Anna Thorvaldsdottir: Rhizoma

One perhaps helpful way to capture the character of Rhízoma, Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir's debut album, is to think of it as somewhat reminiscent of a Giya Kancheli recording, though minus the ear-shattering volume contrasts. Like Kancheli, Thorvaldsdottir's work is deeply textural, often brooding in tone, and highly attuned to the nuances of timbral colour. But using that as an entry-point could also mislead in underacknowledging the singularity of Thorvaldsdottir's own highly developed voice: hers is a music that unfolds like some natural element that's teeming with micro-tonal shapes, accents, and clusters, and though Rhízoma is her debut album, her compositions have appeared on a number of albums prior to this superb Innova release. It offers an excellent overview of her work and its range, including as it does large-scale pieces for chamber orchestra and full orchestra, and short solo settings for percussed piano.

“Hrím,” the 2010 chamber music setting that opens the recording, is fairly representative of Thorvaldsdottir's composing and arranging styles. A dense and magisterial sound-world patiently comes into being, with no one instrument dominant but instead all sounds—violin, piano, percussion, and woodwinds—working in tandem to relay the picturesque details within the powerfully evocative scene. There's an emphasis on micro-sound and texture that finds an agglomeration of minute elements collecting themselves into a fluid swirl—that the Icelandic title refers to the gradual growth of ice crystals makes perfect sense once the listener has immersed him/herself within the piece's equally icy and delicate universe.

There's also a hermetic quality to her music, as evidenced by the first two (of five) movements of the 2009 piece, “Hidden,” that follow “Hrím” and provide such a stark contrast to it. Performed by percussionist Justin DeHart on grand piano, “Hidden – Inwards” and “Hidden – Our” sound much as one might expect when a percussionist uses piano as a sound-generating device: textural moodsculpting becomes the major focal point, with the ghostly material itself focusing on plucked strings, stark single-note accents, low-pitched clusters, and reverb-heavy murmurings. The later “Hidden – Stay” and “Hidden – Rain” confront us with a micro-zone of stasis and silence, with DeHart fixating on sparse, pitch-based gestures in the former and the contrast between spidery strums and single notes in the latter.

Not surprisingly, the 2008 work, “Dreaming,” offers an ever greater abundance of richness, given that it's scored for orchestra and in this case performed by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. Again the title is well-chosen, as Thorvaldsdottir draws upon the vast range of sonorities at her disposal to create a dense, mystery-laden mass that's occasionally punctuated by loud percussive accents but more often opts for dream-like drift and slow metamorphosis. Strings, woodwinds, and percussion elements move steadily as one, rising and falling like the measured breath of a living organism, and convey an impression of open and far-reaching space in the clarity with which their voices declare themselves. Though the volume is pitched at a low level, a sense of power is nevertheless present, as if to suggest that the music's energy, were it to be unleashed, would be awesome.

The recording's second chamber orchestra work and longest piece (at almost twenty minutes), 2007's “Streaming Arhythmia,” doesn't radically depart from the style of “Hrím” and “Dreaming” and consequently brings Thorvaldsdottir's composing style into even sharper focus. Again, the instruments coalesce into a surging and mutating mass out of which individual voices sometimes emerge. A brief percussion-centered episode occurs early on, followed by a stirring string-based passage of sombre, even mournful character, each surfacing organically out of the whole before just as seamlessly settling back into it. During one startling section, the piece even seems to enter into the dream-like world that Ravel introduces during the second part of his one-act opera L'enfant et les sortilèges. That it does so is probably coincidence, however, as, in this piece as elsewhere, Thorvaldsdottir's focus is clearly on developing her own vision, something Rhízoma accomplishes powerfully.

December 2011