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.

ALBUM REVIEW: Olafur Arnalds’ Island Songs

by Rachele Hales

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There is a tourism boom in Iceland, but those of us who cannot make it there in person should be glad for Ólafur Arnalds’ Island Songs project, which is designed to offer an aural journey through the lesser travelled landscapes with guidance from the locals who live there.

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Arnalds starts us off in a church on a hillside in Hvammstangi, a remote town on the shore of an inlet. This is where poet & collaborator Einar Georg Einarsson comes to escape his everyday worries and explore creativity through writing. Einarsson begins “Árbakkinn” with a recitation of one of his own poems; a poem about the landscape he painted his childhood against. As Arnalds joins him with a tranquil piano and the strings eventually drift in it’s easy to imagine a restful day in Hvammstangi, with the easy flow of the nearby stream and a handful of small fishing boats bobbing in the nearby fjord.

He packs up his bags and heads five hours northwest to Önundarfjörður, a town surrounded by mountains and valleys where the winters are harsh. In 1995, a disastrous avalanche killed many people in a small village nearby. “1995” was recorded in a church with a memorial stone outside in remembrance of the villagers whose lives were lost. Here, Arnalds collaborates with his cousin, Dagny Arnalds. She plays the organ in a looping, funereal piece.

Arnalds spent week 3 in ”The Church of Sailors,” a small stave church situated on an isolated landscape near the ocean. “Raddir” is the first of two island songs that uses vocals.  Arnalds has teamed up with conductor Hilmar Örn Agnarsson and composer Georg Kári Hilmarsson to create a celestial work for choir. I have not mentioned the accompanying videos to the Island Songs project until this point. I do it now to prove that I don’t use the word “celestial” carelessly.  In Baldvin Z’s video, the camera pans a circle around the church and catches the sun filtering through the church windows, projecting dozens of tiny rainbows onto the walls. This, accompanied by the choir’s otherworldly harmonies, definitely left this viewer with the feeling of transcendence.

Week five. We’re in Mosfellsdalur now. I will point you again toward Baldvin’s companion video, this time to “Dalur” — the look on Arnalds’ face at the very end of the song says more than I could put into words.

Is it the lamp of Garður’s’ lighthouse that lured Arnalds to his sixth destination in as many weeks or the siren call of Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir, lead vocalist for Of Monsters and Men? Spoiler alert: Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir. One hundred percent. It’s inside a lighthouse on Garður’s’ wind-battered waterfront where Arnalds records his penultimate island song, “Particles.” No surprise it’s as tender and vulnerable as the first five.  Hilmarsdóttir’s voice carries a quiet power and is joined by violin, cello, and of course Arnalds on piano. “Particles” captures the same mood as the rest of the album but Hilmarsdóttir’s vocals perk up the ears and make this composition a little extra special.

In Baldvin’s video, many of the friends Arnalds made during his road trip gather to hear him play the last piece of this project, “Doria,” in Arnalds’ own hometown of Reykjavik. It’s week 7, and they form a half moon around the pianist on the floor of a concert hall in the only video in which he is center stage. Encompassed by the people who have inspired him along the way, he closes out Island Songs with pleasant piano loops. His perfect goodnight kiss.

In every Island Songs composition it’s clear this was a passion project for Arnalds. By choosing to honor the sacred relationship between people and their communities he has illustrated a versatile portrait of Iceland and the stories it has to tell. He doesn’t introduce us to rock stars or Iceland’s tourist attractions, but offers instead the chance to meet the people who serve their communities and treats us to sparse, serene music that mirrors the terrain he set out to explore. Island Songs is beauty, focus, and hushed Icelandic panoramas. It is superb.

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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.

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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.