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BSO To Drop Archora on Expectant Listeners


Hrafn Asgeirsson photo

Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s latest major orchestral work, ARCHORA, will receive its Boston premiere performances in BSO subscription concerts (April 18th , 19th, 20th ) in which Andris Nelsons also will lead violinist Mozart’s Symphony No. 33 and, with Hilary Hahn,  Brahms’s Violin Concerto. The composer is one of ten recent winners of the generous Chanel Next Prize, which every other year recognizes ten international contemporary artists who advance the new and the next.

According to the NY Times, Thorvaldsdottir possesses “seemingly boundless textural imagination…Thorvaldsdottir is incapable of writing music that doesn’t immediately transfix an open-eared listener.” Our conversation with the composer follows.

FLE: You’ve provided very interesting notes which don’t really interfere with listening. Some composers tell us more than we need to know about the music and I think in general you like to let them use speak for itself.

AT: From my perspective, the music completely stands on its own when it is ready; it’s my job to communicate the music clearly via the score so that others can carry the music onwards. I really enjoy being at rehearsals and performances when it is possible, but there are so many performances all over the world that it is not possible to be at all of them, and people play the music wonderfully. My notation is very detailed and there are also recordings of my pieces that performers can listen to beforehand if they wish to.

Is there any freedom built into the Archora score?

There is no freedom with regards to the music itself and everything is written in very detailed notation, but it is always wonderful to hear when different ensembles are paying, the performers of course always put their own fingerprint on the music as they carry it. And it is the same with all music, the same piece by Beethoven or anyone else is never going to sound exactly the same played by different people.

But you talk about how one section hands the theme over to the next section.

The indications in the score that you are referring to is to let the performers how the music is written, how all the material flows from one section to the next, from one performer to the next and one texture to another, and how all the components in the score are carried throughout the piece.

In Archora you don’t seem to have a huge crescendo anywhere, it seems simply to move.

 I work a lot with different kinds of merging materials and there are rises and falls in dynamics for sure, but it tends to connect and move within the materials. There are sections that are louder than others, and there are dynamic changes as all the materials are growing and moving in and out of each other. There is quite a big range of dynamics, but it will always be slightly different how dramatically these are presented each time the piece is performed.

Well, listening to the excerpts online, some of it sounds rather scary sinister at times. Are you’re thinking of magma about to explode in your native Iceland?

 I don’t really think about the music in that way, it is conceived through the mind and internal listening. There are elements in nature that I find musically interesting as an inspiration, but it’s never about describing those elements in any way. But for example, in Archora there are these dark moments and parts of the piece really live in the lower registers which connects to the core inspiration of the primordial energy that emerged with the piece, as well as an afterglow, and the piece moves between darkness and light which is presented in various ways in the score.

Some people might relate to these lower registers as dark, and the piece seems to end with a plagal cadence. Is that the most tonal moment in the piece?

Yes, the piece settles into this subtle prolonged lyricism in the end – there are lyrical parts at other points earlier in the piece as well, but perhaps this is the most drawn out lyricism in the work.

You seem ask the winds to do staggered breathing, and presumably the strings at times are doing free bowing to achieve the this sustained flowing quality,

 You’re absolutely right. A big part of my orchestration is making sure that the flow is not interrupted, and a part of that is to ask the winds and the strings to breathe at different times, and to not do uniform bowing. That’s a very good question because it’s one of the important parts of how I orchestrate and manage the flow in the music.


You specify that if the organ is to be used, it must have a 32-foot stop. The BSO organ has three a 32 ft Violone, which sounds the fundamental with strong overtones of the fifth plus, the new Foley Baker. Contrabass, 32, and Untersatz 32. In addition to those low pedal notes, you ask for big cluster cords in the bottom of the manuals. It’s going to be quite a raucous vibration.

That’s the intended effect. You should almost feel it as well as hear it. I really like that deep fundamental.

Do you ever write loud music?

I don’t think about it that way, but there are parts that are definitely louder than others in my music. For me, the dynamics speak to an atmosphere as well, so the reason I tend to write in not too dramatically loud dynamics, is that it tends to indicate a sense of aggression. But I ask people to approach the dynamics in my music with fundament and weight, even in the lower dynamics, so that we really hear them with presence.

Archora, for all its indications to musicians is clearly absolute music, but you do write music with words. You’ve also written operas and chamber works with singers. When you’re writing such works, which comes first, the words or the music?

It’s different for each piece that has voice. In some cases, it’s been the case that the music creates the text and in other cases I’ve received texts that literally have jumped off the page as music for me.

Well, when the words come after the music, are they always your words?

Yes, actually they are. And I’ve also done works that have voices and phonemes rather than specific words. It really varies and is different each time.

You’ve written about drawing pictures to delineate this flow you’re talking about. Does that is that always your first step in scores that you have to you think about a visually before you think about it sonically?

I actually don’t think about this visually really, but when I’m listening internally at the earliest stages of making the music, and as it is emerging, I make these sketches to remember what I’m hearing. It’s a tool to remember the music and it becomes visual in that sense. I can use these images to listen back to the music that I’m hearing internally, and keep the music alive in that way. It takes such a long time to write a big score and it’s impossible to remember all the details in the music throughout that whole time so that’s what the sketches assist with.


Helpful hints about getting into the piece or trigger warnings? Your combination of lyricism and textures should be appealing. 

In my music I work a lot with fundamental harmonies and big harmonic structures.

When you say “fundamental harmonies,” what does that mean?

The harmonic structures that I make for each piece carry the musical journey from beginning to the end as the ground in a way, the fundament. A lot of other different things happen along the way as well of course and my music combines various nuances and textures with lyricism and pitched materials, but the fundamental harmony refers to the harmonic building block of a piece in a way.

So you don’t mean a strict triadic kind of harmony. Do you mean harmonies more in the sense of harmonies of the spheres?

I do actually mean harmonies, but expanded in the sense that it can be various kinds of harmonies, sometimes with clusters, a combinations of pitches.

Interesting. So do you have a theory for this process?

A lot of technical work obviously goes into the process of writing music, as it does with orchestration in general of course. I have my methods to work with the music materials and to orchestrate the sounds to create what I’m hearing internally. The structure of a piece is also really important to me and ties all the elements together and that takes some technical work as well.

You did have a big plagal cadence, as I observed earlier, but do you talk about keys and modulation?

No, I don’t because the music is free, we don’t go by the same rules that came before, a very long time ago. Many composers are working with various kinds of harmonies of course but in different ways than in older times. We’re all still very much working with systems, but the systems continuously change in contemporary music.

But you are also interested in unusual sounds to create these textures. And the score is full of instructions on how to do extended techniques.

Exactly, and for myself, these extended techniques, these nuances, sounds and textures serve a very musical purpose. I think of them like any other lyrical material, so, it’s not about making a strange sound, it’s about what the sound becomes in combination with everything else in the music. For example, you can make a textural sound that is created from breath or from an attack, or a tactile passage on percussion and make it sound lyrical in combination with other things that are happening. And that’s one of the things I really find fascinating and combine these and bring them in and out of focus through orchestration.

Should we be listening for punctuations and repeats in order to ground ourselves or just let ourselves be swept with the flow? You have titled subsections in the score Worlds Within Worlds, Divergence, and Primordia, but these are not to be indicated in the program. They’re purely for the musicians.

These atmospheric sub-sections are steppingstones in the music that I indicate specifically for the performers to get a sense of the structure. I ask for this not to be listed in a program because these are not subtitles and are not movements in the work as the piece is in one flowing part.

I always feel strongly that every person should approach the music on their own terms and immerse themselves in the music as they listen.

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