Nordic Affect: Raindamage
Sono Luminus

The typical recording featuring a new music outfit's performance of contemporary composers' works largely conforms to plan, with a set-list that reflects diversity without sacrificing cohesiveness in the process. With Raindamage, the Icelandic quartet Nordic Affect offers an inspired twist on the formula: not only does the recording feature individual works by Valgeir Sigurðsson, Úlfur Hansson, and Hlynur Aðils Vilmarsson, it supplements them by including three electronic works by the composers, too. Such an approach goes beyond the standard notion of collaboration in bold manner, and not surprisingly the result, musically speaking, is provocative, too.

With artistic director-and-violinist Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir joined by violist Guðrún Hrund Harðardóttir, cellist Hanna Loftsdóttir, and harpsichordist Guðrún Óskarsdóttir, the award-winning Nordic Affect has been resetting boundary lines since the ensemble's 2005 formation and 2007 recording debut. The four might play period instruments, but, as Raindamage makes abundantly clear, they're forward thinkers excitedly exploring new territory. Still, though the outfit's 2015 release, Clockworking, also features material by Icelandic composers, the new one pushes the collaboration idea to a new level.

The project evolved out of a 2014 concert at Roni Horn's Library of Water in Reykjavik that involved Nordic Affect premiering three of the works included on the album. It was there that Stefánsdóttir pitched the idea to the group and the composers about the idea of a recording that would pair the three pieces performed by the quartet with three electronic works. True to water's character, there's a fluidity to the thirty-nine-minute recording, specifically in the sequencing, which eschews predictability for natural flow, and in the different instrumental configurations deployed: three settings feature electronics only, the title piece blends the group's strings with electronics, and Hansson's “Skin Continuum” adds Nava Dunkelman's Uchiwa Daiko drum playing to the electronic design.

Sigurðsson's “Raindamage” establishes the recording's tone with ponderous gestures that guide the string players through chilly, barren landscapes; reinforced by metronomic accents, an omnipresent sense of foreboding permeates the material, until a final strings flourish brings the piece to an abrupt halt. Up next, Hansson's textural investigation opts for raw string drones, wordless vocal harmonies of primal character, and strings scraped so aggressively the effect verges on violent. In contrast to the measured unfolding of Vilmarsson's “noa::ems,” which plays like some lab study of incessantly mutating micro-organisms, Sigurðsson's “Antigravity” pulsates with the raw energy of a piston-powered machine built to generate sheets of silvery sound.

If you've read this far, you'll have long figured out that Raindamage isn't a collection of conventional Romantic pieces but a gathering of experimental settings that challenges the established norms of chamber music recordings. While certainly no one will come away from the album whistling its melodies when textural exploration and sound design are such primary focal points, Nordic Affect merits praise for advancing the chamber recording concept in such imaginative manner.

April 2017