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New Release from Iceland

Gyða Valtýsdóttir (Epicycle II), release date August 28th on DiaMond/Sono Luminus

Gyða Valtýsdóttir first appeared on the scene as a member of the group múm, an experimental electronic Icelandic group, whose second album, Finally We Are No One (2002) reached as high as Number 16 on the UK Independent Album chart. She then left the band to go to conservatory to pursue her studies as a cellist; earning a Master’s degree from Musik Akademie, Basel, in the increasingly popular dual degree of area of classical performance and free-improvisation. After a period of years touring and collaborating with the classical and electronic stars of Iceland’s musical sky, and obviously informed by her studies in Basel, she released Epicycle (2017), a compilation of interpretations of some of the greatest works in in the Western Canon. From Harry Partch’s Ancient Mode to Robert Schumann’s “Im Wunderschönen Monat Mai” the selections are pieces that are well known to most Music History teachers as strong pedagogical tools, the strength of Valtýsdóttir’s work is that she revives this music in a modern context.

Gyða Valtýsdóttir

This summer, on August 28th, she is set to release a sequel, Epicycle II which is composed of works by Iceland’s top notch contemporary composers. As she describes it: “This time I wanted to collaborate with contemporary composers and musicians who have each created their own, unique musical language that doesn’t fall easily into any existing category.” In the tradition of Russia’s “Mighty Handful” or France’s “Les Six” the result is a kind of “Icelandic Eight” or perhaps better “þeir átta,” a coherent documentation of the Icelandic school of composition in the second decade of the 21st Century–and it sparkles with moments of genius. From atmospheric micro-polyphony to heart-rending moments of electronic intimacy, the music is interesting and powerfully drawn.

The CD begins with Unfold by Skúli Sverrisson, an composer and bass guitarist who has won five Icelandic Music Awards, including Album of the year. The track, as predicted, unfolds in a paced mesmerizing development of a single theme with parallel lines in distant registers, implying an underlying (or overlying) polyphony that is just this side of perceptible. Perhaps it is this sonic reflection of the primary melody that Valtýsdóttir is referring to when she describes playing the track as “like dancing in the prism of its light.” The effect is discomforting in a hypnotic way, Mahlerian only in the way it creates a world apart.

Safe to Love was composed by Ólöf Arnalds and bridges the song and lieder tradition with an accompaniment drawn from ValtýsdóttiIcr’s pizzicato cello and serving as counterpoint to her airy, whispering, yet echoed voice. The intimacy in Jónsi’s mixing creates echos to seem to scatter into time and space. Anna Thorvaldsdóttir’s Mikros, is a rushing counterpoint on cello, is brief and disturbing in it’s extended techniques. It seems to channel George Crumb, think “La luna está muerta” or “Vox Balaenae.” Úlfur Hansson’s Morphogenesis evokes a similar “otherworldness” bringing precomposed string arrangements into concert with a custom built analog synthesizer and Valtýsdóttir’s improvisation.

Liquidity is the result of a collaboration with Kjartan Sveinsson at the Berlin Festival for the People in 2019. It is probably the most likely to succeed on the pop charts, sounding as if it were ripped from an epic historical fiction soundtrack, lending itself to some derived form of primal primitivism, yet there is interest in the way it coalesces around a repeated theme in the piano that is both memorable and purposefully incomplete in its many variations.  Air to Breath was released by Daníel Bjarnason a decade ago, but it seems tailored perfectly for Valtýsdóttir’s nuanced, supple and warm cello. On an album of mostly premieres, one can understand why Valtýsdóttir included this track as the exception. Jónsi’s Evol Lamina might just be the most interesting track on the collection, a creation from sampled improvisations that borders on Musique concrète, but the samples are brought alive, even humanized by their delicacy in the upper registers as an unrecognizable, sampled bass pursues. The end is abrupt, like a book set down, halfway through the denouement. The last piece, Octo by María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, is another essay on a brief motive, set into counterpoint with Valtýsdóttir extended harmonics. The dizzying variations of the theme suggest an inwardness that is at least uncanny and at most, transcendent.

Iceland arrived on the classical music scene quite late, with the first real concerts only occurring in the early 20th Century. Their first real virtuoso, Ashkenazy, was a Soviet defector. However, they have been actively working to catch up. I wouldn’t be so silly and foundational as to propose an “Icelandic style” that unites them in an intrinsic nationalistic character, but I will propose that it is a burgeoning school around which principles of developing variation, extended techniques and experimental timbres are united into a subtle polyphony of conscious and subconscious aesthetics. Of course the sound is also postmodern, a collage that can be romanticized, as it is in Safe to Love or endowed with expressionistic modernism as in  Evol Lamina. In either case, it is interesting, will likely be influential as the various members of þeir átta develop, but most of all worth your time and attention.

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