International Contemporary Ensemble: Anna Thorvaldsdottir In the Light of Air / by Doyle Armbrust

About the Work

by Doyle Armbrust

“Internally, I always hear sounds and nuances as musical melodies and enjoy weaving those sounds together with harmonies and lyrical material. Structurally, I work with perspectives of details, the unity of the whole, and the relationship between the two.”

—Anna Thorvaldsdottir


IN PREPARATION OF ENTRY  With a swift inhale, a quivering of the eyelids, you awaken. Easing up onto an elbow, your fingers brush the latticework imprint on your cheek, left there by the stiff grass. This unfamiliar landscape is vast, astonishing. The diminutive trees shivering nearby stretch the view into intimidating proportions. How will you make your way back home? Do you want to leave?

The music of Anna Thorvaldsdottir is singular in the way it deposits listeners into an immense panorama of their own creation, one that rapidly expands inward even as its lens widens across the horizon. While atmospheric, these scores are not simply atmosphere. They are profoundly ruminative catalysts, tilting us into an encounter with ourselves—an experience from which we are mostly divorced during our waking hours. No promises are made as to whether this encounter will be a sublime or an unnerving one, but it is likely to teeter between the two.

Even in this disobedient niche of a niche we call “new music” there is a saturation of recordings and performances through which to wade. What stirs Anna’s work to the surface—gives it a luminosity that catches the ear— is this dexterity of being simultaneously capacious and introspective. If you as listener tonight find yourself forgetting that performers are performing, you are not alone.

Tactility is a mesmerizing two-player construction built from the deep resonances of the harp, tam tam, wooden object, bass drum, and Klakabönd (a decorative, metal sculpture from Iceland, the name of which translates loosely to “a bind of frost”). With each of these instruments the elementary acts of rubbing them with paper, scratching them with fingernails, or threading them with rope coaxes out subtle overtones, sounds that linger in the mind long after their vibrations evaporate. The harp, tuned partially in quarter-tones, pulls us beyond the expectations of tonal, Western classical music and into something more enigmatic. The passage of time is fluid in this score, less strictly notated than Anna’s larger ensemble pieces, and the result is an increased agency on the part of the performer to allow timbral shifts and resonances to develop organically and collaboratively. The enterprise is something akin to spelunking with a pair of headphones and a shotgun microphone: dropping stones, sand, and rubber balls on the strings of a koto and listening for the rebounding sonorities as they carom off stalactites.

Sketched lines and swaths of color are frequently the germination point of a Thorvaldsdottir score. These are mind maps, not graphic scores, that the composer depends upon to keep a universal perspective of the work during its creation. For Transitions, commissioned by tonight’s soloist Michael Nicolas, a visual element does infiltrate the performer’s sheet music. The initially dichotomous and ultimately blurred relationship of “man” and “machine,” the theme here, is delineated on the page by a floral asterisk (man) and a solid black square (machine). Fluctuating glissandi and eloquent melodic lines are interrupted by rhythmically tenacious, virtuosic runs and insistent pizzicati before the two forces converge. While not overtly a commentary on the development and progress of new music, in which each generation of players achieves the capability of executing techniques once thought improbable or even impossible, it is a curious departure for a composer who cites the natural world as the primary source of her inspiration.

The product of the International Contemporary Ensemble’s forward-thinking ICElab project (in which composers in residence devise substantial new work in continuous collaboration with the group), In the Light of Air initiates with the players’ amplified breath. Harmonics in the viola and cello are smuggled in under this wash before an elongated heartbeat emerges from the bass drum. Atop this illusory substratum, the perforations of overpressure crunching from the strings become menacing, the intermittent, open chords a temporary respite from disorientation. Throughout, footing is elusive; the ground beneath the listeners’ feet melting so that with each step they will either advance or slip into a dark pool of some viscous liquid.


Originally published in the Museum of Contemporary Art's MCA Stage program book