Conjuring a puzzle out of thin air 

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Spektral Quartet © Jocelyn Chuang

Composer  Anna Thorvaldsdottir

Work  Enigma

Artist  Spektral Quartet

Date  29 October

Place  Kennedy Center, Washington DC, US

Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s music sometimes pushes the limits of perceptibility. From an orchestra of a hundred players she extracts sounds that together barely register as a whisper, only for them to build and coalesce into a single moment of clarity. In the same way, the titles of her pieces – Aeriality, Spectra, Metacosmos – suggest a preoccupation with ethereal, intangible soundscapes that have their starting points in space. Enigma, a new work for string quartet and video projection the composer describes as a reflection ‘on certain abstract elements of an eclipse’, is no exception. ‘Harmonies emerge and evaporate or break into pieces,’ she writes in her programme note. ‘Some return to the core, some remain apart.’ 

But, as Thorvaldsdottir told The Strad, she did not take her cues from the video created for the piece by fellow Icelander Sigurður Guðjónsson. ‘It’s always vital to me that the music stands alone on its own terms,’ she says, ‘Sigurður and I discussed our different inspirations and the directions we wanted to take. It was important to us to be able to grow our ideas together as well as separately before bringing them together in the final piece. I find this a particularly satisfying aspect of collaborating with someone else.’

Nor did the composer take as her starting point the obvious imagery of the moon passing in front of the sun. ‘As with my music generally,’ her programme note continues, ‘the inspiration behind Enigma is not something I am trying to describe through the piece… When I am inspired by a particular element or quality, it is because I perceive it to be musically interesting, and the qualities I tend to be inspired by are often structural, like proportion and flow, as well as the balance between details within a larger structure.’