The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Whistles, rumbles, bleeps: New Icelandic music sounds like no string quartet you’ve ever heard

Spektral Quartet performed at the Terrace Theater on Tuesday Oct. 29th. (Jocelyn Chuang)

Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s music is about spaces. The Icelandic composer creates small worlds for the ear to inhabit, rather than musical narratives for an audience to follow. It’s music of meditation, less driven by lines than by individual sonic events. And it’s propelled this 42-year-old to the front ranks of classical music.

Washington got to hear the world premiere of a Thorvaldsdottir work, written for the Spektral Quartet, which Washington Performing Arts brought to the Terrace Theater on Tuesday night. The piece, “Enigma,” was also written for video artist Sigurdur Gudjonsson, a frequent Thorvaldsdottir collaborator, and will be expanded to be shown on planetarium screens. It will have its premiere at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium in June. Just don’t expect bright lights and laser shows; this work is a lot smarter and subtler than that, and far more static.

The images on screen, black and white and suspended for long periods, are truly enigmatic. We know only that they are enlargements of images captured through microscopic lenses. But because there was no way of knowing what exactly we were seeing, we were left with evocation and association: One looked like a moss-covered rock face, another, an aerial view of a landscape. Meanwhile, Thorvaldsdottir teases additional mystery from the strings, masking them until at times you’d swear you were hearing electronic instruments, or a wind ensemble or percussion.

It’s wonderful work, not at all flashy, and a planetarium might be a perfect space for it: a room that is demarcated as a space apart from normal life. Like other pieces of Thorvaldsdottir’s I’ve heard, “Enigma” sits on the border between concert music and installation art; it marshals sounds in ways that have little to do with the conventional pathways of Western classical music.

Opening with a low, whistling rumble, like white noise through a speaker, it hardly leaves any sound unmodified. Even the few pure notes it allows the violin are transformed into swallowed, stifled whispers by the end of a phrase. It’s not something you want to describe using musical vocabulary; talking about col legno, the use of the wooden part of the bow to create a quiet, sexless sound, is less pertinent than comparing the experience of the piece to walking along a windswept seashore, looking at what the tide has exposed.

The premiere was the finale of an appealing program which, according to quartet violinist Clara Lyon, was meant to evoke the experience of looking up at the night sky, studded with a range of disparate stars. The Chicago-based quartet juxtaposed, on the first half, music by Tomás Luis de Victoria, the 16th-century priest-composer; Eliza Brown, also from Chicago; and Beethoven, represented by his final quartet, Op. 135. The quartet gave the latter an engaging reading: warm-blooded and communicative, emphasizing humanity over admiration of the Greatness of the Work.

In the prevailing spirit of the idea that engaging the audience is of paramount importance, Doyle Armbrust, the quartet’s violist, wrote quirky, personal program notes encouraging nonmusical comparisons. (“This may be a good time to consider the last time you were struck dumb hiking the Grand Canyon,” he wrote of the Victoria piece, an arrangement of “O magnum mysterium,” the composer’s most famous work.)

“This is all experiential music,” Armbrust said from the stage, “and however you choose to encounter it is the right way.”

I took him at his word more than he may have intended, since a child-care hitch meant that my 8-year-old, already in his pajamas, was my date for the evening, and we arrived in the middle of the Brown. My son pushed the concept of “experiential music” to its limits, enthusiastically observing, in whispers and gestures, the way that Brown’s first quartet went from passages of big engagement down to a tiny thread of sound. At least I can say with authority that the program was a fine point of entry for listeners of all ages.

CD review: young Icelandic composer’s organic music

ICE brings new Thorvaldsdottir work to the Atlas

The top 35 female composers in classical music