Kravis Emerging Composer Award.

Some of the orchestras and ensembles that Anna has worked with include International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), BIT20, Musiques Nouvelles, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Yarn/Wire, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the CAPUT Ensemble, the Oslo Philharmonic, and Either/Or Ensemble.

Anna holds a PhD from the University of California in San Diego.

New Music Grammy Nominees 2016

We are thrilled that seven of our Albums of the Week received 2016 Grammy nominations!  Here’s a recap of these awesome new music releases:

Seattle Symphony’s Dutilleux: Métaboles; L’Arbre Des Songes; Symphony No. 2, ‘Le Double’  (Best Orchestral Performance, Best Classical Instrumental Solo, & Engineered Album, Classical)

855404005072_SSM1007_Dutilleux_iTunes

“The Seattle Symphony dances with precision and grace through the dense textures and intertwined solos of the first movement, the delicately colored timbres and haunting lyricism of the second, and finally the convulsive rhythms and fascinating orchestration of the third.” – Maggie Molloy (on Symphony No.2)

 

 

 

Roomful of Teeth’s Render (Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance)

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“The last piece on the album is the title track, also composed by Brad Wells, which was inspired by David Eagleman’s short story ‘Search.’ The ensemble’s voices ebb and flow in soft waves, gracefully gliding in and out of near-silence to create a serene and mystical sound world.” – Maggie Molloy

 

 

 

eighth blackbird’s Filament (Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance)

filament

“It goes without saying that the performance quality on this disc is top-notch, no less fine than any of eighth blackbird’s past albums. You’re luxuriously free to focus solely on the compositions themselves, all of which are worth contemplating at length. In an age when most albums’ connecting filaments are somewhere between ultrathin and nonexistent, it’s a pleasure to listen to a set of pieces with such close ties.” – Jill Kimball

Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields (Best Contemporary Classical Composition)

anthracite_fields

“Anthracite Fields is not an easy listen, but I don’t think Julia Wolfe wanted it to be. We Americans tend to gloss over unpleasant parts of our history when, in order to make peace with our past, we’d do better to confront it. In telling these miners’ stories through vivid music, Wolfe has brought an important but often ignored chapter of our country’s story to the forefront…. You’ll learn a little about life in late-1800s Pennsylvania, you’ll contemplate energy usage and workers’ rights, and if you’re like me, you’ll have a good cry.” – Jill Kimball

 

Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s In the Light of Air (Producer of the Year, Classical – Dan Merceruio)

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“As a composer, Thorvaldsdottir is known for creating large sonic structures that reveal a vast variety of sustained sound materials—and both of these pieces are a perfect example of her visionary style. Throughout the album, her subtle timbral nuances, poetic textures, and lyrical gestures immerse the listener in austere, somber, and utterly spellbinding soundscapes.” – Maggie Molloy

 

 

ZOFO’s ZOFO Plays Terry Riley (Producer of the Year, Classical – Dan Merceruio)

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“‘ZOFO Plays Terry Riley’ proves that the musical magic of piano extends far beyond a pianist’s 10 fingers. Through their exploration of Riley’s works, Zimmermann and Nakagoshi paint a vivid and colorful picture of the immense textural, timbral, and stylistic possibilities of piano duets. After all, it’s amazing what a pianist can do with an extra hand or two.” – Maggie Molloy

 

 

Anythony de Mare’s Liaisons – Reimagining Sondheim from the Piano (Producer of the Year, Classical – Judith Sherman)

1444893095_cover“Having just a vision’s no solution, everything depends on execution.  Anthony de Mare’s work on this project has, bit by bit and piece by piece, amounted to a thoroughly enjoyable collection that sounds like thirty-six composers having a musical conversation with America’s preeminent composer of musical theatre.  Liaisons offers up something familiar, something peculiar, something for everyone.” – Rachele Hales

ALBUM REVIEW: In the Light of Air: ICE Performs Anna Thorvaldsdottir

by Maggie Molloy

Anna Þorvaldsdóttir tónskáld er höfundur Aeriality sem Sinfóníuhljómsveit Íslands frumflytur nk. fimmtudag. Anna lauk nýverið doktorsnámi sínu í tónsmíðum. Hún segir heilu og hálfu vinnubækurnar með hugmyndum bíða úrvinnslu og vonast til að geta einbeitt sér að tónsmíðunum af krafti á næstu árum.

photo: Kristinn Ingvarsson

You could say composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir is a bit of an ice sculptor. No, not the frozen water type of ice—the musical type of ICE. The Icelandic composer recently collaborated with ICE, the International Contemporary Ensemble, to create a new four-movement chamber work titled “In the Light of Air.”

And while we’re on the topic of ICE, let it be known that they are not your average ensemble. With a modular makeup of 35 leading instrumentalists, the group performs contemporary classical music in forces ranging from solos to large ensembles. In fact, they make it their mission to advance the music of the 21th century by pioneering new musical works and multimedia strategies for audience engagement.

In 2011 they created ICElab, an innovative new musical project which places teams of ICE musicians in collaboration with emerging composers to develop works that push the boundaries of the classical genre.

ICE’s latest album, titled “In the Light of Air: ICE Performs Anna Thorvaldsdottir,” is just a single product of that collaborative project. The album features two gorgeously enigmatic pieces: “In the Light of Air” for viola, cello, harp, piano, percussion, and electronics, and “Transitions” for solo cello. The performers on the album are ICE members Kyle Armbrust on viola, Michael Nicolas on cello, Nuiko Wadden on harp, Cory Smythe on piano, and Nathan Davis on percussion.

The title track is a tetralogy of works that together form a unified structure—the four main movements are connected by texturally fascinating transitions and framed by a prologue and epilogue. The first movement is an airy, delicate sound world aptly titled “Luminance.” The percussion and electronics provide a slowly rumbling bass part beneath a gradually shifting texture of sound materials, melodic fragments, and harmonies.

The second movement, titled “Serenity,” is an entire ocean of sound: infinitely varied yet beautifully unified in its ever-changing timbres and textures. The translucent calm sparkles with gorgeous harp details and gentle piano echoes, the vast and limitless soundscape punctuated with delicate, misty whispers of simple melodies.

The third movement is much shorter than the rest. Clocking in at less than four minutes, “Existence” is a slow and pensive journey, each bow stroke in the strings a deliberate, measured step through an atmospheric sound mass of deep drones and rumbling echoes.

The piece ends with “Remembrance,” a movement which delicately balances the lyrical, long-breathed melodies of the strings with the harmonic depth of piano and the textural interest of percussion. In fact, the percussion part features an installation of metallic ornaments which Thorvaldsdottir designed specifically for use in this particular movement. The ornaments, called Klakabönd (which is Icelandic for “a bind of ice”), were created by artist Svana Jósepsdóttir.

And if you’re lucky enough to see the piece performed live, there is an additional multimedia component: “In the Light of Air” incorporates a light constellation that was designed in collaboration with ICE. A collection of lightbulbs twinkles softly above the musicians during the performance, glowing and dimming according to the intensity of the music.

The other piece on the album is “Transitions,” which was commissioned by cellist Michael Nicolas in 2014. The single movement work explores the theme of man and machine, both of which are represented through contrasting cello parts. Nicolas soars through the organic lyricism and expressive melodies of man while also excelling at the metallic timbres and technical accuracy of machine. Through his sensitive balance and imaginative interpretation of each role, he showcases the cello’s rich tone, wide pitch range, and stunning timbral depth.

As a composer, Thorvaldsdottir is known for creating large sonic structures that reveal a vast variety of sustained sound materials—and both of these pieces are a perfect example of her visionary style. Throughout the album, her subtle timbral nuances, poetic textures, and lyrical gestures immerse the listener in austere, somber, and utterly spellbinding soundscapes.

So in the end, Thorvaldsdottir is probably more of a sound sculptor than an ice sculptor—but either way, she is certainly carving out a name for herself in the contemporary music scene.

In the Light of Air is released on August 28, 2015 – you can pre-order on Amazon or iTunes!

ALBUM REVIEW: ‘Clockworking’ from Nordic Affect

By Jill Kimball

What is it about Iceland? From Björk to Ólafur Arnalds to Jón Leifs, the 320,000-person country seems to churn out more fantastic and original music per capita than any other country on Earth. And with the latest album to come out of the country—whose population, it should be noted, is half the size of Seattle—we have a few more reasons to celebrate this Nordic land.

 

In many ways, Clockworking, the new release from the ensemble Nordic Affect, couldn’t have come from any other country. The music is dotted with the very Icelandic sounds of rushing winds, hummed folk music, and above all, the beautifully stark sounds of silence. The album is characterized by pleasant repetition and meditative simplicity, an accurate musical reflection of life in Iceland’s quiet, cold and wild towns. Listening to Clockworking made me feel like I was the only one in the world one minute, but like a tiny drop in a vast ocean the next.

My absolute favorite thing about Clockworking, aside from the fact that every name in the liner notes ends in –dóttir, is that it’s all about women. Nordic Affect, the performing ensemble, is a small group of females who play on harpsichord, viola da gamba, and other period instruments.  On top of that, all five of the composers featured on the album are female. Today, women make up less than 15% of the world’s living composers; perhaps hearing this album will inspire more women to become composers themselves and turn those statistics around.

The album’s opening track is also its namesake, Clockworking. If you like Sigur Rós, you’ll like this piece, too; it possesses a similar beautiful simplicity. Composer María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir (of the group amiina) does a wonderful job integrating a constant but unobtrusive clock-like pulse into the texture of the work. The instruments may be Baroque and the mood focuses on the passage of time, but the music is timeless.

The next three pieces focus on an interplay between real-life noises and instrumental sounds. In 2 Circles, composer Hildur Guðnadóttir chose to examine a musician’s close relationship with her instrument, which is why you’ll hear the composer herself humming along with the notes she plays on her cello. The lovely, intimate work was recorded in the middle of a chilly Iceland winter, and I swear I could feel the wind howling outside as I listened. In From Beacon to Beacon, composer/guitarist Hafdis Bjarnadóttir recorded the sound of the breeze outside a local lighthouse in midsummer and used it in this piece, which she describes as an imagined musical conversation between two lighthouses.  I was just as interested in the simple sound of the blowing wind between musical phrases as I was in the beautifully random ping-ping of the harpsichord. And in INNI, “Musica da Camera,” the sound of an infant’s gentle murmuring mingles with a buzzing baroque violin.

HafdisBjornadottir

Composer Hafdis Bjarnadóttir records the sound of the wind near an Icelandic lighthouse.

If Shades of Silence illustrates anything, it’s that “silence” is a relative term. The only actual silences present in the piece are at the beginning and end. The rest is what some might deem white noise: a viola da gamba’s bow gently scraping along a string here, fingers plucking a few strings there. After a few minutes, I considered the sounds of the piece as good as silence;  like the gentle sounds of keyboard typing or the rustle of papers at work, I’d grown accustomed to hearing it in the background.

The album concludes with Sleeping Pendulum, another work by María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir that had already received an honorary award at the time of this CD’s release. It’s another focus on timelessness, a study in how the music we hear today echoes decades and centuries of music that came before it. The piece begins with a simple interplay between a violin and some tinkling bells, but later it becomes all about strings, with a violin interjecting short, high trills above a foundation of slowly morphing sustained chords.

Clockworking is one of those albums that stands on its own sans explanation but that becomes all the more meaningful after you’ve read the liner notes. The album provides a great excuse to put down the phone, step away from the keyboard, and escape pixelated life for a while. Turn the volume up, close your eyes, and do absolutely nothing but listen. Every single one of this album’s 45 minutes deserves your undivided attention.