Sometimes it seems that the output from Scandinavian composers-cum-ambient musicians is so vast that it’s hard to find an entry point into the work. Jóhann Johannsson, Valgeir Sigurõsson, mùm, Sigur Røs, and amiina, to name a few, have left definitive stamps on the ambient Icelandic music that is nearly its own genre by now. On Without Sinking, Hildur Gudnadóttir sheds her supporting role and comes to the forefront, armed with a vision as large as her cello.
Fans of the aforementioned musicians will certainly enjoy Without Sinking, but the album is also a fine offering for those who enjoy Kaija Saariaho or other musicians whose work deals with redefining and recontextualizing the cello. Here, the stringed instrument takes on the lead that is often filled by synthesizers or other electronics, and the acoustic instrumentation never sounds a bit out of place.
Without Sinking is a somber album, but it’s not necessarily sad or depressing. At least, not always. Rather, it conjures an endless expanse where possibilities gradually open up and fantasy worlds begin. The opening track, “Elevation”, begins building such a world with sustained cello notes held over quieter, quicker ones. This song has a gentle pulse throughout, a sense of breath forming its spine and lending a graceful sense of urgency. By the song’s end, the listener is fully in Gudnadóttir’s territory, and she doesn’t offer many opportunities for escape. Unlike many post-rock songs where a quickening tempo indicates a grand takeoff, “Overcast” displays Gudnadóttir’s talent for stair-stepping up the drama while leaving the listener firmly planted on the ground. “Erupting Light” is the first song where listeners begin to realize just how good Gudnadóttir is. Her cello is deft and flashy, but it is still part of the same somber, monochromatic landscape. “Circular” escalates the drama with the cello holding notes for a long time, resulting in hypoxic suspense as other instruments act in the background, but are unable to be deciphered over the cello’s hum.
After “Circular”, a heavy feeling of catharsis and fatigue lingers, only partially soothed by the opening notes of “Ascent”, which dips into lower notes than previously heard on the album. The lower tones form a bedrock for the cello’s cracking ice, and the listener is tasked with holding on to both sounds. Then one or the other falls away starkly but soon returns. Like many of the songs on Without Sinking, “Ascent” feels longer than it is, not because it is dull and repetitious, but because the space between notes is so leisurely that it doesn’t seem possible for a whole song to be accomplished in four or five minutes. Yet, somehow, it is, though “Opaque” speeds up the pace a bit. It maintains the dueling cello phrases Gudnadóttir does so well, but the accelerated speed helps them become more terrestrial than subterranean—it’s easy to see “Opaque” as twisted tree limbs embracing each other fiercely.
There is a wintry silence preceding the harpsichord twinkle that launches “Aether”, the closest thing to a lullaby this album features. With a music box-like sound and strategic silence, “Aether” is a welcome comfort despite the comfort being grim. Whereas the rest of the album spells certain death, “Aether” is the promise that it will be painless. This is enough to pass for optimism on Without Sinking.
“Whiten” returns to the slow drama and low tones of earlier songs on the album, the bass notes ringing out like foghorns while the treble clef sounds the same relentless interval before it too elongates and sprawls over the bass. “Into Warmer Air” satisfies more standard expectations of classical cello, though four minutes in, producer Valgeir Sigurõsson makes his touch audible with his trademark fuzz of gentle chaos. “Unveiled” spends more time in the bass clef than any other songs on the album, and it is pleasant to hear the higher pitches counterpoint the lower ones for once. As the song grows, all its lines expand and come together and then fade into a single cello. And then the album is over. There is never any musical showdown announcing the climax, and the album is better for that—Gudnadóttir’s refusal to conform to the Freytag Pyramid is a nice change that actually lends the album a greater musical resonance than many which shatter in prolonged musical fight scenes where instruments clash and triumph for minutes on end.
Gudnadóttir is to be commended for very many aspects of this, her second solo album and first for Touch. She sets herself apart from her contemporaries by using slowness to create various intensities that generally only happen with faster music. Further, the album is remarkably cohesive and feels like a narrative despite having no lyrics.