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.

by Anna Thorvaldsdottir
(Deutsche Grammophon, Nov. 2014)

Thorvaldsdottir is a self-described introvert, but let it be said that she also has a high tolerance for the persistent, dropped call pageant that is the Skype interview. Between bubbly-sounding reconnection alerts, an extensive conversation ensued, dipping into themes that touched on the natural world, musical influences, the creative process, fame—and why the hell everyone is so entranced with Iceland.

So grab a good pair of headphones and fire up that Spotify account: with Aerial’s track list as our point of departure, we will attempt to unearth just what it is that makes this music so captivating, while also examining some of its biographical wellsprings and exploring what comes next for a composer whose (only) second album landed a spot on the exalted Deutsche Grammophon roster.


For 4 horns, 3 trombones, & 4 percussionists. Performed (with overdubbing) by Stefán Jón Bernharðsson (horn), Sigurður Sveinn Þorbergsson (trombone), & Frank Aarnink (percussion)

Wire brushes on a tam-tam rustle like frozen eyelashes pulling apart. Before vision refocuses, a deep tremor vibrates, radiating up from the soles of boots stiffened by raw snow.

One element that can be traced through Anna’s catalog is a certain seamlessness, the instantaneous immersion of the listener in a given piece’s sound world. There is no “getting acquainted period to speak of within the language. Timbre provides the immediate entryway, and the use of pitch is concise but inexorable. While the composer doesn’t often incorporate obscure noisemakers or flurries of novel instrumental techniques, an exception is made here for the rolling of a giant metal wheel across the stage (the tremor). There is a theatricality to the revolution of this steel, as its handler is the only performer on stage save the conductor. Four horns, three trombones, and three more percussionists are instead positioned around the hall, enveloping the audience in pitch-less drafts of wind sound, unisons stretched apart by quarter-tone deviations, and hieratic, ceremonial pronouncements from the alpine bells. The vista is scarred by the wind, but not desolate…nor uninhabited. The question is, inhabited by what?

“Second self” may be the most fitting term for the adaptations a shy personality must necessarily make to pursue a public career. Since the release of her debut album, Rhízōma, in 2011 (on the Innova label), Anna has been navigating a full slate of commissions from top-shelf institutions like the International Contemporary Ensemble, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, the Oslo Philharmonic, and forward-slashers Yarn/Wire and Either/Or. Trophies, and the extroverted glad-handing they call for, arrived from the Iceland Music Awards (2011) and Nordic Council (2012), among others. This spotlight is more than a few lumens removed from the natural wattage congenial for a musician who, laughing, admits, “I was terrified of showing anyone what I was doing,” when discussing her first classes with John Speight at the Sigursveinn D. Kristinsson of School of Music in 1998. Though she grew up in an artistically tolerant home, one that happily encouraged the development of a mind thronging with all manner of melodic fancy, the young composer was initially petrified at the prospect of divulging her early efforts to fellow students and teachers.


For bass flute, bass clarinet, piano, percussion, 2 violins, viola, & cello. Performed by CAPUT EnsembleGuðni Franzson (conductor)

Dampened piano thwacks pummel the earth like stone pylons, the desiccated grass of string tremolos curling inward around them. Striking the subterranean crust, they hum glowing overtones, embracing the bystander. Everything within view begins to vibrate, sympathetically.

As is the case with most of her recorded pieces, Anna edited and mixed most of these tracks herself. What is so striking about both her albums is how they situate the listener right at the nexus of their constellations of texture—inside the music. It’s as though you
’ve commandeered an invisibility cloak, stolen onto the concert hall stage, and tucked into the center of the ensemble, the stage pulsating beneath you. When it comes to Ró, which translates as “tranquility, this trespass is not nervy, but serene and restorative.

For an imagination overflowing with such immense, and at times frightening, aural impressions, Anna’s early musical years were by contrast rather stormless. Born in 1977 in the small town of Borgarnes, outside Reykjavík, to a carpenter and a music teacher, her early training did not include locked practice room doors or aggravated stage parenting. “I was always singing,” she remembers, adding that Mom and Dad were, and still are, enthusiastic proponents. In an audacious parental maneuver (what with recent horror stories of frustrated conductors bringing concerts to a embarrassing halt to admonish the parents of inattentive children), her mother brought a five-year-old Anna to the opera. Though she does not recall the specific piece or production, she can still affectionately summon up the memory of exuberantly conducting along with the music, the sounds permeating her being in a way she had never previously experienced. The episode eventually led her to the cello, which she began studying at the age of twelve. Having experimented with a number of alternatives, she fell in ardent love with the instrument, feeling as though she had finally hit on the most effective conduit for her brand of sonic expression.


Originally published in Music + Literature on Mar 18th, 2015