Proms 2022: Anna Thorvaldsdottir – ARCHORA (World Première)

by 5:4

The relationship between Anna Thorvaldsdottir‘s music and nature has always been, to put it mildly, complicated. Far from being a composer merely setting out (as far too many have claimed far too often) to evoke the wildness of her native Iceland, Thorvaldsdottir has tended to be much more concerned with the forces that underpin and infuse the natural world, both here on Earth and beyond, in an attempt to understand them, or at least appreciate them, a little better.

Her new orchestral work ARCHORA, premièred at Thursday evening’s Prom, is no exception. Thorvaldsdottir’s typically minimal / cryptic programme note speaks of ‘primordial energy and the idea of an omnipresent parallel realm’, suggesting forces at play that go far, far beyond those that are immediately close at hand. Her music has always been characterised by overt use of drones, often within contexts that move unpredictably between states of apparent chaos and order, and this is at the heart of the musical language of ARCHORA.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir

Primordial implies something elementary, instigating, creative, and it’s fitting therefore that the piece is founded on a roaming series of deep tones that don’t simply colour everything above but act as fundamentals to which all else is in (harmonic) relation. Another way of putting this might be to say the energy they give off is sympathetically resonated by the rest of the orchestra. These fundamentals are ARCHORA‘s primary motive, but there are other, smaller-scale ones too, the most obvious being rapid, overlapping rising and / or falling wind lines, semi-indistinct in the overall texture; a sequence of overlapping, slowly descending semiquavers in the winds and strings; and, simplest of all, a falling semitone motif. All of these recur on numerous occasions throughout the piece.

For a number of reasons, it’s interesting to compare ARCHORA with Thorvaldsdottir’s earlier orchestral piece METACOSMOS. That piece, another that continually tilts between chaos and order, is structurally interesting due to the way in which the latter half of the work clearly functions as an altered version of the first half. ARCHORA is more complex than that, but it features something similar.

The first part of the piece is rooted on Db, over which an assortment of activities play out: rising violins, low growls, string clatter, and pitches broadly in the harmonic series above Db. When the rising violins play a second time they pause on the dominant, Ab, after which the falling semiquaver idea is heard. The Db is restated, more growls, clatter and harmonic series pitches, and the falling semiquavers occur again. Then (~4:54, at a point in the score marked “DIVERGENCE”) the fundamental shifts down to A, and we hear the overlapping winds and the falling semitone. After which – with echoes of METACOSMOS – the piece enters a period of black lyricism, pivoting over an undulating bassline A, B, Db; the A fundamental is restated, there are more overlapping winds, and the section ends with a nebulous sequence focusing on slow string glissandi, the whole time giving the impression of progressing to a new point of significance.

What follows – directly redolent of METACOSMOS – can be heard as a modified version of this first part. A new fundamental is formed (~8:08), C, reinforced powerfully with abyssal organ pedals. Over this, the rising strings are replaced by breathy flutes, but the other ideas all return in similar fashion, the growls and string clatter, and most prominently the falling semiquavers, heard three times. Then (~10:05, at a point in the score marked “PRIMORDIA”), the fundamental again shifts down, to B this time, and again we hear the falling semitone motif (expanded by a network of string glissandi) followed by the black lyricism, this time over an undulating bassline Gb, Ab, Bb. Its melody is emphasised more on this occasion, sounding even more heavy and weighted down. The section ends not with a restating of the fundamental B, but with a brief shift to F (the dominant of Bb, the tonality of the black lyricism).

The remainder can be thought of as a coda. The fundamental rises to A (~13:05), the pitches move around its harmonic series, the strings become faint and scurrying, and the falling semitone motif slowly takes priority, continuing through the final shift in fundamental, a crossfaded perfect cadence up to D. The work ends with continually falling semitones – increasingly sounding like an implied “Amen” – to the accompaniment of solemn percussion and more overlapping winds, hinting for the first time at a major tonality, before evaporating into nothing.

That’s one interpretation of the work’s structure, yet it’s fascinating the way that Thorvaldsdottir – as she usually does – walks a line between evident planning and apparent spontaneity. Though using a small range of ideas and behaviours, the way she moves between them always feels fluid, organic and unpredictable. It’s possible, of course, to read the way the work unfolds differently, though it’s striking that, from the perspective i’ve suggested, there’s a strong similarity to the way METACOSMOS unfolds. But far more important than any specific interpretation of the piece is the more general fact that ARCHORA invites one to listen in such a deep and reflective way. It pulls us in, immerses us, makes us think seriously about what’s going on, consider how the different ideas relate to one another, figure out what’s cause and what’s effect, and what each of them might mean. The word ‘superficial’ is sadly appropriate way too often during the Proms premières, but this is about as far from that as it’s possible to get.

The world première of ARCHORA was given by the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Eva Ollikainen.


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Anna Thorvaldsdottir - ARCHORA
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Programme note

The core inspiration behind ARCHORA centres around the notion of a primordial energy and the idea of an omnipresent parallel realm – a world both familiar and strange, static and transforming, nowhere and everywhere at the same time. The piece revolves around the extremes on the spectrum between the Primordia and its resulting afterglow – and the conflict between these elements that are nevertheless fundamentally one and the same. The halo emerges from the Primordia but they have both lost perspective and the connection to one another, experiencing themselves individually as opposing forces rather than one and the same.

As with my music generally, the inspiration is not something I am trying to describe through the music as such – it is a way to intuitively approach and work with the core energy, structure, atmosphere and material of the piece.

—Anna Thorvaldsdottir


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starrynight

Sounds interesting, but at first hearing I’m not sure about the final part as it sounds non-conclusive and less interesting.

Geoff

Sounded like the orchestra was still tuning up. I could see it as incidental music to a horror film.

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