Anna Thorvaldsdottir wrote Metacosmos in 2017, and it was premiered by the New York Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen in April 2018. Like so many of her works, it sounds… huge, as it grows from nothing into a vast orchestral tapestry. Yet, at several moments, it’s also unexpectedly melodic.
In her words, the piece “is constructed around the natural balance between beauty and chaos – how elements can come together in (seemingly) utter chaos to create a unified, structured whole.” I spoke to Anna about how she put it all together.
PK: The title of this piece, Metacosmos – is the word your own?
AT: Yes. It’s trying to capture the whole idea of the piece – another world. When I was working on it, I was having a lot of ideas and thoughts about space – metaphorically speaking. “Space” is such a broad word – it can mean the universe, or our inner space, or our own space in the world. I was working around the metaphorical idea of being moved from one space into another, or even from one dimension into another. A tangible idea to explain that is to think about oneself being dragged towards a black hole, a force that’s much stronger than you. You cannot fight it, you cannot escape it, you don’t know what’s going to happen.
But it’s not a piece about a black hole, really – I’m not trying to describe one. The idea is just helping my music become what it needs to be.
With all of my pieces, one of the very first things I do is work a lot on the structure. But in Metacosmos I realized very early on that I couldn’t imagine the end. This was new for me! Usually I don’t start to write the notes until I know the general outline of the piece, and usually I know the end exactly, which helps me know where I’m going in the middle too. But I gradually realized that because of what the piece was about – being dragged into the unknown – that kind of forced itself on me as well, when I was writing it. I wasn’t able to know where I would end up.
PK: You were sucked into this process as well!
AT: Exactly. It was new, and a big struggle – a different kind of struggle from normal.
PK: That’s especially interesting because the end seems to fit so neatly, with that huge melody in the closing stages, which feels like a climax. For me that melodic moment was really striking – this quite sudden, surprising emergence of a beautiful, tonal melody. Was it always a part of your plan to include a melody like that somewhere?
AT: It emerged very gradually, actually. The lyrical part at the end… for the longest time I wasn’t sure exactly how or even if I should go there in the piece. But as the process came closer and closer to the end it became obvious that it really needed to be there. This is the moment where the music starts to take over and you are just a tool. Sometimes it feels like that. You have these inner arguments – “No, that doesn’t fit…” “Yeah, but it fits so well…” The music starts to have its own ideas.
PK: That moment is also marked quite interestingly in the score – “lyrically with expressivity”, I think. Is that quite an unusual marking for you – do you feel that your music is quite expressive generally?
AT: I definitely have very expressive ideas when I’m working in music. I feel really that the reason I do this is to express music; it’s fundamental to the composer that I am to make music that’s expressive in that way.
PK: You say it’s to express music, rather than to express yourself – is that right? Surely you’re a part of it as well.
AT: That’s interesting. Of course you are expressing yourself when you’re making music. But I don’t think I think about that.
AT: I hear that, sometimes, that parts of my music are dark or scary… I never intentionally write scary music. That’s not how I think about it. I realize that some of the textures that I use, and my love for the lowest registers, may sometimes paint a picture that’s quite dark – but to me it’s more about conflict, and opposing elements. You can have these lyrical moments, and then – let me phrase it like this – the interest for me is to not have a single mood. To have opposing forces in the music. And perhaps some parts of it can be interpreted darkly.
PK: I’ve been trying to read the score to Metacosmos on my small PC monitor. It’s difficult to imagine literally how you write it! Do you use a piano? How does the process work for you?
AT: I always write my music pencil on paper; I never use instruments. I just work from my head, internal listening. I want to hear the whole thing in my head, and you know – a piano is always a piano. I write the score by hand on paper, and later I put it into the computer for performers.
I use huge sheets of paper, and glue them together so I have a long strip. Something that’s very important to me when I’m writing is to regularly live with the piece in real time. You know, you start at the beginning, and then write things in as it unfolds. Each time I do this, I insert some moments, and continue to fill in the picture, day by day.
PK: So you’ve got the whole score in front of you, and fill in gaps as you listen to it in your head?
AT: Yes. Sometimes I write most of the material from beginning to end, sometimes I may have a clear musical idea about what exactly is happening at the middle or at the end. But listening in real time – internal listening in real time – is very important to me. The space the pages provide is also very good for that – to have that laid out, so you can think, “Oh, I’m here, and this bit comes here”… and just write it in.
PK: I can see how you’d need a clear sense of structure beforehand, then.
AT: Absolutely, and that’s why I make sketches initially, because then I have the structure and a very good idea about what is where in the piece. Then, you know, ideas come and go, you take them out, you put them back in, you erase them and make new ones; that’s just a part of the process. But the structure usually is something that is quite clear from the beginning.
PK: So it must have been disconcerting not to know how Metacosmos was going to end.
AT: Yes, but also very exciting. It was almost emotional not to know, it was very difficult.
PK: Music writers often describe your music by talking about the Icelandic landscape, whereas you seem to think about things in quite an abstract way. Do you identify with the idea that your music maybe represents Icelandic landscapes? Does that resonate with you?
AT: One of the most interesting things for me is when people just describe what they think about when they listen. Some people do say these things, like “I can hear Iceland in your music,” or “I can hear nature” – while others do not. Listening to music is a personal experience for everyone, and this is why, when I finish a piece, I don’t want to write too much about what I was thinking: I want people to get their own experiences. And I think it’s a beautiful thing that music can take people to places like that.
Read more about Metacosmos on Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s website.