Sola is an album that consists of a single multi-movement piece for viola and electronics by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, performed by Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti, released by New Focus Recordings as of today (Friday December 4)! This is the first of 3 digital releases by Lanzilotti of a project in which she commissioned three prominent composers of the 21st century. On a personal note, I really loved this album as I’ve been a fan of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s music for many years, and this particular album offered some special insight into her music and process.
This particular review will be a little different from previous album reviews I’ve done for KLANG. Typically I provide some of my own insights into the compositions of an album and, when possible, draw from the composers’ own words and program notes to draw additional conclusions about the music. Lanzilotti and Thorvaldsdottir, however, have done that work for me by including a lengthy discussion of this piece on the album itself! The first three tracks make up the actual composition, clocking in at 17:22. The remaining tracks are the performer and composer having a conversation about the piece, it’s structure, meaning, and Thorvaldsdottir’s process. So as to not spoil anything I won’t include much of anything from that conversation and will instead just provide my own impressions after listening through the composition a number of times, and I’ll leave you to listen to the rest.
Before any kind of discussion can be had about the piece, it is absolutely key to know about the core concept behind it, which is isolation and solitude. Though Thorvaldsdottir wrote the piece in 2019, I cannot think of a more fitting concept for our collective experience in 2020, so for that reason alone this is a very timely album. The liner notes mention specifically searching for “the desire of calm and focus in chaos” and I personally think Thorvaldsdottir captured that feeling quite well, and Lanzilotti’s interpretation communicates that quite well.
On a general note, this album offers some really impressive string writing and a wonderfully captivating performance. Lanzilotti brings a level of nuance and care to the material that is really demanding by this particular flavor of music. The piece is delicate and intimate, but not weak in what it has to say and the narrative it tells. I think that comes through very clearly in Lanzilotti’s performance on this recording. The musical materials create an interesting tapestry that straddles ambient soundscapes and rhapsodic motivic development, albeit at a very slow pace for the most part. Thorvaldsdottir melds these two soundworlds into a single symbiotic sonic organism that shifts seamlessly from one to the other throughout the composition. You’ll hear a wide collection of timbres and motivic gestures- underpressure bowed string noise, homophonic passages through sustained double stops, hauntingly beautiful melodies, and even brief moments of rhythmic pulsing on a single pitch. All of this comes to a head in the final 3 minutes of the opening prologue movement when the various ideas are presented in short fragments. These eventually lead to a lush atmosphere created by a repeated viola melody in the upper register of the instrument. This is further augmented by delayed versions of the melody panned in the stereo field to enhance the physical spatial relationship of the fused sonic environments into a single undulating soundscape.
The use of electronics is essential in telling the musical narrative of Sola. All electronic elements are fixed electronics derived from the samples of viola, which are then processed and layered underneath the soloist. At times create a sustained backdrop and atmosphere, at other times they present brief moments of foreground activity. The use of a homogenous timbral palette from electronic manipulation of samples taken from the viola reinforces the central concept of isolation and solitude. To maintain that level of interconnectedness between the acoustic and electronic realms - one in which the electronics are quite subtle yet always necessary - is not an easy feat, and it shows a highly attuned sensitivity in working with these elements.
On a final note, the formal structure of Sola is quite interesting, from a proportional standpoint. The first movement, titled “Prologue,” is by far the longest, clocking in at 10.5 minutes. This introduces every element of the composition - acoustic and electronic. The listener has a chance to really live inside of each sonic space created through the various playing techniques in the viola, and the glacial pace of the movement allows the electronics to fuse gradually and really establish the organic nature of the disparate (though highly connected) sound sources. The second movement is incredibly short and offers an interesting contrast to the first. The same elements are included, but presented on a much shorter timeline in more rapid succession, as if condensing the entire prologue into a 2-minute vignette. I really enjoy the placement and character of this movement, and it gets to the heart of what isolation means, at least to me, in terms of passing time. When isolated and in solitude time ceases to have meaning, and by extension the experience of hearing these materials over the course of 10.5 minutes or just under 2 minutes, their impact is felt equally. It shows an incredible mastery of pacing from Thorvaldsdottir, and Lanzilotti’s performance reinforces that beautifully. The final movement - Epilogue - returns to a more gradual pacing of material. The electronics become more involved, particularly a repeated descending glissando motive (presented in the first movement as well) which acts as a consistent thread throughout. The viola material is centered more around the sustained chordal double-stops, creating a harmonic soup that feels it has no true beginning or end, though never feels incomplete. Like most other aspects of the composition it is nuanced and understated in a very compelling and satisfying way.
In all, I cannot recommend Sola enough. The composition itself is quite compelling and, at least for me, offered an almost cathartic listening experience. Knowing that the central concept is about isolation I felt an almost kindred connection to it while listening. The treatment of narrative as a function of time and thematic development is just done so well on every level. Further, the extended conversation between Lanzilotti and Thorvaldsdottir that follows is a real treat. It’s not often we get to hear the composer’s own insights in such a candid and intimate way, let alone with the performer for whom the piece was written. If you’re a fan of new music with electronics you should check out this album. If you’re a fan of Anna Thorvaldsdottir or Anne Lanzilotti, you should check out this album. Even if you’re not a fan of contemporary music, electroacoustic music, or don’t know who Anna Thorvaldsdottir is, then you should definitely check out this album. It really is quite unique as far as new music albums go, and I’m very much looking forward to Lanzilotti’s next release.
Sola is streaming on Apple Music and Spotify and can be purchased through New Focus Recordings.
Click here for more information about composer/performer Anne Leilhua Lanzilotti
Click here for more information about Anna Thorvaldsdottir
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