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The Haunting Power of Anna Thorvaldsdottír

by Seth Colter Walls

The Haunting Power of Anna Thorvaldsdottír

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The Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottír is having a moment, complete with spotlight in the New York Times’ classical pages. That’s not all: Last year, she became part of the venerable Deutsche Grammophon label’s roster, and early in 2015, the New York Philharmonic named her an “emerging composer” (which, in addition to carrying a stipend, means the orchestra will be playing her music in a future season).

What makes her music so popular on the contemporary orchestral circuit? Her pieces often rely on haunting, repeated gestures (like a delicately plucked ostinato or a subtle, pitched-percussion figure). At first it can feel like slow going, but when she unveils a big change — like she does at the climax of each movement in the four-track suite “In the Light of Air” — the impact is profound. (Listen for the raw piano chords that crown “Remembrance,” which delivers some of the heaviest music out this month.) Throughout her In the Light of Air, the International Contemporary Ensemble players pull off Thorvaldsdottír’s extended-technique requirements with poise (as with the steely scrapings of “Serenity”). It’s a triumph for composer and ensemble alike.

In our August Classical Albums roundup, we selected an album by the group Nordic Affect that includes a short piece by this composer. But given this even-more-recent release of an all-Thorvaldsdottír album, we decided it was time to give you an entire playlist devoted to this artist’s sneakily beautiful compositions. Included are selections from her first album, Rhizoma, as well as the Deutsche Grammophon set Aerial, and the latest recordings from 2015. Enjoy!

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