Anna Thorvaldsdóttir's composition »Catamorphosis« oscillates between extremes. Some passages are light and hopeful, while others are menacing, brutal and destructive. This comes as no surprise in view of the subject: as the composer says, the 20-minute score explores »our fragile relationship with the planet we live on«. »Nature is immensely diverse: it can be cruel and dangerous as well as subtle and beautiful. It's all very inspiring.« The concert film reflects these antitheses, vividly depicted by dancers wearing surreal costumes that were created especially for the festival. »My music is highly physical,« says Thorvaldsdóttir. »I can feel it pulsating inside me. So it's exciting to see how other people approach the work.«
»Catamorphosis« had its first performance at the Elbphilharmonie in February 2023 as part of the contemporary-music festival »Elbphilharmonie Visions«. The music is redolent of a film score, and makes no small demands on the musicians of the NDR orchestra. While the pianist plucks at the piano strings with plectrons, the percussionists scrub across their drumskins with great big brushes – impressive scenes that blend with the movements of the dancers in the film.
Interview with composer Anna Thorvaldsdóttir
When Anna Thorvaldsdóttir completed her work »Catamorphosis« in 2020, the average global temperature was 1.2° centigrade above its pre-industrial level. The 1.5° level, beneath which the worst effects of global warming could still be averted, had already come dangerously close. This triggered conflicting feelings in the composer: On the one hand, she felt pure despair at the thought that it could soon be too late if a radical change in climate policy wasn't made without delay. But on the other hand, she also experienced a feeling of hope: hope that the global community still has the chance to prevent the destruction of the planet and to rescue our own future.
Thorvaldsdóttir wrote the work against this mixed background of despair and hope, and it was premiered in January 2021 by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. The title shows clearly what is at stake: »Catamorphosis« is a word coined from »metamorphosis«, the Greek word for change, referring to both the work of the same name by the Roman poet Ovid and to Richard Strauss's »Metamorphoses« for strings, which deals with the events of the Second World War. The first part of the word, »cata«, is found in the Greek word »katabasis«, which is used in classic Greek tragedy to denote catastrophe or the descent into the underworld – the moment when Fate strikes, after everything seemed to be in balance hitherto.
Thorvaldsdóttir has a keen personal interest in preventing this from happening. Not only did she grow up surrounded by nature in Iceland, nature is also the main source of inspiration for her music. The outcome of her look at our fragile relationship with the Earth is a »pretty emotional piece, whose central message results from the balance between two opposing forces: power and fragility, hope and despair, preservation and destruction,« says the composer about »Catamorphosis«. »It is very dramatic, but full of hope as well: perhaps we will manage to find a way between the natural and the unnatural, between utopia and dystopia, to find a balance within and with the world around us.«
So »Catamorphosis« confronts us with three generic terms – the natural, the unnatural and polarity –, all of which Thorvaldsdóttir incorporates into her composition. At the very outset of the score, in part 1, »Origin«, and part 2, »Emergence«, we hear sounds of nature, sounds that remind us of the murmur of the wind, of a rushing stream or chirrupping birds. The work as a whole can be divided into seven movements that are played without a break and form a three-part cycle: parts 1 and 2 stand for a beginning, for something newly created. The final section is entitled »Evaporation« and depicts the dissolution of the existing state, where things trickle into an unknown beyond. In the intervening movements, opposing poles are portrayed: »Polarity«, »Hope«, »Requiem« and »Potentia« (power).
»I wanted the make the music flow from start to finish,« Thorvaldsdóttir explains, adapting a metaphor of nature as her guiding principle. For »Catamorphosis« this not only means that the seven movements are played without a break, but that they are also closely interwoven in terms of musical ideas are are mutually dependent. Thus a pedal point – a note maintained over a longer space of time – connects individual passages in the low strings, while musical figures constantly recur – a rhythm produced by brushing the big drums, for example, or birdsong or a wave motif on the piano.
We also encounter opposites in the third section, »Polarity«. Here, menacing rhythms in the low-sounding parts cross paths with shallow soundscapes in the strings, and noisy passages are abruptly followed by quieter ones. »Catamorphosis« contains passages that adhere to traditional harmonics and others that are almost intangible in musical terms. Then there are other moments where the music suddenly slips away from us. Thorvaldsdóttir penetrates deep into this sphere of the unnatural – in some cases by abandoning the classic methods of sound production. Right at the outset for instance, in »Origin«, the harpist brushes a piece of paper over the strings of his instrument. The composer describes the sound she is aiming for as »ethereal sounds of indeterminate pitch«. As uncertain as the future of our planet.
Text: Marvin J. Deitz, last updated: February 2023
Translation: Clive Williams
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