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Structural integrity: Anna Thorvaldsdottir's rigorous, regenerative music

Anna Thorvaldsdottir begins her composing process by drawing shapes and writing words to help store musical information. Her scores themselves are finely detailed.
Hrafn Asgeirsson
Courtesy of the artist
Anna Thorvaldsdottir begins her composing process by drawing shapes and writing words to help store musical information. Her scores themselves are finely detailed.

For a country whose population is roughly the size of Cleveland's, Iceland is an overachiever when it comes to its contributions to music. The diminutive nation is home to some 80 music schools and 300 choirs. It also boasts big stars such as Björk and Sigur Rós, and a bevy of composers, including Olafur Arnalds, Daniel Bjarnason and Hildur Guðnadóttir, who won an Oscar, a BAFTA and a Golden Globe award in the same season for her film score to Joker.

Yet among all of this Nordic talent, composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir stands out. The 45-year-old former cellist first studied composition in Reykjavík at what is now the Iceland University of the Arts, then earned a PhD from the University of California, San Diego, in 2011. Today, her music is routinely performed by the world's top orchestras and ensembles. She's enjoying something of a moment in the U.S. this year, with important premieres by the New York Philharmonic (CATAMORPHOSIS), the Los Angeles Philharmonic (ARCHORA) and both the Danish String Quartet (Rituals) and the flutist Claire Chase (Ubique) at Carnegie Hall. Two albums of her orchestral pieces were released in April and May.

Thorvaldsdottir's music is difficult to summarize because it is perpetually transforming. It feels both otherworldly and elemental, as if forces of nature, from massive galaxies to tiny granules, are regenerating themselves to create new, unknown structures, essential for life. If that description sounds inscrutable, try listening to her early symphonic piece Dreaming to get a better idea. The music slowly materializes from silence and continually shifts its gaseous clouds of sound. "In each chord there is a world of collective sounds where the small sound particles dissolve and create their own world," Thorvaldsdottir explains on her comprehensive website.

The composer divides her time between Iceland and her home in Surrey, south of London, where she joined a video chat to talk about the creative forces behind her distinctive music, her presence in the movie Tár and the "dome of energy" that fuels her country's artistic productivity.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tom Huizenga: I'd like to begin by talking about Iceland, and a quote from The New Yorker's Alex Ross, who wrote, "Iceland may be the most musical nation on earth." Then there's Andrew Mellor in The Guardian, who says: "In the third decade of the 21st century, no country on Earth has reinvented the language of the symphony orchestra on such distinctive and locally relevant terms as Iceland has." What is going on in Iceland?

Anna Thorvaldsdottir: It's hard to analyze for yourself when you come from within, to pinpoint exactly what's happening. There are great music schools, relatively accessible for everyone, and good music courses in schools for kids.

There is a relatively young music history in the country itself. We grow up learning the history of Western music, but the first composers coming out of Iceland, like Jón Leifs, were alive not that long ago. So I don't know what it is that allows for this dome of energy to come through in the music life of Iceland, but it must be a combination of many different elements working together.

Do people interact with music differently in Iceland — perhaps not so worried about borderlines between classical and rock and folk?

There's a very small population in Iceland, and people tend to do everything. You might be playing in the symphony orchestra in the morning, in rehearsal, and then play a rock concert in the evening. There's a lot of mixture between the genres and people haven't even thought there's anything strange about that.

I'm thinking of the superstar Icelandic rock band Sigur Rós, which is touring this summer with a 41-piece orchestra.

And Björk has also done this throughout the decades — she's had choirs and a lot of strings and brass. Everybody's working together and the boundaries are blurred.

Speaking of Iceland, many journalists — for better or worse — seem to hear Iceland in your music. I've even described one piece of yours as "transmissions from beneath the earth's crust," and other writers have referred to the "faltering and grinding of tectonic plates." Does the idea of your music reflecting Iceland's geography make any sense?

I always enjoy hearing people describe these things that they hear and feel. It's absolutely amazing. But I am not trying to describe these things through my music, nor do I think that you ever could really describe such things through music [without] text. But I think you can create impressions with your music, and those impressions can be interpreted and heard in different ways.

You have said that you are inspired by the "musical qualities of nature."

Absolutely. This has to do with energy and the flow and structure, the nuances and perspectives you can take to zoom into the tiniest detail and zoom out. It's much more about the flow and the energy rather than specific landscapes. It's also not about romanticizing it at all, because nature is also brutal.

Anna Thorvadsdottir's studio in Surrey, England, with a conceptual sketch for the piece <em>ARCHORA</em>, which received its U.S. premiere May 11 by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Hrafn Asgeirsson / Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Anna Thorvadsdottir's studio in Surrey, England, with a conceptual sketch for the piece ARCHORA, which received its U.S. premiere May 11 by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Often in your music I feel elements commingling, sometimes colliding, in and out of focus, as if they are generating supernovas or black holes or some primordial big-bang creation. It's almost akin to thinking in terms of an architect or a sculptor.

There are similarities in how you think about the different art forms — architecture, for sure, because there are these sound structures that you're working with and all these layers of sounds you are putting together through orchestration. But before that, you have to know what the music is that you are creating. For me, that happens at the earliest stage, when I'm listening internally — I hear all these nuances and sounds together. I enjoy moving between very different types of structural materials, but doing so in a way you might not even realize that you have moved.

Certain composers have a signature sound — just a few notes, say, of Leoŝ Janáček or Philip Glass and you know it's them. To me, you have a signature sound. Do you feel that way?

I think so. I work a lot with textural nuances and sounds that you might not think of as lyrical, and combine them with more traditional lyrical material. And often in my orchestral pieces, I'll work with blocks of sounds that are created out of many different layers. It is, of course, very difficult to try to describe your own music in words, because the process doesn't happen in words. But I think my music lives somewhere on the border of lyricism and sound structures.

I admire how you create unusual sounds. In your orchestral piece ARCHORA, you indicate in the score that a "small metal chain" should "rest on the skin of the bass drum." How do you think up the ideas for these sounds, pushing instruments in unexpected directions?

I often need to find these textural ways to create subtle distortion; in this case, the chain resting on the skin of the bass drum will create this distortion sound. I hear internally the sound that I'm after, and I find the best way to notate that sound. And there are many different kinds of nuances that you can use to get those sounds, but then you have to realize for this moment, in this piece, what's the best sound.

Your music, aside from its rich textures, often deploys an interplay of dark colors — many shades of gray and black — and slow tempos. I'm thinking of the low drone in CATAMORPHOSIS or the bass flute, contrabassoon and bass clarinet in Sequences.

I am fascinated with the lower registers for sure, which is where the darkness comes from in your description. The grays actually have to do with how I think about the balance between darkness and light. I use the higher registers as well, but the lower registers tend to be the foundation. I think of it as the earth, as the ground, to the music where everything else rests upon. It is what carries the structure of a piece. The shades we are talking about have to do with how I orchestrate different kinds of sounds for different instruments. I am fascinated in the colors in performing techniques, such as the sound of a bow on a string, which has so many different sounds than only the pitch that comes through. I extract the sounds and orchestrate them into the mix, which creates these colors.

There's a piece of your music at the center of perhaps the most talked-about scene in last year's Oscar-nominated movie Tár, starring Cate Blanchett as a world-famous conductor whose life spins out of control. We'll get to the specific scene in a moment, but did you see the movie, and how did you feel about having a presence in it?

It's hard to talk about this movie because I understand the complications that some people have had toward it. I got sent the part of the script with the Juilliard scene. I didn't know much more than that. I knew that my name and my piece would be featured in this film. I had a couple of questions and they told me about the complicated main character. And it was absolutely fine with me. I had no extreme reaction. And then when I saw the film, I really liked it and I actually watched it again a couple of weeks later.

In the scene at Julliard where the Cate Blanchett character, Lydia Tár, is holding a masterclass, your piece is being performed. And Tár seems to be dismissing your music, saying that "the intent of her composition is vague, to say the least," and implying that by performing your piece, the young conductors would be "trying to sell a car without an engine."

Yes, I got this insult. But then I very quickly realized, "OK, there is something bigger here." Nobody would do this to try to harm someone just on purpose. This is a piece of art; I want to understand it a little bit more. And I was told that the director, Todd Field, who also wrote the script, is a great admirer of my music.

In the scene, Tár is basically saying that a piece of music must have an intention behind it. Do you think that's true?

I very much have a "music for music" kind of belief. I believe in the structural intentions of music and of the experience you have when you listen to music. And when I am making music, my intention is clear from the musical perspective. My intention may not be to try to tell you a story or try to direct you in one way or another. But the musical intention is there and should be there. And I think we would all agree on that because, otherwise, what would be the point, really?

All this reminds me of a 1950s essay by composer Milton Babbitt, which was headlined "Who Cares if You Listen?" It explores the relationship between composers and their audiences — the idea that modernist composers didn't care whether anyone heard their music or not. How do you view your relationship with your audiences?

I know that you can never decide or know how people are going to react to any given music. And no music is going to get liked by everyone or disliked by everyone. The thing I believe in, in my own music, is to be sincere in the things you have to say and give through your music. It's hard work to finish a piece of music. I always live with my pieces in real time, over and over again, to make absolutely sure they are ready before I hand them in.

You are having quite a moment here in the U.S. this year, with many premieres and albums released. One of the pieces I admire greatly is CATAMORPHOSIS, which received its U.S. debut in January with the New York Philharmonic and has just been released on an album by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. This is, in some ways, a piece in response to climate change. Do you see the effects of global warming in Iceland?

Absolutely, because I regularly go up to the glaciers in Iceland. It's devastating to see how, in the last decade or more, they've started putting up signs with the year that shows where the glacier was, and it moves every single year. It's actually catastrophic when you see it with your own eyes, just how much disappears in such a short period of time.

Is there a piece of yours that feels to you like your breakthrough, the moment in your career when a lot more people started paying attention?

I've always had this passion to write orchestral pieces, and I've done so since before I started studying composition. But my orchestral piece Dreaming got awarded the Nordic Council Music Prize, which was obviously a very nice recognition. This was in 2012.

That's actually the piece I had in mind. To me, the music has distinct dreamlike qualities where scenes flow in and out of each other, you don't know what's coming next and time seems static — and yet there are those chimes that come close to tethering us to reality. Was this piece actually inspired by dreams?

The dreaming part was more realizing how I experienced my music emerging — as if through dreams, except I'm awake. It's the way you can tap into the music internally when you're creating it. I remember when I was writing this piece, in 2004, 2005, I was thinking a lot about the flow of the material and how it morphs in and out of each other. A bit like surrealism, but still in a very structured progression where, in the end, everyone in the orchestra becomes a soloist. So there were a lot of different elements to the "dreaming" in this piece, but I did not dream it up.

Before she begins to write a piece, Anna Thorvaldsdottir begins by sketching out her thoughts visually as a way to store inspirational material.
Hrafn Asgeirsson / Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Before she begins to write a piece, Anna Thorvaldsdottir begins by sketching out her thoughts visually as a way to store inspirational material.

Let's talk about how you do what you do. I understand that you like to sketch lines and shapes at the start of the composing process.

At the very beginning I need to allow myself a lot of headspace to listen internally to the music I'm finding and, as a mnemonic device, I draw out the ideas I'm having. These take various shapes and can be everything from a very graphic, visual presentation to more word-based structures where I'm writing out the ideas. But it usually involves some of the fundamental harmony for a piece and its structure — where it is going, how it is flowing and how it emerges, and how different things move in and out of focus and emerge from each other. Because ideas will always grow more ideas, and you have to then select what is right, here and now.

Are these sketches, then, a kind of roadmap of the piece?

They're absolutely like a map that I can tap into. It's not possible for anyone else to listen back to this; it's only a part of a work in progress. It's not a score, it's before the actual music gets written into notation.

Missy Mazzoli told me recently that it's important to her to treat composing like a job — to get up in the morning and go to work. What's a typical composing day like for you? Do you also think of it like a normal job?

Oh, absolutely. I like to wake up early and use the morning until later afternoon to work on music. I like to keep the fresh energy for the music, and then do the bureaucracy and the emails and everything else in the late afternoon. So it is just like any job. I'm very organized with my time, but you cannot organize specifically how long an idea needs to materialize, so you have to allow yourself some space for that to happen.

Then I have to ask, what drives you to get up in the morning and do this every day?

It's just something I need to do, really. It's hard to describe. I can't be without that.

I think we can hear that passion in your music. And it reminds me of this quote of yours, where you talk about the all-encompassing way you experience music: "It is not even three-dimensional. It's everywhere, and I feel it physically and emotionally." How does that feeling intersect with composing?

It really is everywhere. When I'm working on the music, it circles in my mind all the time and it takes me over, and that's the only way for me to find the music and know when it's right. You test out the possibilities of the material: How long does this section need to be? It's an almost obsessive process of realizing when it feels exactly right. And this takes all of my being, throughout the entire process.

I often wonder about the future of music, whether there are any directions remaining for it to go in. And lately there's been a lot of discussion about artificial intelligence — there's even an AI program that "completed" Beethoven's unfinished 10th Symphony. Do you think there's a place for that kind of technology in your field?

Probably. I wouldn't pretend to be a specialist in that. I'm sure people will find interesting ways to make that work for them. But as long as there are humans, we're always going to find new music, find new art. I am passionate about the orchestral art form and for young composers to dive into and tap into that — because we need continuation of all of these various genres of music. I'm optimistic. I always think the best ideas are yet to come.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.
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