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Composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir Allures Listeners with Otherworldly Orchestras

UC San Diego’s music alumna earns the 2024 CHANEL Next Prize

Anna Thorvaldsdottir poses in a windy desert
Anna Thorvaldsdottir is a graduate of UC San Diego's Department of Music. Her thriving career has included commissions by many of the world’s leading orchestras, ensembles, and arts organizations – such as the Berlin Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Orchestre de Paris and more. Photo by Saga Sigurdardottir.

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There’s no slowing down composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir. The Department of Music alumna has been referred to by NPR as “one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary music," and her orchestral soundscapes described with adjectives like ‘otherworldly,’ ‘elemental’ and ‘vast.’ 

Last year alone, Thorvaldsdottir premiered works at the New York Philharmonic (CATAMORPHOSIS) and the Los Angeles Philharmonic (ARCHORA). She released two albums, with ARCHORA /AION among the New York Times’s “Best Classical Music Albums of 2023.” And audiences may have also heard her name and music in the psychological drama movie Tár (she received so many queries that she addressed the project in a blog post).

She is continuing the momentum this year with the launch of a new orchestral work titled METAXIS, which world premiered in her country of origin on June 1 at the Reykjavik Arts Festival in Harpa Reykjavik—performed by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra & Eva Ollikainen. Thorvaldsdottir’s work also recently garnered the 2024 CHANEL Next Prize, awarded to 10 international contemporary artists who are redefining their disciplines.

In celebration of her prolific year, we connected with Thorvaldsdottir to learn more about her musical vision, how UC San Diego’s music program impacted her career and more.

What initially drew you to UC San Diego’s Department of Music for your doctoral degree, and what did you enjoy most about the program?

Thorvaldsdottir: The Department of Music at UC San Diego was my absolute first choice back when I was applying to graduate school. The general atmosphere and focus on contemporary music were obviously a very big factor, as well as the great faculty that had, and continue to have, a particular openness and willingness to facilitate personal musical growth. This is at least what I found so special, and this approach really suited me so well, to have an environment like this to work on my music. It was a really significant time spent there!

Did you experience any obstacles on your path to becoming a professional composer? If so, how did you overcome them and realize your vision?

Thorvaldsdottir: There are always obstacles in life, and one’s career path is no exemption to that. What has helped me most is the deep need to write music, to just work hard and keep writing the music I need to write. Having a clear focus on what the aim is with making art and music always really helps, whatever the challenge. I have also always strived to keep my vision and integrity with respect to my own musical voice, which I really believe is one of the keys to being a professional artist.

Tell us about the world premiere of your new orchestra work, METAXIS. How is the audience invited to become immersed?

Thorvaldsdottir: In METAXIS the orchestra plays the unified score together as one, as they would any other piece of music, but they are spread out, playing together into the open space. The audience can walk around within the musical landscape and experience how the various layers and materials move and come together—as if walking through an exhibition. Everyone can choose their perspective in their own ‘mix’ of the music, by for example choosing to be physically closer to selected instrumental groups. 

From a musical perspective, in addition to the work's purely artistic aspect, the idea is to give the audience an insight into certain distinctive core elements of the music. My own method and style of orchestration and progression is quite organically ‘holistic,’ in that it might at times not be obvious how all the different parts come together to make up the whole, for example.

"The Department of Music at UC San Diego was my absolute first choice back when I was applying to graduate school. The general atmosphere and focus on contemporary music were obviously a very big factor, as well as the great faculty that had, and continue to have, a particular openness and willingness to facilitate personal musical growth."
Anna Thorvaldsdottir

I understand you provide comprehensive notes to performers. Do you feel that your compositions are strengthened by empowering the performers with more context? What are some examples of notes you have written for them?

Thorvaldsdottir: I often find it important and helpful to include some atmospheric indications for the performers so that they can quickly get a sense for the atmosphere of the music. This is different for each piece of course and takes various forms, whether it’s a short text in the preliminary pages or a single word above a certain phrase in the music. 

An example of indication from my scores:

When you see a long-sustained pitch, think of it as a flower that you need to carry in your hands and walk the distance on a thin rope without dropping it or falling. It is a way of measuring time and noticing the tiny changes that happen as you walk further along the same thin rope. Absolute tranquility with the necessary amount of concentration needed to perform the task.

It's fascinating how you can “hear textures” and you talk about “visual music.” Is this a methodology that you have actively adopted and honed over time, or is it something innate that you naturally channel?

Thorvaldsdottir: It’s a mix of both. The music that I hear internally, when making music, creates a physical effect within me—it becomes tangible in my body and everywhere around me. This is how I find my music, find what is ‘right’ for each part of each piece. The connection to ‘visualization’ is a tool I use at the earliest stages of working on a piece; it is not about translating what I see into music but rather the other way around. I sketch the sounds that I'm hearing internally as a mnemonic device to remember, as it takes a long time to write out a big piece of music.

Explore the world of Anna Thorvaldsdottir, a composer whose music has been said to “conjure unseen worlds.”
Portrait of Anna Thorvaldsdottir
Photo by Anna Maggý.

How do you feel about being selected for the 2024 Chanel Next Prize? 

Thorvaldsdottir: It is such an honor, and also really wonderful to get to know the other artists that have received the prize. And the award – not least the wide-ranging recognition of artistic diversity – shows really ambitious support for the arts into the future, which is wonderful to see. 

Do you have your own philosophy of music? A set of beliefs about what music is, what it can be, and the relationship between sounds?

Thorvaldsdottir: I believe in being sincere and allowing your internal musical passion to come to life—to bring what it is that you as an artist have to say. In my own music that often involves certain kinds of relationships between materials, as I tend to combine sounds, textures and nuances with lyricism, sometimes ethereal or enigmatic lyricism, but also sometimes in a much more concrete way.

Learn more about UC San Diego’s Department of Music.

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