Monday, June 8, 2015

What is it with Iceland?

Really, what is it with Iceland? This nation of 329,100 people, slightly less than the population of Victoria, BC, Canada, where I used to live, just seems to have a musical energy out of proportion to its size--a bit like Finland, but on a smaller scale. I say this because I just read in the New York Times that Anna Thorvaldsdottir has just been named an emerging composer by the New York Philharmonic, which brings a $50,000 prize and a commission from the orchestra.

Iceland seems to be bubbling, volcanically, with a number of other prominent musicians having come along in recent years including Sigur Rós and Björk. I have written very briefly previously about Sigur Rós and several times about Björk, but I haven't said anything about Icelandic composers. Anna Thorvaldsdottir studied composition in UC San Diego, highlighting one of the issues with musicians from somewhere supposedly isolated from the musical mainstream, like Iceland (or Victoria, BC). You do need to get out and meet the world.

Let's listen to a piece. This is Aeriality by Anna Thorvaldsdottir for orchestra:

A critic writing about a concert last year of her music said:
Ms. Thorvaldsdottir’s music has a natural beauty to it in the way it reveals itself patiently, and in its unpredictable but organic-seeming instances of rhythmic quickening.
That quote doesn't go all-out purple-prosey the way Tom Service or Alex Ross would, but it does sound rather like the writer was struggling to find something to say. Contemporary music always presents a huge challenge to any critic because, short of doing a lot of research on the composer and his or her teachers, not to mention analyzing the score, if available, what can you say? About all you can do is write about what you hear. What I hear in Aeriality is a very, very, very long pedal. I was thinking that it reminded me of the beginning of the Beethoven Symphony No. 9 first movement and then realized that it was because she is using the same notes: D and A. Bruckner, of course, had a tendency to begin a lot of his symphonies with the same reference sonority. Anyway, after a very long time, this opening bare fifth accumulates a lot of other notes before finally discovering a melodic lyricism around the 9 minute mark. Then it migrates back to a long, long pedal again, but this time on C. And that's what I hear.

The problem we all have these days, we post-modernist whatever composers, is that we can't use any of the traditional harmonic structures because they all sound trite these days. We are also pretty tired of dissonance. So what we do is try and fiddle around the edges. Or, as Thorvaldsdottir does here, and as Nico Muhly and a host of others are doing, work with long pedals or drones as Muhly calls them. Drones, perhaps a better term as it avoids the traditional associations with how pedals are actually used in tonal music, offer a bargain-basement way of unifying a large-scale piece. What they don't offer is variety, so inevitably the composer turns to either timbre, as Thorvaldsdottir does here and as John Luther Adams does and, again, a host of others, or rhythm as both Steve Reich and Philip Glass tend to do.

Let's have a little listen to Dark Waves by John Luther Adams so you can see what I mean.

Apart from the fact that the drone here is on E rather than D or C, the music is rather similar, it is even about the same duration.

Now I am sure that I am missing a lot of subtleties because, frankly, I just don't get the urge to listen to pieces like this more than once or twice. You can do kind of a helicopter view of these pieces by just skipping through them, listening to a bit every three or four minutes. It accelerates the changes (and reveals what doesn't change). One thing for sure, if you want to win a prize these days, you would be well-advised to write a piece for orchestra about 12 to 15 minutes long based on one or two drones. If you can lend it a somber air through either orchestration or by choosing a suitable title or non-musical reference, so much the better.

Personally, my sense is that Mozart does ten times as much in half the time...


Nathan Shirley said...

Mood music - great for film when MOOD is everything and MUSIC is very much secondary.

Bryan Townsend said...

You nailed it! This is glorified mood music, akin to Brian Eno's "ambient music". Drony, hazy music that really doesn't go anywhere. This is, I suppose, consistent with the trend in pop music to very dreary music to accompany hyperactive videos. Only here we don't have the video.

But it keeps winning prizes...