ICE performs Anna Thorvaldsdottir: In the Light of Air
Sono Luminus

Performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), Anna Thorvaldsdottir's In the Light of Air is scored for viola, cello, piano, harp, fixed electronics, percussion, and installation, and, due to the presence of the latter two elements, requires some preliminary explanation. Intimating that the ideal circumstance under which the piece should be experienced is in the concert hall, In the Light of Air incorporates both a lighting constellation featured in the work's live presentation and an installation of metallic ornaments designed by Thorvaldsdottir (the mini-booklet that comes with the release includes a photo of the striking lighting-and-ornaments display). On the release, violist Kyle Armbrust, violoncellist Michael Nicolas, harpist Nuiko Wadden, pianist Cory Smythe, and percussionist Nathan Davis do much to bring Thorvaldsdottir's enigmatic universe into being.

A graduate of the University of California in San Diego, Thorvaldsdottir issued her debut album Rhízoma on Innova in 2011 and followed it with Aerial on Deutsche Grammophon/Universal Music Classics in 2014. Hers is a subtly lyrical and nuanced music that's well-served by a group of modest size, and the five players execute In the Light of Air's material with authority and sensitivity. With no breaks between its four parts, the forty-minute title track unfolds patiently, with each musician contributing detail to an expanding mass, their expressions feeling more like brushstrokes of desaturated hues softly applied to a large canvas dominated by elegantly flowing shapes. Percussive rumblings imbue the work with an elemental quality, whereas textural gestures generated from the piano, harp, and vibes amplify its air of mystery. The strings alternate between drone and melodic phrases and deploy all manner of pitch-shifting and glissando effects to bolster the music's ethereal quality. If there's one movement that's more memorable than the others, it's the sixteen-minute fourth (“Remembrance”) due to the softly clangorous effect the metallic ornaments impart to the material, and with Smythe's dark piano chords and Wadden's cascading patterns factored in, Thorvaldsdottir's dramatic composition at times assumes a strong Gorecki-like character.

Written for Nicolas in 2014 (and commissioned by him), Transitions understandably places the violoncellist front and center in a work whose overriding theme concerns “man & machine” and the presumed tensions that derive from their relationship. According to the composer, the human side has to do with “expression and emotion,” whereas the other is about “maximal technical accuracy.” In oscillating between the two throughout the eleven-minute work, Transitions becomes a Nicolas showcase, with the musician using a range of techniques to bring Thorvaldsdottir's meditation to life. If the longer setting evokes Gorecki in its final movement, this closing piece calls to mind the Benjamin Britten suite Steven Isserlis performs on The Protecting Veil (Virgin Classics, 1992) in the range of moods encompassed. If hints of other composers do occasionally surface on In the Light of Air, Thorvaldsdottir's material is hardly lessened by their doing so when the recording so indelibly establishes her own persona as a composer.

October 2015