In interviews, Anna Thorvaldsdottir often talks about the landscape of her native Iceland. Reviewers liken her music to the frozen horizon of her homeland so often that I've been duped into doing so myself, despite never having been there. In hindsight, I see that this latent desire is what led me to fly halfway across the continental United States to hear the Spektral Quartet play her Enigma in Chicago's Adler Planetarium, with video designed by artist Sigurður Guðjónsson. I imagined it as a chance to see the land that inspired her, or maybe the surface of the moon. I'm not certain I'd know the difference.

Spektral Quartet playing Anna Thorvaldsdottir's Enigma at Adler Planetarium
© Daniel Kullman

The quartet was positioned at the front of the planetarium theatre; chairs on the flat floor for the audience faced what had been defined as forward in the space, leaving the musicians essentially out of sight under the dome. The piece began with scraped strings and what looked to be wisps of smoke projected onto the ceiling but time soon stretched, the wisps filled the dome, the strings stretching onto long, overlaid tones. Rivulets of activity on the periphery didn't change the course of the piece. The amplified strings grew surprisingly loud as the contrast deepened, grey plumes, tinged with white, filling the blue-black sky. Abrupt phrases emerged from the violins, like a theme failing to take form, but actually more like phenomena on the sonic horizon. Eventually it became apparent that the long tones, the undercurrents that so easily retreated into the background, were the theme of the piece. Not in the sense of thematic progression or refined string arrangement (although it was both of those) but of a recurring, cold wind. (See? There I go again!)

The video was not of frozen tundra. It could have been smoke. It could have been clouds filling a many-mooned sky. It could have been an expanse of ocean with unusual cross currents at the surface. But one thing seemed certain: it was a thing, or things, there for the mind to define. It was something knowable, something tangible, yet not something you could hold in your hand. It invited speculation. In truth, I had learned somewhere between purchasing my airline ticket and entering the planetarium that the imaging wasn't of smoke or clouds or white-crested waves but the surface of a carbon fragment, seen through an electron microscope. But I didn't see it that way, and wouldn't really know how to. And in any event, it didn't matter what it was because what it was abstracted beauty and in that sense a perfect visual analog for Thorvaldsdottir's music, which doesn't challenge but invites. It's not a harsh realm of sonic experimentation that dares one to enter. If you accept her language, the rewards are immediate. It's not the sea or the sky or the horizon, it's an abstracted ideal that precludes knowingness. And maybe it wasn't Iceland I had wanted to see all along (although still, I do). Maybe all I wanted was the opportunity to watch Anna Thorvaldsdottir's music.