Big Ears 2018 began by building an immersive world of light and sound. The members of the International Contemporary Ensemble scattered at the center of the Mill & Mine, seated not onstage but in chairs on the floor, surrounded on all sides by the audience. Overhead, a network of bulbs responded to the music, visually mapping the texture and richness of the instruments. They played In the Light of Air, by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir. It sent attendees into Knoxville with a sort of mission—to listen closely, to live in the sounds of the next four days. Weeks later, the New York Philharmonic premiered a separate commission for Thorvaldsdottir, one of the world’s brightest emerging composers.
In the Light of Air is the first Thorvaldsdottir work ICE recorded for a 2015 album of the same name. They have now returned with seven more on the new Aequa, ICE’s second portrait album of Thorvaldsdottir. Like In the Light of Air, the seven pieces on Aequa create interconnected environments where each instant seems to have an impact on the next, so that themes and textures and colors slowly spread outward, like the ripples that occur when a stone is plunked into a one-placid pool. “Sequences,” for instance, feels like a game of telephone between four low horns and winds—the bass flute, the bass clarinet, the baritone saxophone, and the contrabassoon. Snippets and phrases pass among the members of the quartet, stretching and slowing and otherwise warping them and imbuing each with a slightly sinister tone. You can watch a mood grow and evolve.
The same sensation holds during the spellbinding “Reflections,” written for a string trio of violin, viola, and cello. The players briefly pull italicized staccato sweeps, short phrases that pass between all the instruments to shape a sort of musical nest, like sunlight shining through an especially dense cobweb. Separate, dance-like phrases dart through the gauze and disappear, a reminder of the life at work inside the mess. It is a masterful gestalt, with microscopic and individually meaningless parts accreting into a mesmerizing whole.
That is the wonderful trick of “Aequilibria,” the captivating centerpiece of Aequa. Written for a large ensemble, the 12-minute piece depends on intricate group interplay and communication, where phrases still in the midst of being played transfer from one instrument to another. A violin hands off the end of its line to a flute, while a piano and an upright bass shake hands in the lower register, one passing information to the other and then walking away. A spectral piano line flashes up and disappears, that motion replicated almost to the point of mockery by a passing flash of horns and strings. The piece is a teeming microcosm, providing a look under a microscope where thousands of once-unseen organisms are energetically interacting, working up a heat of their own.
When Aequa ends, that feeling is what lingers—that, one by one, you have entered worlds built in miniature, stuck around long enough to find wonder in and see their inner workings, and walk into the next one. It is a marvelous listen, a series of momentary escapes that offer their own dazzling alternate realities.
ICE returns to Big Ears 2019 to perform Thorvaldsdottir’s music during one of their three programs at the festival. They will also perform the works of contemporary women composers Tennessee native Ellen Reid, Carla Kihlstedt, and Ashley Fure in separate programs.