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EXCLUSIVE: Anna Thorvaldsdottir on 'Streaming Arhythmia' NYC Premiere at Pioneer Works

By Ian Holubiak i.holubiak@classicalite.com on Feb 10, 2016 03:49 PM EST

To say Anna Thorvaldsdottir works with large sonic structures is an understatement. Her music, instead, embodies a more enormous sense in composition, one dealing with the environment we live in and its volatility. A force of nature impacts our lives more so than a song. So, how is it that Ms. Thorvaldsdottir's music equals weather in force?

Or, rather, how does her music transcend a song?

This is an immense question to posit to an artist, but Anna's insight on her creative process doesn't veer off from any musical highway we've driven. It's just that, in regards to her music, perhaps the highway has been destroyed by a tornado or hurricane of a different quality.

In Anna's recent Meet the Composer segment--where she was interviewed by Classicalite favorite Nadia Sirota--the composer led listeners through the vineyards of her childhood, noting the characteristics of the landscape she took in as a child. Specifically, how the weather impacted her daily life. The mountains, glacial formations and hostile weather may have all had some kind of supernatural force, but that force, at least for Anna, comes in the form of music.

No, she hasn't actually recorded the weather and recycled it. Instead, the tune of nature is processed through a different lens, one that inspires sounds, not replicates them.

And in appropriating this kind of sound structure, we arrive at Anna's 2007 composition, Streaming Arhythmia, which will receive its New York premiere Thursday, February 11 at Dustin Yellin's Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn.The aptly named concert, Laws of Nature, will feature the Icelandic composer's work, as performed by Contemporaneous.

Also filling out the bill is Kate Moore's Days and Nature, a world premiere of Fjola Evans' NOTT and a work by Joanna Newsom, entitled Sawdust and Diamonds.

We were lucky enough to get a few words from Ms. Thorvaldsdottir in preparation for her New York premiere, which Ms. Thorvaldsdottir has called a "sound mass"--a layered piece.

CLASSICALITE: The landscape of your music has a quality much like the weather, meaning it has an essence to it that is volatile, open, constantly moving and changing. In Streaming Arhythmia, there's a sense of impending doom, something dark and sinister sitting in the lower registers of the piece and that is accentuated with these long strokes in the violins, cellos and other string parts. Do you think there is a sense of this kind of weather that is captured in Arhythmia? More specifically, do you think there's a feeling of unpredictability or doom when listening to your composition?

ANNA THORVALDSDOTTIR: One of the most beautiful things about music is that everyone experiences it individually and finds their own worlds in it. I'm flattered by the comparison of the music to the qualities of shifting weather, but since it is my own music, I don't think I would be able to identify a feeling of unpredictability myself, because - to me - the music is conceived the way it "should be". I have also heard some of my music described by reference to doom and darkness, and I understand why parts of it sound that way, but I don't construct the music with a specific intention to evoke those particular emotions. It's interesting to me to hear what people experience in the music, but to me the qualities of the music are first and foremost musical, if that makes sense. So maybe a passage before the transition from one material to another can be experienced as something like uneasy anticipation, but the way I think of it is as musical material flowing naturally from one state to the next. But it is important to me that people find their own experience in the music.

CL: In your WQXR-Q2 podcast with Nadia Sirota you say that, where you're from in Iceland, living inland is impossible because of the hostile nature of the environment. Is that hostility something that we as humans generally turn a blind eye to? Is that hostility part of our human experience and is it something we all embody and use to express our own inner-hostility towards, say, other humans and/or the planet itself?

AT: This is a very big question, and one I am perhaps not in a position to answer. But with respect to nature, the perceptions of nature that influence me are definitely not "romanticized" - nature is present on such a large scale and exists on so many levels: it is beautiful, peaceful, brutal, rough, subtle, wonderful, scary, chaotic, structured, large and small and many, many other things, all at once.

CL: Does your music, then, embody some sort of hostility? Is this a concerto for the climate, or a soundtrack to a natural disaster?

AT: My music is often inspired in an important way by nature and its many qualities, but I don't strive to describe or literally incorporate elements from nature in my music. When I'm inspired by a particular quality that I perceive in nature, it is because I perceive it as musically interesting - so if I am influenced by a natural quality that can be experienced as hostile or as peaceful, for example, then it is because I find music in that quality, but not because of it's hostile or peaceful character. So I don't think about the music in a way that it describes or portrays natural elements, but rather I allow nature to be an inspiration with regards to certain qualities, in particular proportion and flow/movement.

CL: Aside from the weather, how does something like Arhythmia speak to the landscape of native Iceland? You said you grew up seeing mountains, glaciers, etc. but never really listened to classical as a child and instead gravitated toward popular music in your youth. How did you branch out into the classical arena and did the landscape of your country, with all of its lava fields and mountains, help give you a perspective when becoming a composer and creating music?

AT: Well, I listened to all kinds of music growing up, everything from popular music to listening to my mom playing Chopin, Lizst and other piano music. I had been making up songs since I can remember and it was just a way of being to me, so I didn't really think about it as something to write down. Then when I started to get to know more and more contemporary compositions as a teenager I started writing out these sounds and lyrics I was imagining. This is how I found my medium and that I needed to write music and that this was my home in music.

Growing up in a place surrounded by untouched nature is something that can easily help to nurture inspirations and to develop musical ideas, but that wasn't something I thought so much about back then. But later I realized how much this proximity to nature helped me to develop my perception in music.

I am not sure if I can say that Streaming Arhythmia speaks to the landscape of Iceland, in a straightforward sense - to me inspiration from nature is not bound to a single place, or to Iceland per se, but to nature in general. When I wrote this work I was for example living in California. The way I would say the inspiration from nature is perhaps most apparent in this work is in its structural progress, that is, the progression of the work.

CL: You have a concert in your midst, too, your New York premiere of Streaming Arhythmia. The bill features other likeminded composers who are all presenting compositions that are in a similar vein as yours. The venue is in Red Hook in Brooklyn, not too far from where I reside in Williamsburg. Do you feel that Brooklynites will appreciate the music and what you're trying express with sound? Have they appreciated your music before?

AT: In general, I prefer not to direct the listener's experience of the music and hope that the audience takes an individual journey through the musical scape of each piece. It is always wonderful when that happens.

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TagsAnna Thorvaldsdottir, Pioneer Works, Streaming Arrhythmia, EXCLUSIVE, Contemporaneous, Dustin Yellin