Aequa & H e (a) r

First came the press release, from San Francisco Symphony, announcing:

• Esa-Pekka Salonen is the Music Director Designate of SFS, to replace Michael Tilson Thomas when he voluntarily steps down after the summer of 2020.

• EPS will lead SFS in a program on January 18–20 that includes the SFS premiere of Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir's Metacosmos, Richard Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra, and Sibelius's Four Legends from the Kalevala.

These led me to explore Thorvaldsdottir's music in two recent hi-rez releases from Sono Luminus: Aequa: International Contemporary Ensemble Performs Anna Thorvaldsdottir (DSL-92224), and Nordic Affect: H e (a) r (DSL-92227). Both are available either in physical form in double-disc CD & Blu-ray sets that offer 9.1 Dolby Atmos at 24/48, 9.1 Auro-3D at 24/96, and both 2.0 LPCM and 5.1 DTS HD MA at 24/192, as well as 24/352.8 and DSD downloads. While I found a full disc of Thorvaldsdottir's icy, texture-driven music a bit hard to handle—hey, we are who we are— her two contributions to H e (a) r, in the context of Nordic Affect's extraordinary mental/musical/sensual journey that was auditioned in some of the most immersive 24/352.8 I've ever heard, really seized me.

In between press release and listening came an email from Stereophile's Herb Reichert that included the potent lines:

Our taste is very similar. Are you . . . (you must be) . . . a fan of Pauline Oliveros?
If not, you are in trouble when I next see you. But I am sure you are.

Well, dear Herb, you will be happy to learn that the preface to H e (a) r's liner notes includes a page that says:

The only way to find a larger vision is to be somewhere in particular—Donna Haraway

H e (a) r is an ode to hear, here, hér [Hér is the Icelandic word for here] and her. It springs from treasured collaborations that allowed us to 'send sound and receive sound' (Pauline Oliveros). We now extend it to you, this meditation on embodiment, acoustics and ecology. An album which rides on the wave of questions that rise and rise

Whose sounds?

Whose bodies?

Whose voices?

Hjartans Þakkir / Thank you for joining us
Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir
Artistic director of Nordic Affect

So here you go, Herb—a review after your own (frequently enigmatic) heart.

Nordic Affect is four women, trained in period instruments, who came together in 2005 "united in their passion for viewing familiar musical forms from a different perspective and for daring to venture into new musical terrain." You'd better believe it. Named "Performer of the Year" at the Icelandic Music Awards in 2014, Nordic Affect takes everything you may know about ensembles ranging from Kronos Quartet and Bang on a Can to those that hold forth at Brooklyn's National Sawdust, gives it, on this recording, a distinctly Icelandic spin as seen through women's eyes, and then frames it in a meditative perspective that leads us to question and explore, on both verbal and non-verbal levels, the nature of musical and temporal perception and sensation.

I know that Herb is grooving this. Are you still with me?

H e (a) r—the title is a play on hear, here, and her—alternates probing snatches of ensemble director and violinist Stefánsdóttir's short sound poetry text and sounds in two languages with compositions by women whom hail from Iceland and, in the case of Mirjam Tally, Estonia. Nordic Affects's instruments—violin, viola, cello, and harpsichord—and voices are recorded in the most immersive, three-dimensional manner imaginable. Even in two-channel, a quality set-up will provide a gateway into a sonic universe that, I expect, will only get richer with non-addictive, mind-expanding natural or chemical enhancement.

I could try to break down my experience of Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir's Spirals and positively hypnotic Loom, Tally's Warm life at the foot of the iceberg—the closest I've ever gotten to the sounds of huge chunks of glacial ice melting, impacting each other, and disintegrating—Thorvaldsdottir's texturally extraordinary and emotionally potent Reflections and Impressions, and Hildur Guonadóttir's droning and dynamic Point of Departure—a miraculous work, really. But that would leave you mired in the realm of words. Time to move beyond.

H e (a) r.

Not from the album, but live video from National Sawdust:

Herb Reichert's picture

I am listening to Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Aerial while I type this. Yes, “texture driven” is an astute summary of her imaginings. Likewise, her work is “mental” and body-directed (as opposed to cerebral) as you suggest – but also (don’t laugh) it is old school modernist. It is modernist in that physical form is its primary vessel for content; space and texture are the ‘doors in’ and the work is only real and complete when the listener inhabits it.

I am genuinely pleased to see you and Stereophile pointing reader’s minds towards music that is tangible and physical not just trucken’ wit the doo daa man. Music that is sound-based rather than melody-based.

Being an audiophile means we pay special attention to how recordings sound. All audiophiles study and analyze the physical vibrations appearing between their speakers. Artists like Pauline Oliveros and Anna Thorvaldsdottir eliminate the toe-tapping and head-bobbing in order to focus our attentions on the physicality of sound. Their compositions invite us to bathe and meditate in (environments of) pure physical sonic form.

(This music succeeds when it captivates and intrigues.)

What more could an audiophile want?

"The subject we are concerned with is sound" ---He(a)r

You are not in trouble when I next see you.

Peace love and a holiday hug,


Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I expected more comments by now. Is everyone too mesmerized by Nordic Affect's wonderful recording to comment?

Herb's commentary is certainly a potent addition to what I've supplied thus far. But if pressed to say more, what I think most compelling about H e (a) r is that provokes you to listen in a whole different way. Some of the album's compositions have the potential to take you beyond physicality and out of time. Think inter-dimensional aural landscape, as in the best computer-generated music, generated solely by acoustic instruments and great engineering, and you'll begin to get a sense of the special journey that awaits you. Even if you don't listen to downloads, and you've discovered that streaming options on Tidal and Qobuz are currently limited to 16/44.1, the two-platter physical set offers multiple hi-rez listening opportunities.

Herb Reichert's picture

and Aerial are on Tidal - get with it folks - music did not end in 1970 !


Jason Victor Serinus's picture

only 16/44.1. Listening at 24/352.8 is a total trip.

DGercke's picture

These are dark, rich sounds, a perfect Deep Listening experience (after Oliveros). I listened in 16/44 and still levitated plenty. I actually wish the poetry had been integrated into the music. But that's just me.

In any case, exactly this kind of thoughtful piece keeps me coming back to Stereophile. Thanks for the timely tip - solstice is a'comin'.

halloweenjack's picture

Love these posts JVS, and the back and forth w/ HR - by "modernist" can you possibly mean "phenomenological," as in experiential!?! Be still my heart and soul!

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Thank you.

Only Herb can speak to his specific application of the term "modernist" in his posts. But the dictionary does offer this: "a style or movement in the arts that aims to break with classical and traditional forms." Wikipedia, in turn, has this:

AaronGarrett's picture

Thank you for the suggestion!