ANNA THORVALDSDOTTIR – Rhízōma

Innova

The Iceland Symphony Orchestra (conductor, Daniel Bjarnason); CAPUT Ensemble (conductor, Snorri Sigfús Birgisson); Justin DeHart, percussion

That Anna Thorvaldsdottir privileges graphic scores (*) would perhaps be clear even without examining the cover of this CD from 2011 – first compendium of her recorded output – whose artwork contains in fact several hints to how she organizes the gestures and dynamics of the pieces. Indeed there is nothing herein that might cause someone to anticipate mercurial sequences of triplets or asymmetrical groups of notes inked on a “regular” score, something that would give at least a bit of a hard time to the players to figure out. Not that this is a requisite, of course; but, aside from impermanent instants of partial liking elicited by certain prominent orchestral crescendos, this absence of solid skeletons is reflected on the very music, which appears elegantly vague, occasionally inscrutable, yet never arrives to the point of shaping emotional consequences beyond the sub-surface level. Sure, tracks like the 17-minute “Dreaming” can look respectable in some of their features: the strings’ glissandos, the stirring clusters, the dramatic ebb and flow of the whole. The droning mysteries characterizing “Streaming Arhythmia” are legitimate points in favour of the defending team. However, if you put the bulk of this work under the magnifying lens of a scrupulous analysis, its essence is ornamentally cinematic – and rather shallow, compositionally speaking – with further touches of inside-looking obviousness (“Hidden – Rain” comes to mind) that not even Daniel Tacke’s esoterically prolix liners succeed in making sound deeper.

(*) STOP PRESS, NOVEMBER 25, 2012. I received an email from Mr. Hrafn Asgeirsson, which I’m duly publishing since it underlines an important factual error: the music reviewed above is NOT based on graphic scores but it’s fully notated. My reply is at the end of Mr. Asgeirsson’s email.

I would like to point out a rather foundational factual error in your recent review of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s album Rhizoma. Contrary to your opening statement, she does not “privilege graphic scores”, and – consequently – much less clearly so. The album artwork does indeed contain “several hints to how she organizes the gestures and dynamics of the pieces”, but the artwork simply consists in temporary sketches that she makes during the compositional process. These sketches serve as memory devices while she writes the “regular” scores, scores that contain plenty that “might cause someone to anticipate mercurial sequences of triplets or asymmetrical groups of notes inked on a regular score”. Everything you hear is carefully notated and far from easy to perform. There is no absence, then, of “solid skeletons” that can be “reflected on the very music”, as you uncompromisingly put it.

What implications this has for your review is obviously for you to evaluate, but it seems to me – in the very least – unwarranted to say that the “essence” of Thorvaldsdottir’s work is “rather shallow, compositionally speaking”. Unless of course this statement is meant purely as a plain and subjective aesthetic judgment, which I don’t think it is. You seem to trace the bulk of your evaluative judgments back to the incorrect assumption that she does not notate her music.

MASSIMO RICCI: My incorrect hypothesis at the beginning of the writeup did NOT influence my evaluation of the album at all; I have never favoured difficult notation and technical complications over “abstraction” and lack of normal scoring to determine a record’s value, but now that I know that there ARE notated scores involved I’m actually even more startled than before. Turning the issue upside-down, writing complex parts for an instrumentalist to play does not warrant excellent music. This is to say that I retain my (obviously entirely individual) opinion on this particular release completely, all the more so after repeated listens. Simply put, for these well-trained ears this is a classic case of appearance prevailing upon substance. Or, at the very least, Thorvaldsdottir’s efforts didn’t translate into something sounding that profound, in spite of the overall cosmetics.

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