The Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdóttir uses combinations of timbres that are at times ominous, or melancholy, and always powerful. She takes inspiration from natural phenomena or landscapes for many of her pieces, beautiful in the complexity of detail and the compelling quality of their large formal structures.
Recently appointed Composer in Residence for the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Thorvaldsdóttir also received multiple awards from Lincoln Center this year, and currently is the New York Philharmonic Kravis Emerging Composer. On April 4–6, 2018, the New York Philharmonic – which presented the New York premiere of Thorvaldsdóttir’s Aeriality in May 2017 (reviewed by National Sawdust Loghere) – will introduce her new orchestral work, Metacosmos, as the culmination of her residency.
Recently, Thorvaldsdóttir generously took time to discuss the inspiration behind her new work, and how she found her voice as a young composer.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: What is your first memory of creating music?
ANNA THORVALDSDÓTTIR: Well, I remember making up songs in my head and thinking musically about things from a very early age, but that was not something I would write down. Sometimes I might play a little bit on the piano. But I can’t really pinpoint how early this might have been—I was always singing and making up music in my head. But as far as writing, I started to notate music when I was about 19, and then a new world opened up, when I realized that I could put all these thoughts into something that is more concrete and communicate music in that kind of way.
What happened when you were 19 that made you start writing down music?
I had always been thinking musically, it was just a part of who I was. When I was nineteen I had been playing the cello for a few years and I was very serious about it, and through my studies, I had some wonderful teachers who introduced me to contemporary music and that opened my antennae to a new world of music and to how I might myself communicate my own music. I feel now that this was kind of a natural next step for me – although I didn’t think about it that way back then, it was just something I wanted to try – but when I started to write out the music that I was hearing, I found that it was something I really had to do and couldn’t be without doing.
Do you remember some of the specific pieces that inspired you to start composing?
When you’re studying a string instrument the repertoire tends to be quite old, but one of my cello teachers introduced me to some more recent pieces for cello which I immediately deeply connected to and loved playing, such as Henze’s Serenade and Sallinen’s Elegy for Sebastian Knight. And at these earliest stages when I was initially getting to know more and more about recent music, there were for example pieces by George Crumb and Penderecki which really opened up my eyes to the spectrum of various sounds and effects in music that I found completely fascinating. So getting to know more contemporary music was very inspiring to me, it was something I had never heard before and I immediately connected to exploring textures and sounds in music. I remember specifically when I heard Crumb’s Black Angels for the first time—it was mind-blowing.
Are you using any of those unusual sounds or extended techniques in your piece for the New York Philharmonic?
Well the thing is, in all my pieces I use “extended techniques” quite a lot, actually, although I also use regular pitched materials very much as well. The way I think about this is that I weave those two together, and to me it feels like one and the same thing as it sounds together. I don’t actually think of sounds and effects as extended techniques but just as any other color in the palette that you can choose from. I like to combine effects and sounds to become one with pitched material and harmony: so that to me extended techniques and the regular pitched material are not separate but different sides of the same material and both types can be very lyrical and abstract, and my favorite is when it is both at the same time. So yes, I also use a combination of different textures, sounds, and effects in Metacosmos.
You talked about how this new work combines the ideas of chaos and beauty. What got you interested in the idea of chaos?
When I’m at the earliest stages of thinking about a piece or dreaming on a piece, it’s always a very intuitive process for me. At the point where I was starting to think about this piece, there was a very strong notion that the work would be about the natural balance between beauty and chaos and how elements can come together in chaos to create a unified and structured whole. And that was something that I intuitively felt was a very strong inspiration for this piece. But with all my pieces, the inspirations are methods for me to work with materials and things that I find musical qualities in, rather than something I’m trying to actually describe. So, it’s not that I take an element and try to make music out of it, but rather when I feel there are musical qualities in certain things they become inspirations to me. So this was the starting point and the idea grew stronger and more complex as I was writing the piece. Then afterwards, when a piece is ready, it’s always a bit tricky to directly associate the inspirations with the music because in the end, I really feel strongly about people approaching the music on their own terms. So, I hope people can do that.
You chose the title Metacosmos for this new orchestral work—how do you think of the titles for your music?
I always spend a lot of time finding the right title for each piece, and it usually has to do with the atmosphere of the piece, and in that respect, it is often in some way indicative of what I have been thinking of when writing the music. With Metacosmos, the title directly refers to the notion of the “other world,” or arriving at the place beyond, and reaching this point of uncertainty where you leave what you know behind—imagine you are on a path, for example, and you don’t know where it is going to lead you but you have no choice but to continue, you just have to trust the process and see what happens on the other side of it. So that’s what the title refers to in this case.
In addition to the title, you mentioned in your description of the piece the idea of falling into a black hole. Do you have an interest in these phenomena in space, and black holes in particular?
Yes, I do! And I found that the inspiration had a direct connection both to what we know and what we don’t know about black holes. I was reading a lot about black holes and it was a point of curiosity for me with respect to this piece, this idea of falling into a force, or being pulled into a force, that you have no control over, and allowing that to happen—or rather, not having any option but for that to happen and accepting it. That’s a part of the chaos element because you slowly realize that it is all beyond your control, and you will be drawn into something that’s far stronger and more powerful than you will ever be, and you have no choice but to trust that it will lead you somewhere, and then to hope that it will lead you to a good place. But you never know. The inspiration from this metaphor then interacts in different ways with the power-struggle element between chaos and beauty through constellations and layers of opposing forces that communicate and pull on each other.
It seems as though your compositional process is quite solitary, but you’re writing for this large group of people or sounds in a work such as Metacosmos. What do you love about writing for orchestra?
Writing for orchestra is something that I’m really passionate about, and I think it’s drawn from the way I hear things and how I listen, and how I think about music. It provides an opportunity to work with textures and layers, and to work with different types of materials and weaving those into a big block of music, and that’s something that really fascinates me. It’s the way I think about music and experience music.
Your voice as a composer is always really strong no matter what the medium is: solo pieces with electronics to large acoustic ensemble. If you were to introduce someone to your music, what would you share with them and why?
I think it would depend on the particular person. I would probably propose Ad Genua as a piece for someone who might not be already familiar with contemporary music. Whereas for someone who might be more familiar with contemporary music, I might recommend one of my large orchestral works, such as Aeriality.
You’ve had a lot of international success recently, and therefore have to travel a lot for work. Are you able to find a way to center when you’re on the road, or do you have to take a break from composing while you’re travelling?
I can’t actually work that much on my music when I’m traveling, so I try to always structure it so that I can be in my studio for at least two or three weeks in between travels. When I’m on the road the schedules are so busy that it’s hard to fit in other work, so it’s very important to structure time to be in the studio to work.
Do you have a regular schedule that you stick to in those times when you are in your studio?
I definitely structure my time, but also try to be gentle. I am very organized and structured in my work, but especially at the fragile stages when things are being born, I need a lot of space to allow for the music to come out. So I create that space in the schedule—there is nothing more important than time when it comes to finding the music I feel like. So I definitely organize my time well but when it comes to writing music I can’t structure everything.
Do you have other colleagues or friends that you show your work to at any point in your process, or do you wait until you’re totally done with a piece before anyone sees it?
My husband is a philosopher, and I talk to him a lot about music and life, and he sees my process continuously. Otherwise, it really depends on the piece: sometimes I meet with composer friends and we show each other what we’re doing. And sometimes I meet with performers to look at materials. But it’s always different: some pieces nobody sees until they’re completely done. It depends.
For someone who is shy about writing music and interested in finding a way to put their music out there, what advice would you have for them?
I very much connect with that, because I myself was very shy and I didn’t think I would ever be able to show anyone my work. But if you’re really passionate about what you’re doing, it’s really all about taking the leap and diving in. I always believe in working hard and being honest about what you’re doing in your work, to put yourself out there—it’s the only thing that’s possible to do at that stage. I think it’s very important to know that it’s not catastrophic to put yourself out there, it’s just about letting other people know what you’re doing!
The New York Philharmonic presents Anna Thorvaldsdóttir’s Metacosmos at David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, April 4 and 5 at 7:30pm and April 6 at 8pm; nyphil.org
Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti is an American performer, educator, composer, and scholar of contemporary classical music. She is currently the assistant professor of viola at University of Northern Colorado School of Music. Her writing has appeared in Music and Literature, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, and the Journal of the American Viola Society.