Imagined land: Anna Thorvaldsdottir

Anna Thorvaldsdottir has established herself as one of the most eminent young composers of our age, a woman whose work is in international demand. She tells Andrew Anderson about managing the creative process and how her homeland stays with her wherever she goes

The last five years have proved to be extremely productive for Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir. In 2012 she won the Nordic Council Music Prize for Dreaming, a work that was recorded by Iceland Symphony Orchestra for her 2011 album Rhízōma. Then in 2015 she went one better by becoming the recipient of New York Philharmonic’s Kravis Emerging Composer Award, earning her USD50,000 (€46,818) and a great deal of exposure.

As she herself admits, she can no longer accept even half of the commissions she is offered, with her diary booked up ‘until the end of 2020’. Then, when she’s not working on compositions, Thorvaldsdottir jets between her homes in the UK and Iceland, with frequent flyovers to the US and mainland Europe for concerts. She is an artist with a global portfolio and a worldwide audience.

For Thorvaldsdottir though, the core of her being, that indefinable quality that others experience though her music, never changes, no matter where goes. ‘I think it is very beautiful that the roots are always carried with you,’ she reflects when I ask her about her Icelandic upbringing. ‘I take my roots with me wherever I go. It is almost easier to be inspired by your own backyard when you’re away from it. I’m always moved by my home country and the nature we have there. Whenever I arrive back home, I feel the connection with Iceland very strongly.’

Anna Thorvaldsdottir
© Kristinn Ingvarsson

This idea of Icelandic dreaming (of imagining and inhabiting a space and place that is both within and without) is where Thorvaldsdottir’s creative process often begins: ‘I spend a lot of time thinking about Iceland,’ she continues. ‘I grew up in a tiny coastal village, and there was so much space around us. On the one side you have the enormity of the ocean, then on the other the majesty of the mountains. You’re always so close to nature, and you feel at one with it. Whenever I can I like to go out into nature and take inspiration not only from the feelings it creates for me, but also from the natural proportions and progressions.

‘Of course, it is not always possible to go out into nature. So I love other things like yoga and meditation that can give you a similar feeling of space. This process is important for my work; it takes me more than a year to write a large orchestral piece because I have to carry the ideas and give them time and space in which to develop.’

Right now Thorvaldsdottir is musing on a new work for NY Phil, scheduled to make its premiere in the orchestra’s 2017-18 season. When I ask her about the commission I’m surprised to discover just how accommodating the top-notch orchestra is prepared to be.

‘It was an amazing experience for me, because they simply asked me what I would like to do and we talked over the ideas together. I said I’d love to work with the entire orchestra rather than an ensemble (it was an opportunity I could not miss) and create a 10-15 minute piece. There were no requirements on their part, they just said yes.’ The orchestra will also perform her 2011 work Aeriality in May.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir
© Saga Sigurðardóttir

‘As an artist it is so important that orchestras like this support contemporary composers. Yes, it increases your visibility (and has a financial benefit) but for me it is primarily about the commitment to contemporary music, which for all of us working in this area is very important.’

That importance is amplified by the fact that Thorvaldsdottir is a young woman, a group for whom commissions by major orchestras have not always been easy to come by.

‘When I was 19 and first composing there were very few female composers I could look up to; you were not exposed to their music,’ she confirms. ‘But that has changed. Absolutely it has changed. There is still a long way to go before young women are matching the opportunities of old men, but at least now you do see women making music and receiving significant commissions.’

Although she says she is not ready for academia (‘it’s a such a different atmosphere, and I’m not sure it would suit me right now’), Thorvaldsdottir does feel a great responsibility when it comes to championing female composers of the future.

‘It is my duty to work with students and be a role model for younger women who want to become composers, I feel that so strongly. I give lectures, presentations and meet up with students whenever I can; it’s something I very much enjoy. Over the last year I’ve had a young female composer who has been an intern with me, and that has been wonderful for both of us.’

There are two things she always impresses on the students she meets with: create connections and write as much as possible. ‘It is very important to make connections and create opportunities because as a composer you can’t play ensemble pieces on your own. You need to work with others. And you must write a lot of music in order for that to happen.’

Haukadalur Valley, Iceland

Although Thorvaldsdottir was a productive young student, she didn’t consider the possibility of being a composer until in her late teens, as she recalls: ‘I feel like music has always been in my nature, but I didn’t start writing music until I was 19 or so. I didn’t really think about music in that way, I’d just come up with my own songs and play the cello. But when I did [begin to compose] it opened up a whole world of possibilities, which I’ve been exploring ever since.

‘I owe it to my music teachers, because it was they who first got me playing contemporary pieces. My mother is a music teacher, which helped, but there was never any pressure on me to become a musician. I think that’s important too: it means music was always a choice for me, and not a requirement.

‘After that initial discovery, I started writing more and more music. Soon it took over my whole life. Originally, I wanted to be a cellist but then I opted to study composition at university. Even before I started studying I’d written my first full piece for orchestra, so I was very passionate. Then as a student we’d play one another’s pieces, and soon people were coming up to me and asking for me to work with them. Ever since then I’ve always had opportunities; I feel very fortunate.’

Right now those opportunities include a new album RECURRENCE with Sono Luminus. Due for release in April this year, it features Icelandic composers including María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, Daníel Bjarnason and Hlynur A Vilmarsson. Thorvaldsdottir also has plans for an album of piano pieces with the innovative New York pianist Cory Smythe. ‘Many of my compositions make use of the inside of the piano, so right now we’re thinking of ways we could record that, perhaps using techniques that have never been tried before.’

Anna Thorvaldsdottir
© Saga Sigurðardóttir

Thorvaldsdottir is unable to reveal details beyond this, although she expects to make some big announcements over the next 12 months or so. ‘When you’re commissioned so far in advance it is difficult because the details are not finalised, and many times you have to keep it to yourself. Another thing about working so far ahead is that it can perhaps become inflexible. That’s why I love to work with chamber orchestras and larger groups, because when the time comes you can choose which instruments you want to work with.’

And where would she like to be in five years time? ‘My dream has always been to write music and I’m already doing that,’ she laughs. ‘So I suppose I’d like to see the dream continue. I enjoy what I do so much and I love working with larger forces in music like the NY Phil. I’m very, very lucky to be where I am, and I hope I’m lucky enough to see it continue.’