In April, as part of the Frequency Series I book at Constellation, I had the pleasure of presenting the Chicago debut of Nordic Affect, a remarkable quartet from Iceland who perform contemporary music on Baroque instruments—though admittedly you’re only likely to notice anything unusual about the instrumentation when Gudrun Óskarsdóttir plays harpsichord. Nordic Affect’s repertoire consists of all-new work written for the ensemble by other Icelandic composers, many of them women (like all four members of the group). I was knocked out by the quartet’s 2015 debut, Clockworking (Sono Luminus), which undergirded its meditative ethereality with thick textures and structural rigor. Its follow-up, Raindamage (also on Sono Luminus), is even better.
Clockworking includes plenty of electronic elements and enhancements in pieces by the likes of Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, Hildur Gudnadóttir, and María Huld Markan (from the string group Amiina). Raindamage, which dropped in February, deploys electronics with greater effect, reinforcing a denser, more aggressive timbre from the quartet. At the Constellation performance Nordic Affect performed a few works from the new record, including a wonderful version of “Þýð” by Úlfur Hansson that enlisted the audience to provide sustained vocal drones (summoning the spirit of Pauline Oliveros’s “Tuning Meditation”), but most of the repertoire was drawn from the debut recording.
A couple of pieces on Raindamage—Valgeir Sigurdsson’s “Antigravity” and Hlynur Adils Vilmarsson’s “Noa::ems”—are purely electronic, and though I can’t say what role the members of Nordic Affect had in their creation, they sound fantastic. For today’s 12 O’Clock Track, I’m sharing the remarkable title track, also composed by Sigurdsson. It blends Halla Steinumm Stefánsdóttir’s violin, Gudrun Hrund Hardardóttir’s viola, and Hanna Loftsdóttir’s cello with meticulously deployed electronics. The string players switch frequently among varied techniques—bowing, plucking, scraping, and striking their instruments—to build a dazzling world of sound. During its nearly five-minute length, Nordic Affect shift their attack from serene to harried and morph their drones into elegantly crawling melodies, while electronics provide subtle shading and occasionally a single instrument rises to the surface with stunningly lyrical utterances. The piece is as beautiful as it is mysterious.