Saturday 27 November 2021

Following her passion: for Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir writing music as a calling

Anna Thorvaldsdottir (Photo Saga Sigurdardottir)
Anna Thorvaldsdottir (Photo Saga Sigurdardottir)

For the third of my interviews with composers nominated for the 2021 Ivors Composer Awards, I chatted to Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir (Þorvaldsdóttir) who is a first time nominee. Anna is nominated in the large scale composition category for her orchestral piece Catamorphosis. The work was a co-commission from the Berlin Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Iceland Symphony Orchestra, and was premiered by the Berlin Philharmonic, conductor Kirill Petrenko, on 29 January 2021 [the concert is available from the orchestra's Digital Concert Hall]. Catamorphosis takes as its starting point the fragile relationship between humankind and the planet, and can be taken as a purely musical work, overflowing with drama and unexpected turns, or as a metaphor for the climate emergency.

I was intrigued as to the origins of the title, and Anna explained that it is a combination of two different words 'Catastrophe' and 'Metamorphosis' which goes back to her initial inspirations for the work. Whilst she does not always find it necessary to have the inspirations indicated in the title of the work, this time she felt that it was. The work started as a completely open commission as to length and subject matter. She enjoys working with a large-scale format as this gives her ideas space, and for this work she needed the full 20 minutes. The ideas and the work came naturally. It wasn't a case of pinning an idea or a concept on a piece; the inspiration came intuitively, and the subject matter, relating to humans, the planet and climate change, was a large part of the creation of the work.

If you read about Anna's music, her inspiration from landscape and nature is often mentioned. But she does not try to describe particular landscapes, she takes inspiration from nature for the structure and flow of the construction of her work. Nature is complex and complicated, and she is able to reflect this in the music with every type of emotion. She does not find sounds in nature, but uses it as the inspiration for her construction material, finding shapes. She sees her music as being about the state of being. 

I was intrigued as to whether she perceives of her music as Icelandic (whatever that might mean to a composer). She has heard her works described thus and is flattered, but is not sure what the description might mean as there are a lot of different Icelandic musics. For Anna, the most Icelandic thing about her is being brought up in freedom. Anna grew up around a lot of untouched nature but she is not sure whether her music could be said to be about this landscape, it is more about the energy she found there. Being Icelandic also meant being able to go to good music schools, being able to explore ideas and her passion for music. She adds that you need imagination and creativity to think about nature in a musical way, and this in turn requires the freedom that she talked about.

But doing what she does inevitably means working also in a global way. There is one major orchestra in Iceland (the Iceland Symphony Orchestra) and she enjoys working with them, but she also enjoys working with orchestras from around the world. Catamorphosis is a prime example of this with the work being a co-commission between a German, an American, a British and an Icelandic orchestra.

It is one of her passions to work with larger scale groups, and this sense of scale works with how she hears music and textures, weaving complex textures which she orchestrates using a large number of performers. And she has always had this passion since starting to write music. To listen to one of Anna's large-scale works is to enter a very specific sound world. She does not create this consciously, it is how the music comes out. She allows it to be created organically, using large structures of sounds that merge out of each other and grow into other material. First and foremost in any of her works is the structure and she spends a lot of time on it, how does it relate. She often uses low moving forces that she describes as breathing in and out of focus, and this is how she listens to her music internally. Describing your own music is always difficult, putting into words the complex processes which take place largely in your head and your inner ear, and I was very grateful for Anna's willingness not only to have a go, but to be so eloquent.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir  (Photo Anna Maggý)
Anna Thorvaldsdottir  (Photo Anna Maggý)
Interestingly she does not play an instrument when she is writing music, she does not sit at the piano, and the music is not written in short score and then orchestrated; instead the music comes out as a grand whole. She hears the textures and nuances together, but it takes a long time to notate and she has mnemonic devices that she uses to remember the sounds and textures. So, a lot of time is spent 'finding the music', and then notating it when she knows where she is going, and then editing and creating the whole. She is searching for ways to orchestrate and notate the music, and developing these intuitively.

As a child she was always making up songs, lyrical stuff as she describes it, but there were other heavy ideas but she did not then have the tools to work with these ideas. Later, when she was hearing more contemporary music, she was encouraged by hearing sounds that she had not heard before. She thought 'wow, you can do this' and her mind started to open up. She also developed to tools to realise how best to orchestrate the music. She was writing a lot of music at this time and describes her then self as determined and passionate. She played the cello, and started by studying that instrument and wrote her first orchestral piece even before studying composition and describes this period with the phrase 'passion and hard work'. When she did start writing music, around the age of 20, she knew that she couldn't stop doing so, even though she had started out studying the cello. Being a composer was not a choice, but a following or a passion. And only then did she apply to study composition at university, and by then she had a portfolio of compositions to support her application. And now, she cannot be without writing music, it is part of who she is and she is grateful for being able to follow her passion.

She allows the music to emerge, giving herself space to find the music and then write it out. She does not approach the music from a technical perspective, though she realises that the her pieces can be difficult to perform. But, that said, she is very aware of the humans who are going to be performing the music, trying to be respectful and whilst her music is not simple, she does not push boundaries simply for the sake of it. It is different when writing for a soloist or a chamber group, then she can work together with the performers to push boundaries in the way that they want. 

The history of contemporary music in Iceland is rather short, and the education there is very much affected by the wider European traditions. One influential figure she does name is the composer Jón Leifs (1899-1968), whom she describes as a potent emerging figure. She was not consciously influenced by his music, but he had a big impact on Icelandic musical life. And now, for such a small nation, there are a remarkable group of composers. She describes influence in music as a weird thing, she doesn't approach the music of others for inspirations, but she admires it. During her early years as a composer (some 20 years ago) she was fascinated by people working with different textures and sounds, composers such as Krzysztof Pendercki (1933-2020), György Ligeti (1923-2006), György KurtagSofia Gubaidulina and Kaija Saariaho. And asked to name a hero she immediately comes out with the Icelandic singer Björk, who has been such a force ever since Anna can remember.

She is currently writing a new large orchestral work, which is due to be premiered in 2022, as well as several other pieces which cannot be announced yet. For her, the previous 18 months were very surreal as she was writing Catamorphosis during lockdown, and she thinks that she was lucky that she was quite far into the piece when the first lockdown started. She had already chosen the instrumentation and thus was not able to change it, otherwise she might have been tempted to create a smaller scale piece more suited to socially distanced performance. But it was good to have a big piece to work on, even though she did not know when it might be premiered, and two of the co-commissioners have still to have their local premieres (it has been performed in Berlin and in Iceland). And the piece helped her during lockdown as she sat with it every day, but it was surreal as she was writing such a big piece when so much was being cancelled. She was not able to get to the premiere in Berlin, but was grateful that it happened. 

Icelandic Symphony Orchestra is performing Catamorphosis again on 11 March 2022 [see orchestra's website]. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra will be giving the UK premiere of the work on 15 June 2022 [see CBSO website]

Catamorphosis is published by Chester Music and the score is viewable on-line.

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