So much of music is meant to paint pictures of specific themes, images, or moments in life that the composer wants to recreate. Lyrics are written to songs that exemplify certain days, or orchestral compositions are often given a paved path in which they are meant to take the audience, as if guiding them into a narrow passageway of the composer’s brain. This practice of recreating moods on purpose and shaping them into sound is the large majority of music-making. But sometimes there are those sounds that are planned to be unplanned. The composer didn’t sit down and say, “Measure 87 is where the audience will hear the bird take off.” Instead of sounds that map out certain twists and turns, there is that music that is meant to build tangible spaces through its abstract, changing nature. This type of music that is meant to be almost a stream of conscious perspective instead of a controlling narrative is refreshing, and Anna Thorvaldsdottir has created music like this in her new album Rhízōma.
Rhízōma is a collection of works by Thorvaldsdottir, the Icelandic composer who focuses on large soundscapes and dense masses of sound. Rhízōma is Thorvaldsdottir’s debut album, but she has had works performed by the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra and other ensembles, has been performed at festivals such as Nordic Music Days, and had her composition "Hrím" awarded as composition of the year at the Iceland Music Awards in the past. It is surprising that Rhízōma is Thorvaldsdottir’s first album—her body of work is enough to fill a handful of CDs.
Thorvaldsdottir’s album certainly holds true to her described preferences of composition. Rhízōma, whose title is a word referring to a stem that produces roots, is an album full of music that seems to be collected right off the surface of tundra. When one listens to the album, the sound can almost be seen seeping from a frosty mountain range or frozen lake (I guess it helps that she’s from ICEland… haha?). The album is full of soundscapes that fill the head of the listener, but they aren’t too abstract that one feels as though they are listening to an orchestra tuning. Their bare nature makes them incredibly intriguing, something that is difficult to achieve, as it is a thin rope to walk on.
Many of the album's sounds are made up of Penderecki-esque, suspenseful moods. A constant bass line lays the chilled foundation of some pieces, such as the beginning of the chamber ensemble piece “Streaming Arhythmia” performed by the CAPUT Ensemble. Spikes of violin strokes bounce around the orchestra in this piece over the bass line, creating a tangible space out of the sound, much like echolocation. However, “Streaming Arhythmia” isn’t only occupied by hanging-by-a-thread string sound clouds. A war-like percussion interlude invades the space, and when it’s gone, the strings lurk in the background like watchful animals. Rhízōma’s other chamber work, “Hrím” (referring to the growth of icicles), is chilling. Though it has no protruding bass lines, it reminds one of Ingram Marshall’s “Fog Tropes,” or, more generally, a lake covered with a layer of fog. Thorvaldsdottir is obviously talented—she can paint these open and echo-filled pieces, but she does not lose the interest of the listener as so many of these bare pieces often do.
“Hidden,” the 5-movement piece for percussion on piano by Justin DeHart, is a piece composed of the gamelan-like percussion and mysterious moods. The piece includes decisive plucks of the piano strings that snuggle up right against indecisive, frightened trickles of the higher-register strings. On the album, “Hidden’s” movements are split up between the other works. It acts as almost a palate cleanser to the denser orchestral/chamber works, but also can be a focus on its own. The piece does not have any clear development—this is obviously intended, but with exception to the last movement, “Past and Present,” all the movements seem to employ the exact same collection of strikes to the piano.
“Dreaming,” the album’s piece for orchestra performed by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, uses similar techniques as the other pieces. These sounds and waves would get tiring, but “Dreaming” benefits from the use of stronger melody lines (small, but significant in comparison) and more of a sense of weaving than blurring. Singular lines of percussion or flute pulses become cornerstones of the work, and it’s odd but influential too see simple sounds like this become so powerful.
Thorvaldsdottir’s Rhízōma is an album that paints an incredibly vivid picture of who Thorvaldsdottir is as a composer. Her moods, thicknesses, and textures are exposed completely, something that is important to a debut album. Rhízōma succeeds in following in the footsteps of composers such as Penderecki and Ligeti, but also treads in its own side of the tundra by creating creamier and slightly less atonal works. This music doesn’t tell obvious stories of specific moments, but rather constructs the feelings of landscapes and situations. And even though it doesn’t ever get too horror movie-esque, you probably don’t want to be listening to this in the dark.