Hildur Gudnadottir: Leyfdu Ljosinu
Posted In: Fred Nolan, Hildur Gudnadottir, Hildur Gudnadottir - Leyfdu Ljosinu, Leyfdu Ljosinu, Touch
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It doesn’t seem fair to refer to the community of Icelandic composers as a music scene. Cross the ocean, several aesthetic styles and a decade or two, and revisit late 1990s pop punk for that. Blink-182, Third Eye Blind, and The All-American Rejects may each have produced some terrific music on their own — a true scene, in more ways than one — but tell us without Googling it which one recorded “Graduate.” Give up? So do we.
But back to Iceland, it seems impossible that, 15 years from now, anyone here will confuse the work of Jóhann Jóhannsson with that of Wildbirds and Peacedrums, or the compositions of Ben Frost with those of múm. The community might be tightly-knit, and mutually supportive, but the country’s musical breadth is just as remarkable as its depth. It is often remarked that the relatively small population produces astonishing numbers of world-class musicians, but their artistic range is no less impressive.
Yesterday Touch announced the return of Hildur Guðnadóttir. In the paragraph above we listed four diverse artists or ensembles, born or based in Iceland. Cellist, vocalist and composer Guðnadóttir has worked with each of these and a dozen others, a well-established figure in this small, prolific society. Her previous solo album Without Sinking was a collection of ravishing, deep-throated arrangements for cello, zither, and voice, alongside organ, bass, and clarinet. Yet one-sheets, reviews, and concert announcements — including this review — still rely on the gently backhanded introduction, “Best known for her collaborations with…” Perhaps another collection of relatively short instrumental tracks, however gorgeous, was somehow too anonymous. Just like how — after a few years in the working world — we don’t remember the great university professors, or even the excellent ones. Only those who lectured in their bare feet and brought their dogs to class. Leyfdu ljosinu should help out in this respect.
Guðnadóttir’s third album, Icelandic for “allow the light,” is cut into two installments but was clearly composed and intended as a single movement. (Opener “Prelude” trims about four minutes away from the rest, which clocks in at around 35 minutes. Such an oddly-placed digital marker was probably intended only for the requisite free download.) The arrangement — and from here we’ll only speak of Leyfdu ljosinu as a whole, irrespective of tracks — slowly builds from silence and single cello notes, through adagio harmonies and delicious patches of blank canvas. A whispered vocal loop appears: two-word, two-note melodies, first unedited and accompanied with a single, purring cello, but soon gaining momentum with echoes and slight permutations. This way a choir forms, and it is worth noting here that the album “was recorded live at the Music Research Centre, University of York, in January 2012.” In other words, the buoyant voices and the synthesis of the loops into a separate instrument were achieved in one take. Yet the processing is never used as structure, only as finishing.
The cello begins a gradual return somewhere around the midpoint, in sparse, slicing notes and spotlight accuracy. The specific weight of the first act gives way to a blurred urgency in the second, and for at least a few minutes the sum of string vibrations has a downright ambient fullness. Distinct notations come back into focus during the final minutes, with a punching, kinetic arrangement, a well-earned climax, and a few seconds of breath afterward. It is a long piece, and it doesn’t subdivide well. Much better to take it in during one uninterrupted 40-minute listen. It values color over pattern, tension over relief. Meaning those already familiar with Guðnadóttir may prefer Without Sinking on strictly aesthetic grounds. But for those of us who are new to her work, and for those who were hoping the follow-up would be something more along the lines of a manifesto, Leyfdu ljosinu is unforgettable.
- Fred Nolan for Fluid Radio