To bring this year’s Lent Series to a close, i’m returning to a piece i first heard a few months ago, during Iceland’s Dark Music Days festival. One of the most memorable works from that week in Reykjavík was Lendh, by Canadian composer and cellist Veronique Vaka. In her programme note, Vaka talks about the work’s inspirational roots in nature, specifically to a geothermal area in south-west Iceland called Krýsuvík. Lendh can therefore be thought of as something like a ‘subjective translation’ of that region into sound. Although Vaka isn’t originally from Iceland (though she is based there), her piece is very much part of a prevailing orchestral tendency in Iceland (also prominent in the music of Anna Þorvaldsdóttir) toward impressionism, in which the qualities and forces of nature are not so much depicted as become metaphors for abstract musical impressions.
Fundamental to the way Vaka uses the orchestra in Lendh is the creation of a large, multifaceted but cohesive unit that sounds just as much rooted in biology as geology. There’s a sense of groups of instruments acting as component parts of a larger organic entity – one might almost call them muscles or tendons – that together act to make the music move and flex. The key thing about this is that the orchestra is working as one, where individual actions are of lesser importance (in terms of being perceived) than the larger formations of which they are a crucial part.
Lendh thereby plays out as a large-scale sonic organism of sorts that, depending on your perspective, gradually evolves and/or reveals more aspects of its identity. The gruff, growling opening of the work indicates something primordial, deep and powerful and possibly quite dangerous, but both the nature and the attitude of what it leads to counters this. The tone quickly shifts away from threat to majesty; there’s no diminished sense of power, but it’s being wielded with thought and care – something that will become more important and apparent as the piece unfolds.
This shift in tone in the opening minutes is part of a larger mode of expression that’s one of the most striking and effective aspects of Lendh. Vaka explores and maintains a beautiful balance of tensions, gently – almost gingerly – arranging and pulling at her material to make it taut, even uncomfortable, yet almost before we’ve even noticed it’s happening, everything has begun to relax. This is one of the reasons the music comes to resemble the kind of muscular flexing i spoke of before; it undulates and ripples, inhales and exhales, slowly pulsating not simply in dynamic outline but also in terms of density, mass and clarity, the main factors at the heart of the work’s shifting stresses and pressures.
It’s by no means a simple oscillation between opposite states, though; if anything, the work’s narrative thread feels linear – inasmuch as it’s continually moving forward, with no meaningful sense of revisiting earlier ideas – and unpredictable. Those undulations and ripples i mentioned are perceived primarily in the chiaroscuro of the music, the way Vaka regularly tilts things between dark shadow and brighter lyricism, and between episodes of blurred vagueness and soft, radiant lucidity. Considering that it begins in a place of darkness and danger, and also evidently contains serious quantities of potential power, the work’s more tender passages are exquisitely lovely, even more so as Vaka allows these passages to float and linger, only letting them develop into something else when they’ve had sufficient time to speak.
Perhaps the most telling inner tension running through Lendh is that abiding impression of its inner power, and the accompanying knowledge of what could, perhaps in an instant, suddenly be unleashed if Vaka really wanted it to (distinct echoes here of geothermal activity). But she doesn’t: instead, we’re treated to a kaleidoscope of transforming impressions that continually swing between obliqueness and resolution, while at the same time questioning what our notions of those two terms actually mean (if anything at all) in a context like this. Apropos: the ending of the work sounds both natural and unexpected; as such, it works perfectly in the wake of everything that went before – but how i wish it continued for so much longer.
The world première of Lendh took place on 31 January at Harpa concert hall in Reykjavík, performed by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daníel Bjarnason.
This musical composition is an expression of what I see, hear and feel in unspoiled nature: a poetic linkage of the senses. The inspiration and guide for the work is the geothermal area in Krýsuvík. I have analysed the geologic and geographic features of the area and transformed the landscape as I perceive it into musical notation. From that abstract representation, time progression and structural events of the work evolve.