STARA is Halldór Smárason’s debut album. It was recorded in Halldór’s hometown of I?safjo?rður, in the Westfjords region in the northwestern part of Iceland. Featuring works from different stages in the composer’s life, ranging from his student years in New York to this day as a family man and freelance composer, STARA shows Halldór’s development of a characteristic style and unique sense of narrative. All the works on the album are inspired by personal experiences and are often dedicated to people close to the composer himself. STARA features Halldór’s three string quartets: draw + play, Stara, and BLAKTA; the guitar solo piece Skúlptúr 1; and the chamber works _a_at_na and stop breathing. Halldór’s music has been described as atmospheric yet aggressive, characterized by a simmering energy just beneath the surface that erupts from time to time. His compositional voice is highly original and personal. In each composition, Halldór strives for a distinct approach, which is guided by the specifics of the composition (the occasions, the space, the instruments, the performer, etc.). As a result, his sonic repertoire is extremely rich. He often includes extra-musical and music-theatrical aspects, which create highly distinct artistic experiences. Additionally, Halldór has been acknowledged for high attention to detail in regard to sound and notation. STARA is intended to be an insightful portrait of the composer, introducing Halldór’s poetic sonic world.
The disc includes three string quartets, two mixed chamber works, and Skúlptúr 1 for solo guitar and electronics performed by Gulli Björnsson. The quartet Stara, commissioned by the Siggi quartet and the earliest work on the disc, dates from 2012 during Smárason’s American studies. It is inspired by the accordion and the title is extracted from an old Icelandic word for the instrument. I find it intriguing how the composer uses the string instruments to replicate the sounds of distinctive extended contemporary accordion techniques. BLAKTA, the third quartet, is the most recent piece on the album. It was commissioned to celebrate Iceland’s 100 years as a sovereign state and depicts a flag fluttering in various weather conditions, characterized by distinctive vibratos of different speed and density. Very atmospheric.
For the mixed ensemble works stop breathing and the intriguingly titled _a_at_na the quartet enlists the help of “Friends” Emilía Rós Sigfúsdóttir (bass flute), Geirþrúður Ása Guðjónsdóttir (violin), Helga Björg Arnardóttir (clarinet) and Tinna Thorsteinsdóttir (piano), as required. The latter piece is based on the composer’s personal struggle with anxiety, and the title is a puzzle requiring the Icelandic word for anxiety to solve. Even the stage setup is affected by this very personal subject, with the piano isolated in the middle of the audience and the rest of the performers spread around the periphery. The angst certainly comes through convincingly, completing a very personal portrait of an important new voice.
– The Whole Note (CA)