wears the trousers magazine

hildur guðnadóttir: without sinking (2009)
July 3, 2009, 3:22 pm
Filed under: album, review | Tags: , , ,


Hildur Guðnadóttir
Without Sinking •••••

Hildur Guðnadóttir is a prolific, in-demand cellist who has enriched the music of fellow Icelanders Múm, Jóhann Jóhannsson and Valgeir Sigurðsson, guested on albums by the über-talented Nico Muhly, and gave a new dimension to Pan Sonic’s broken techno. Her second solo album Without Sinking is a work of divine oppression that, while classically-minded, isn’t meant for the elite. The sleeve depicts a gloomy scene of an abandoned pier with pillars that almost disappear into the grey with no division between sky and surface. There’s only black shadows of stones and mud, unclear allusions to dark visions. But while hopelessness and grief are fully defining of Guðnadóttir’s concept as she explores new dimensions of unease and what it means to search for spiritual relief, the title Without Sinking sets the listener free from drowning in dejection. 

The cello is a beautiful instrument that can cry like a violin, and there’s arguably no more suitable instrument for expressing desperation, uncertainity or mercilessness. But it is also able to cause thrilling quivers, and which instrument is closer to the human voice with its colour and extent? Guðnadóttir chose her instrument intuitively in early childhood before abandoning it for several years. Released under her pseudonym Lost In Hildurness, 2006’s Mount A grew out of rediscovering her talent and inclination to experiment, and was perhaps hampered by doubts and hesitancy. Without Sinking is a much more complex, ordered and coherent recording, making Mount A seem even more like an unbinding improvisation that, while certainly introducing some interesting motifs and ideas, was thematically chaotic and lacking in conclusions. Without Sinking has flawless dynamics and every sound makes sense. 

Inspired by clouds, Guðnadóttir set out to create an album full of atmospheric tones and a sense of breathing, seeking to incorporate amorphous musical figures. The abstract nature of her compositions is combined here with a subconscious fear of storm and sinister nimbuses, but the breaths are more difficult to find. These pieces are more stifling, like a slow sucking of heavy air molecules rather than airy celestial melodies. Opening track ‘Elevation’ raises the listener from the dark and thrilling silence into the nervous vibrato of calm but persuasive cello. While the main theme is prudently evolving to the higher and more intensive tones, echoes of previous tones and glissando of unabated bass create a tense mass of thick sound in the background. Guðnadóttir skilfully combines the slow bow and uneasiness of cello with electronics, providing a rich, multilayered experience.

Elsewhere, the most appealing songs are those that adopt an apprehensive mood. The cello in ‘Erupting Light’ carries its most insistent colour, mixing fast, nervous bow and restless variations on a simple main theme. Although the song’s title evokes a feeling of calm dawn, it is an expression of eager and impatient waiting for the first rays of light but exemption from the darkness never comes. ‘Into Warmer Air’ is similarly pleading with its desire for human warmth and serenity but the sporadic sparks of harmony and hope are always distracted by a forlorn desperation, while the aptly-named ‘Opaque’ is led by grim pizzicato-esque cello in schizophrenic dialogue with itself. That’s not to say there isn’t diversity  on show here. ‘Ascent’, for example, begins in baroque mood before evolving into a psalm with roots in romanticism – though these arty categorisations are ultimately coincidental since Guðnadóttir’s music is imprisoned in her own thoughts and dreams. The outstanding ‘Aether’ represents another shift as Guðnadóttir’s cello is variegated with an ancient melody played on zither followed by a humming clarinet, a murky-sounding contribution played by her father Guðni Fransson.

With this astonishingly complex work, it seems as if Guðnadóttir has achieved all her desires and reached a level she might only have hoped for. All the attention is on her technically developed cello, which not only serves to demonstrate her impeccable musicianship but also to highlight her sense of every little detail and compositional talent. The album creates the impression of a long wait for the first marks of light. It will be thrilling to see what she will compose when the first rays finally glance on her face.

Tomáš Slaninka
UK release date: 30/03/09; www.myspace.com/hildurness

[adapted from the original Slovak on SME.sk]


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