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Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson: Horpma

img  Tobias Fischer

Comprised of two movements, Horpma, by Icelandic composer Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson, is a work as concerned with process and concept as it is with execution. The piece uses “just intonation”—a tuning system that precedes the equal-tempered tuning of Western music, and makes for intervallic relationships that sound unusual to the modern ear. It incorporates twenty-seven string instruments that together comprise an imagined fifty-four-string instrument—one string for every bead of the rosary. The rhythmic motifs upon which the piece is constructed, meanwhile, mimic the rhythms and accents of Icelandic language. The result is a composition meant to be examined at the microscopic level—one in which tiny fluctuations in rhythm, timbre and intonation replace the more traditional and macrocosmic elements of melody and harmony.

The two movements—totaling 45 minutes—of Horpma are constructed almost entirely around an incessant three-note motif. As the connection to prayer beads implies, the music is marked by a meditative and repetitive quality just engaging enough to keep your thoughts from straying too far from the music, while at the same time exposing constantly changing passing tones and rhythm. As opposed to reading standard notation, the musicians followed instructions that moved across a computer screen. This, coupled with Gunnarsson’s language-reflective accenting of notes, gives the impression of standing in a crowded room and picking out bits of conversation.

The conceptual focus on parts within the whole is further emphasized by the marriage of tones from so many plucked and struck string instruments (including harpsichord, harp, koto, and piano among many more). The sound is surprisingly uniform: subtle timbral variations and clashes of intonation exist here on such a microscopic level that it takes a while to pick them out. Once heard, however, they arguably become the most defining characteristics of the work. Similarly, once your ears accustom themselves to the ancient tuning system, a seemingly infinite number of intervallic structures and microtones emerge from the sonic architecture.

Little happens in the way of “development” over the course of Horpma. Halfway through the first movement, the texture thins dramatically, moving from a claustrophobic tangle of plucked strings and dissonances to periods of empty space punctuated by various deconstructions of the composition’s three-note motif. Interestingly, with the exception of that section, if one is to move quickly between different parts of the two movements, the music superficially sounds almost identical. Of course, any closer inspection exposes a highly nuanced and varied microscopic soundworld—its only true inconsistency being constant inconsistency. 

By Hannis Brown

Homepage: Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson
Homepage: Carrier Records

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