Gísli Magnússon – Svartifoss

It seems more and more that Iceland is becoming a haven for new music and new sounds in Hartford, CT.  From the influence of Bjork to the Hartt School’s international collaborations, the music of Iceland is seeping deeper into the Hartford area.  Gísli Magnússon’s piece Svartifoss depicts a waterfall in his native Iceland, and is a stunning example of how to create texture.  Take a listen:

His score is rife with examples of how he creates thick, thin, chilling, and cascading textures.  For example, take the second page of his score:

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Here we have the ensemble operating in mostly dissonant intervals, both within their lines and in relation to each other.  Gísli has also made the texture very quiet through near-niente dynamics, blurring the tonal qualities of each instrument.  The selection of wind instruments ensures that nothing sticks out of the texture, and the extremely precise rhythms that do not align complete this effort.  It reminds me of Ligeti’s micropolyphony in Atmospheres.

The use of indeterminacy in this piece ensures that the texture is valued over the notes, and gives the players freedom to ensure that the texture of the waterfall is honored.  One example is the piano part at measure 22:

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With the water flowing downstream, we reach the loudest, most chaotic texture, that also visually appears to be a waterfall.  I will note, though, that the dynamics written are counter-intuitive for the upper woodwinds.

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After a series of cascades, we are introduced to our next texture.  This is comprised of a running celesta part, static woodwinds, and antiphonal winds and percussion ensembles:

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The celesta and winds provide a backdrop for the interrupting bifurcated ensembles.  All of these instruments are in an indeterminate performance-world, with somewhat free time, rhythms, breathing, and notes.

The piece finishes how it started, with overlapping yet never-unison tuplets, static wind textures, and very soft dynamics.  It seems as if the water is flowing downstream, quiet once again.

What can we learn from this piece?

  1. Textures can be created in many ways:
    1. Soft and subtle textures can be achieved not only by soft dynamics, but low registers, homogeneous instrumentation, arhythmic disunison, and closely spaced pitch content
    2. Large and chaotic textures are aided greatly by vast dynamic ranges, vast pitch ranges, the use of percussion, indeterminacy, and allowing instruments’ natural registral characteristics to shine, instead of subduing their natural dynamics at certain registers
    3. Keyboard and harp parts can create a backdrop for other forces to join the forefront of a texture
  2. Scores can represent the things they are capturing in a visual, in addition to musical, manner.  Gísli’s portrayal of the waterfall is sonically present in the recording, and also visually present in the score
  3. Engraving is an art form.  In addition, the medium of paper can be supreme when composing.  Gísli’s engraving in this piece is spot-on for the effects created.  I can only imagine that this was written on paper, and then transferred to a digital format.  The impediments this would present if it were composed at a computer are so great that I doubt Gísli wrote this digitally

I hope you enjoyed his work; his website holds more information on his compositions.

Until next time, keep composing!


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