Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Rhizoma Evokes Vast, Haunting Vistas
Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s debut collection, Rhizoma, came out late last year on Innova. This minimalistic yet lush, desolate yet forcefully immediate, dark masterpiece hasn’t yet reached the audience it should. Interpolated between its three orchestral works is a murky five-part suite, Hidden, for solo percussed piano, played with judiciously brooding intensity by Justin DeHart. A series of low rumbles punctuated by the occasional sepulchral brush of the piano strings, with deftly placed single notes or simple phrases, the motifs are spaced apart with considerable distance, to the point of creating a Plutonian pace. The piece compares favorably with Eli Keszler’s recent, stygian work – and is best enjoyed as a cohesive whole, resequenced so its segments play consecutively.
The big orchestral works are showstoppers, to put it mildly. The first, Hrim (the Icelandic term for the growth of ice crystals) is performed by the seventeen-piece chamber orchestra Caput Ensemble conducted by Snorri Sifgus Birgisson. A tense, wary tone poem spiced with sudden, jarring cadenzas from the brass, strings, percussion or piano, it begins with a muffled rumble eventually balanced by a high, keening string drone, building to long, shifting tones, a brief, horror-stricken interlude with the piano grappling against fluttering agitation from the violins and then follows a long trajectory downward to eventual silence. Far more dramatic is the potently cinematic Streaming Arhythmia. Once again, mutedly minimal motifs from a long series of voices over a droning rumble build to a scurrying crescendo where everyone seems to have frantically thrown their windows wide to see what horrific event is about to take place. From there the orchestra builds a big black-sky theme (like a wide-open, expansive blue-sky theme but vastly more menacing), low strings in tandem with the timpani and brass at the bottom of their registers. Autumnal hues eventually ebb and fall over the drones; it ends on an unexpectedly playful note, the horror having gone up in smoke, or back into ocean.
The centerpiece, performed by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Bjarnason is sardonically titled Dreaming – but it’s a fullscale nightmare. Fading up with suspenseful Art of Noise-style footfalls over an amber glimmer, microtonal sheets of sound rise with a stately swirl and a distant menace. Waves of muted, rumbling percussion introduce an ominous cumulo-nimbus ambience and allusively tense minor-key phrases (from a compositional standpoint, this is a clinic in implied melody), fading elegantly to ghostly knocks, flutters and flurries.
To say that this album engages the listener is quite the understatement: obviously, these works were made first and foremost for live performance. On cd, the vast dynamic range Thorvaldsdottir employs requires constant attention to the volume level. This does not facilitate casual listening: it’s inaudible if you turn it down too low, and it can become extremely jarring if you turn it up. But maybe that’s the point of all this. Minimalism has seldom been so in-your-face. Who is the audience for this? Fans of dark sounds in general, dark cinematic composers like Bernard Herrmann, and also those who gravitate toward the horizontal work of Gerard Grisey or Henryk Gorecki but wish it had more rhythm and dynamics.
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