Anna Thorvaldsdottir sits on a stool with wheels but no back. The hum of electric garden equipment underscores our conversation in her composing studio, and it’s funny to think that the heavyweight harmonic frameworks of one of today’s most sought-after composers might be influenced, on a subconscious level, by the drones of suburban lawnmowers. “I don’t want to shut anything out, because I want to be so open,” she says. That description applies to her studio too: Quiet and minimal—but intentionally unisolated—its big glass doors look out into her neighbors’ gardens. 

A heavy filter guards Thorvaldsdottir’s sound world, though. Her music is supreme in its focus; slow-moving layers of differing density flow into each other, with little excess and certainly no filigree. She returns to the word “organic” frequently, and it’s unsurprising that her music is associated with nature even if, compositionally speaking, it’s got more in common with natural processes (growth, decay, movement, stasis) than descriptions of topographies. Where organic metaphors crystallize most clearly is in a 2019 performance of “AIŌN” (which receives its UK premiere at the Aldeburgh Festival in June and appears alongside “ARCHORA” on a new recording by Iceland Symphony Orchestra, released last week) with the Iceland Dance Company. Choreographed by Erna Ómarsdóttir, the orchestra appears on stage and is integrated into the dance piece; strings bow their heads, a sea of brass instruments rises up, and fluid shapes are created by the bodies of musicians, dancers, and instruments. Gestures spread through the assembled ensemble like ink through water.

The white walls of Thorvaldsdottir’s studio are currently empty: A piece for flutist Claire Chase’s Density series recently came down, and there are further orchestral pieces waiting to start. We sit at her composing table, where there’s an imposing pile of thick, blank paper, a mechanical pencil, and an eraser.

VAN: I’d like to start where you start: with sketches and images. How do they begin?

Anna Thorvaldsdottir: I sketch in the beginning of all my pieces, and those sketches are really important for my internal listening. That’s the very first point where I’m finding and searching for the music, realizing what might and might not belong.

A structure of a piece is so important, so one of the most important things is to know where you’re going, where you’re coming from, and how that ties together. The sketches take various forms: Some of them are words, others are graphic shapes.

What do you do with the sketches next? Do you keep them when you’re done?

As I’m working on a piece, I keep adding to the sketch; sometimes I even have two, three sketches for one piece, depending on what aspect of the music I’m thinking about. You can add and remove bits. It’s a tenuous process of realizing what belongs and what doesn’t. 

Most of the sketches include fundamental harmonies, some of the layers that are going on, and lyricism. They all kind of have this structure or layout: from beginning to end with registers on the other axis.

“I have always been really shy in sharing this,” Thorvaldsdottir says, as she rummages around in the bottom drawer of a cupboard. She produces a scroll, which unrolls across the big table. It feels like I should be wearing white gloves, as the sketch for “METACOSMOS” unfurls to reveal a large tableaux-cum-timeline. There are lyrical phrases from left to right—like “beauty emerges” and “suffocate beauty”—as well as descriptions in capitalized Roman text, clusters of fundamental harmonies, and quite a few squiggly shapes. “I get self-conscious, because for me, it’s not visual art; it’s part of a process,” she says. “This is, of course, nothing anyone can listen to.”

At the end of the score, there’s a big black line, and a time stamp. Is that point pretty fixed in your mind? I’ve been reading a book about Harrison Birtwistle at the moment, whose music is just choice after choice after choice, and suddenly a commission that was 20 minutes ends up being 47 minutes long…

I usually have a clear sense of the duration very early on, just because I tend to live with the music in real time in my mind, before I even start to write it. Of course, things happen, but I’m never usually away from like, a couple of minutes, one or two minutes from the original duration.

Many other composers also describe that, at a certain point, the music really starts to control the process. And you almost go along with it. I find myself sometimes having these arguments. Are you sure about this here? The music says, Yes, I’m sure. Of course, I’m not crazy. I know it’s myself having these thoughts. But it’s an organic process in that way. You have to trust it: Trust the material, and follow it.

Your mother is a teacher, how would you describe your music to her ten-year-old pupils?

I would find it much more interesting to have a ten-year-old describe my music to me! I would encourage them to really open their minds and soul, and really go into the music; find all the rumble and then all the lyricism, and all the different layers within the music.

Where does that lyricism emanate from?

I really enjoy working on the borders of lyricism, and mixing lyricism with other sounds that are often not considered very musical or lyrical. I’m not afraid of lyricism. I’m also not afraid of noise, I really want to mix the two and find organic ways for them to coexist: for the chaos and the calm to coexist in one, and then sometimes zoom in on each different aspect of the music.

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We often talk about how the composer interacts with the world around them. But one of the clearest things that people don’t necessarily talk about is how knowing that you’re not going to have too much rehearsal time changes how you write. Has a lack of rehearsal time impacted your compositional aesthetic at all?

It’s a really important aspect to think about. I myself have tried not to have the knowledge that there is limited rehearsal time impact the music I’m writing. But I’m always very detailed in my notation, and I want it to be super clear for the performers. I always put myself behind every instrument I’m writing for. Because, though I don’t play all these instruments, I want to be respectful of their talent. The things I’m writing are not easy to play, but I want them to be ideally enjoyable to play and not so that it gets frustratingly difficult, but still demanding.

It’s especially important for the orchestras, because they don’t have so much time, and they need to be able to produce immediately, almost…

Which is fascinating because your music isn’t very immediate—it isn’t fast and rhythmic with lots of angles, it needs to be conjured…

I know exactly what you mean, and that’s why, when people know my music, you can see and hear that they immediately know how to be and carry the material as a whole. You are always taking material from somebody else, and delivering it onwards to somebody else. And that’s how my music usually flows.

Conversely, can you hear when people haven’t tapped into it?

Of course, but it’s understandable that you might not get it immediately.

Your music is often talked about in dialogue with nature. What’s your particular relationship to nature, as a person? Are you a forager, or more of an analyst, or…

My own personal relationship with nature is more about the space that nature gives me, and the headspace that I get when I am out in nature. Growing up in Iceland, there’s so much space, and it’s different. It’s visual space, because it’s a bit barren. The landscape stretches so far that you get this sense of space that you don’t really get in other places.

I imagine you’re less close to that in Surrey…

Here, yeah, there are so many trees. When you’re driving, you don’t see anything really because there are just tunnels of trees, which is a different kind of charm.

Just being out in nature is really nice, but I don’t grow plants—I would love to grow some vegetables, but I’m traveling so much that I would probably kill them.

“AIŌN” was notable for its use of choreography, a relationship that continues with Wayne McGregor’s productions of “METACOSMOS” and “CATAMORPHOSIS” at the Royal Ballet, London in June. Has having dancers involved changed your perspective on your art?

Probably not. It’s so interesting to have collaborations, and see the merging of art forms, but I also always approach the music from a really “pure” musical perspective. The music needs to be enough, so it’s never dependent on other art forms to exist.

With Erna, who did the choreography for “AIŌN,” it was such an organic thing. We had the dancers and the orchestra coexist on stage, so it’s less of the traditional separation where you have the orchestra down below. That was a huge part of the overall idea to have this kind of symphonic stage work.

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Your music recently featured in “TÁR.” How did that conversation happen?

Well, there wasn’t really a conversation. A year and a half before the film was released in the U.S., I got the pages from the Juilliard scene from the directors through my publisher, as they were requesting to license “Ró” for the film. So I just got a very brief description of the film and then these pages. Of course, it was a bit surprising, but I found it so fascinating that someone was actually making a film about a conductor, and to me, it felt very specialized. But then when I actually saw the film, I really felt like the role of her—the conducting role—was really more of a vehicle. The film feels to me about so many other things. It’s not really about a conductor, it’s a vehicle.

Your titles are mostly styled in capitals—“AIŌN,” “ARCHORA,” “METACOSMOS”—like a reverse e.e. cummings. Is that a definite choice?

This is a really strange personal thing I think I have. Okay, so I hope I don’t sound crazy, but I don’t want the first letter of the title to mean more than the rest of the letters? I want it to be equal. It might as well be [lower case].

I tend to write in capitals myself. But I often do this, then the first letter is sometimes a bit bigger… It’s conscious, yes, but I don’t mean anything by it… like, I don’t mean for it to scream.

Is there a metaphor in that for your compositions?

Yeah, exactly. The beginning is not more important.¶

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Hugh Morris is a freelance writer and editor based in London.