Anna Thorvaldsdóttir

Heard anew: Anna Thorvaldsdóttir

5 questions for the composers featured in the »Elbphilharmonie Visions« New Music festival.

When it comes to classical composers, most people think of old masters such as Beethoven and Mozart. But the »Elbphilharmonie Visions« festival demonstrates that contemporary music can also be »just as rich and diverse as humanity itself« (Alan Gilbert). The festival’s programme features only music by contemporary composers. Not only is that musically very exciting, it also offers an amazing opportunity to ask the composers questions about their works and the process of creating them. How do you go about composing? Do you have a concrete idea of the work before you sit down to write it, or does it emerge only when you start? What role do your surroundings play? And what are your hopes for your music?

The Festival composers talk about this in short interviews. In this case with the Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, about whose music Die Zeit writes: »Her atmospheric soundscapes are as surreal as the northern lights.«

How does Anna Thorvaldsdóttir sound?

Listen now!

Anna Thorvaldsdóttir
Anna Thorvaldsdóttir Anna Thorvaldsdóttir © Kristinn Ingvarsson

Do you already have a strong vision of a work before you set about writing it?

The initial stage of composing a piece is, to me, really one of the most important part of the compositional process. I spend a lot of time contemplating on the music and search for it internally before I start to notate the music down on paper. So when I then start the actual notating of a piece I have a very clear sense of what the music is going to sound like. It is important, for me, to roughly know the structure of the piece as well as key materials and moments in the music before I notate it. I use sketches of various kinds as a mnemonic device to remember the music that I am conceiving internally, which helps me to remember the ideas and the world of the piece, and I keep the ideas alive through these sketches. 

This search for the music is really important, it requires a good headspace to allow the music to emerge and to find which ideas apply where. The structure of a piece is of such significant importance to me, and it is here at these early stages that this emerges as well — I need to know where I am going and where I am coming from in the music when I am in the process of writing it out. So the brief answer to the question would be, ‘very’, but also that at this point the composition process has actually already begun.

What role do non-musical factors play in your work?

For me music is first and foremost music, and it is the musicality of music that is of most importance. But that said, music is created through imagination and inspiration which inevitably plays a very big part of a musical piece at the earliest stages. These ideas and inspirations certainly influence the music that is being written in very significant ways, but in the end, listening to music is a personal experience that each and everyone has for themselves. When I am working on a piece it has an atmospheric narrative of sorts that flows through the work. These narratives have various shapes and forms from one piece to the next but are fundamentally the ideas that drive the structure and building blocks of the piece.

Then when the music is ready, being performed and listened to, it belongs to the experiences of everyone that approach it. Performers communicate their personalities and virtuosity through the music and the audience experience the music in their own personal way. It is of course often nice to share some of the ideas that initially were behind the pieces and were a part of their origin story, but in the end it is the music itself that matters and I really treasure when people experience the music on a personal level, applying their own understanding and sometimes even images to the musical journey. 

At the »Elbphilharmonie Visions« festival, contemporary orchestral music plays a more prominent role than probably at any other concert hall in the world: 18 works by 18 composers are being performed on nine evenings. Do you think that's a good idea, or is it the wrong strategy?

Concentrated festivals of new music are really important and have such a meaningful presence of focus, talent and determination and not least to give a real sense of how music is evolving and shaping in our own times through presenting a larger volume of pieces and composers. So it really is a significant presence to bring, and by so doing giving a trajectory towards the future. But it is also really imperative to include new music in combination with older repertoire on a regular basis, and for this to be a trusted anchor in which audience get introduced to the music of our times, to make new music a natural part of the continuous dialogue and expression. 

What does contemporary music need to win the public's favour?

I believe that first of all the audience need to be exposed to new music in order to have a chance to appreciate it, and it is really significant for new music to be programmed along with older music on a regular basis in order for people to get a chance to hear it. There are really so many different kinds of contemporary music, and it is never going to be the case with anything that everyone is going to like everything, and so it is as well with the older repertoire. But in order for the audience to have a chance to form a relationship with and grow their appreciation for new music they need to get to hear it regularly. 

From a more of a purely musical perspective, and how new music can resonate with the audience, I believe in being sincere when writing music, irrespective of style or approach, and for that sincerity to communicate with the audience, and hopefully many of them will appreciate it. In my own case, sincerity is being true to my own musical voice, and one aspect of that is for example, to at times combine and weave together lyrical and harmonic materials with non pitch based textural sounds and nuances, and then to also go to the extremes on both of those sides at other points. This also has a lot to do with the structural elements of a work, and ultimately emerges organically from how I hear the music internally.

What improvements to concerts would you like to see  – today and in the near future?

I have touched a bit on this here above, and I think that we are getting a bit closer to this, but my dream would be that new music would be a natural and inseparable part of programming, not just on a regular basis but most of the time. This is not least relevant as by many standards contemporary music is considered to be music composed in the last 100 years or more, so there is a lot of music to select from. This is also not least important in order to have a continuation of the form, for young composers to be encouraged and excited to write for the orchestra. So, for new music to be presented as a rule rather than the exception, that is the ultimate dream.

Am Puls der Zeit

Mit dem Newsletter »cutting edge« über alle Konzerte mit zukunftsweisender Musik in der Elbphilharmonie auf dem Laufenden bleiben.

The music of Anna Thorvaldsdóttir at »Elbphilharmonie Visions«

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