Among current contemporary musicians attracting international interest, Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir (b. 1977) has built an enviable reputation with a significant body of thoughtful work for a wide range of forces. Her style is rooted in nature, creating ecosystems of sonic structures, transformed, developed and transmitted from performer to performer within a piece.

“My music is often inspired in an important way by nature and its many qualities, but I do not strive to describe or literally incorporate elements from nature in my music,” she writes. “To me, the qualities of the music are first and foremost musical – so when I am inspired by a particular element that I perceive in nature, it is because I perceive it as musically interesting. The qualities I tend to be inspired by are often structural, like proportion and flow, as well as relationships of balance between details within a larger structure, and how to move in perspective between the two – the details and the unity of the whole.”

This thoroughly satisfying portrait album from Dorian Sono Luminus features leading American new music group ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble) playing chamber works for large ensemble, smaller forces and one solo piano work, Scape from 2011.

The latter is a radiant yet brittle winter landscape for prepared piano with a great deal being played inside the instrument itself. It’s given a powerful reading by Thorvaldsdottir specialist Cory Smythe. Spectra, for string trio, reflects on alternate realities, its shivering, aching string lines laced with Icelandic melancholy and a hint of distant folksong.

The magisterial Aequilibria – a piece that aims to balance forces of earth and sky, expansion and contraction – pulses and ripples with a powerful sense of breathing out and breathing in under a vast nocturnal sky. Sequences, for a subterranean wind quartet of bass flute, bass clarinet, baritone saxophone and contrabassoon, revels in extended techniques to create its compelling, individual sound world.

Equally rewarding are the intimate, flowing sonics of Illumine, essentially an octet for strings, or its smaller cousin, Reflections for violin, viola and cello. The icing on the cake is the hypnotic Fields for bass clarinet percussion, electric guitar, piano, cello and bass, a haunting and lyrical exploration of the lower end of the musical spectrum.

Performances are superlative – sensitive, idiomatic and enthralling – and the sonic engineering is wide-ranging and masterful, a crucial element in the success of such an atmospheric album. ICE, conducted in the larger works by Steven Schick, prove ideal advocates, but what stands out front and centre are the works themselves. If you already know Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s work you’ll need no persuading. If not, AEQUA is the perfect place to start.

Composer: Anna Thorvaldsdottir
Composition: Scape, SpectraAequilibriaSequences, IllumineReflectionsFields
Performer: Cory Smythe, International Contemporary Ensemble, Steven Schick
Catalogue Number: Dorian Sono Luminus DSL92227

Contribute to Limelight and support independent arts journalism.