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Gyda Valtysdottir Celebrates Constellation of Friends in Epicycle II

August 24, 2020

Scintillating, a combination of shifting shadows and the feel of tree bark. It is hard to avoid seeing fairies and soft moss when Gyda Valtysdottir sings, and perhaps it is because of the combination of unreality and pleasure, smokiness and twinkling in sound. But for those who are listening who are not Icelandic, I think it is important to check this kind of association with the fantasy that can follow Icelandic artists — the silhouette of Vikings and elves meander behind them around the world, and it is unfair to constantly be calling Björk a sprite. Especially in this album, real people and their interconnectedness are what matter, even if Gyda thinks of these friends and collaborators as her own earthbound music constellation.  

Gyda — a cellist, singer, and composer — has followed up her second album Epicycle, in which she communed with past composers, with Epicycle II (DiaMond/Sono Luminus, to be released Aug. 28), where all tracks are collaborations with other Icelandic composers who comprise her musical sphere. Produced by Gyda and mixed by Los Angeles-based Jónsi, it is like a musical-family photo album, with tracks written by old friend Ólöf Arnalds, past love Daníel Bjarnason, and even the heavy metal-playing son of the luthier in whose loft she lived, Úlfur Hansson.

Considering the number of creators involved, Epicycle II has remarkable textural and emotional consistency, revealing the strength of Gyda’s interpretational hand. Tracks journey between overall feelings of safety, curiosity, wonder, loss, and dread, but each of these elements appear in some shading in all the pieces. I actually would have preferred to encounter some musical or emotional wildcards, but the curation of such a delectable color palette is accomplishment enough. 

Unfold by bassist Skúli Sverrisson is one of those “puzzle” first tracks — it gives you so much and yet so little insight into what you’re in for, which is delightful. It is an optical illusion of a piece — a circular progression that feels like it is continuously rising but is also falling away. Perhaps more clever than it is touching, this piece would be the perfect soundtrack to Jorge Luis Borges’s story “The Library of Babel.” Gyda seems to like placing the large scale — galaxies and constellations — next to life-size footsteps. In this vein, it is possible to hear both that this progression in Unfold is perpetual but also relish the individual steps made through the choral, the tide in and out.

Safe to Love by Ólöf Arnalds and Liquidity by Kjartan Sveinsson and Gyda both follow in the blessed path of Enya. Soft, rippling voices will perhaps always strike me as indulgent in the post-Enya world, as will the epic chord progressions of Liquidity, but if I take a moment to remember that I love Enya, it is easy to just lean back and enjoy the lushness. Safe to Love has many hidden gems to find, like Gyda’s lovely flitting cello (floating through in a different mode), and it reminds me how being surprised but not taken out of the experience can feel so gratifying.

Created by Gyda and Úlfur Hansson, Morphogenesis has the most dramatic topography of all the tracks, soaring through sunset skies (wonderful full-body sensations) and scraping the rocky bottom of true-metal drops. They both clearly know how to highlight some of the cello’s sickest features — incredible grit and pop from overpressured bowing, the spikey halos from natural harmonics, and most strikingly, the haunting, fluty sound of bowing high over the fingerboard. The cello can roar and sing, and both are here in juicy, epic proportions.

Light across dusty velvet, light moving across a statue’s face. Gyda has made something that beautiful to the point of making me, at least, a little hesitant to engage. Why listen to this, right now of all times? It was hard to stay with the beauty, but Epicycle II is a wonderful experience and a tantalizing look into the future of experimental music collaboration. Air to Breathe, by Daníel Bjarnason, with its George Crumb-esque holiness, will have you daydreaming, feeling the ribbon of Gyda’s every note.

Tamzin Elliott is a composer and writer based in Los Angeles, and a doctoral student at University of Southern California.