By Jill Kimball
What is it about Iceland? From Björk to Ólafur Arnalds to Jón Leifs, the 320,000-person country seems to churn out more fantastic and original music per capita than any other country on Earth. And with the latest album to come out of the country—whose population, it should be noted, is half the size of Seattle—we have a few more reasons to celebrate this Nordic land.
In many ways, Clockworking, the new release from the ensemble Nordic Affect, couldn’t have come from any other country. The music is dotted with the very Icelandic sounds of rushing winds, hummed folk music, and above all, the beautifully stark sounds of silence. The album is characterized by pleasant repetition and meditative simplicity, an accurate musical reflection of life in Iceland’s quiet, cold and wild towns. Listening to Clockworking made me feel like I was the only one in the world one minute, but like a tiny drop in a vast ocean the next.
My absolute favorite thing about Clockworking, aside from the fact that every name in the liner notes ends in –dóttir, is that it’s all about women. Nordic Affect, the performing ensemble, is a small group of females who play on harpsichord, viola da gamba, and other period instruments. On top of that, all five of the composers featured on the album are female. Today, women make up less than 15% of the world’s living composers; perhaps hearing this album will inspire more women to become composers themselves and turn those statistics around.
The album’s opening track is also its namesake, Clockworking. If you like Sigur Rós, you’ll like this piece, too; it possesses a similar beautiful simplicity. Composer María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir (of the group amiina) does a wonderful job integrating a constant but unobtrusive clock-like pulse into the texture of the work. The instruments may be Baroque and the mood focuses on the passage of time, but the music is timeless.
The next three pieces focus on an interplay between real-life noises and instrumental sounds. In 2 Circles, composer Hildur Guðnadóttir chose to examine a musician’s close relationship with her instrument, which is why you’ll hear the composer herself humming along with the notes she plays on her cello. The lovely, intimate work was recorded in the middle of a chilly Iceland winter, and I swear I could feel the wind howling outside as I listened. In From Beacon to Beacon, composer/guitarist Hafdis Bjarnadóttir recorded the sound of the breeze outside a local lighthouse in midsummer and used it in this piece, which she describes as an imagined musical conversation between two lighthouses. I was just as interested in the simple sound of the blowing wind between musical phrases as I was in the beautifully random ping-ping of the harpsichord. And in INNI, “Musica da Camera,” the sound of an infant’s gentle murmuring mingles with a buzzing baroque violin.
Composer Hafdis Bjarnadóttir records the sound of the wind near an Icelandic lighthouse.
If Shades of Silence illustrates anything, it’s that “silence” is a relative term. The only actual silences present in the piece are at the beginning and end. The rest is what some might deem white noise: a viola da gamba’s bow gently scraping along a string here, fingers plucking a few strings there. After a few minutes, I considered the sounds of the piece as good as silence; like the gentle sounds of keyboard typing or the rustle of papers at work, I’d grown accustomed to hearing it in the background.
The album concludes with Sleeping Pendulum, another work by María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir that had already received an honorary award at the time of this CD’s release. It’s another focus on timelessness, a study in how the music we hear today echoes decades and centuries of music that came before it. The piece begins with a simple interplay between a violin and some tinkling bells, but later it becomes all about strings, with a violin interjecting short, high trills above a foundation of slowly morphing sustained chords.
Clockworking is one of those albums that stands on its own sans explanation but that becomes all the more meaningful after you’ve read the liner notes. The album provides a great excuse to put down the phone, step away from the keyboard, and escape pixelated life for a while. Turn the volume up, close your eyes, and do absolutely nothing but listen. Every single one of this album’s 45 minutes deserves your undivided attention.