Chosen One: Valgeir Sigurðsson
Interview with Valgeir Sigurðsson.
“The outside of her was suddenly froze and only the first part of the music was hot inside her heart. She could not even hear what sounded after, but she sat there waiting and froze, with her fists tight. After a while the music came again, harder and loud. It didn’t have anything to do with God. This was her, Mick Kelly, walking in the day-time and by herself at night. In the hot sun and in the dark with all the plans and feelings. The music was her – the real plain her.”
(—Carson McCullers, ‘The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter’, 1940)
Words: Mark & Craig Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry
Reading Carson McCullers’s debut novel ‘The Heart Is Lonely Hunter’ one is reminded of the power music can have over an individual, in this case for the thirteen year old Mick Kelly. Mick, on hearing Mozart, and later Beethoven (via the radio through an open window of a neighbor’s house), has been cast under the spell of the power of music.
On listening to ‘Architecture Of Loss’, Icelandic composer Valgeir Sigurðsson’s third album, the listener is similarly transported to an unknown, magical realm. Released last year on the Bedroom Community label (founded by Sigurðsson); the album is a challenging, intricate collection and a delight to truly savor.
‘Architecture Of Loss’ was written for the dance piece of the same name by Stephen Petronio, a world-renowned dance-maker and choreographer, based in New York City. Petronio is widely regarded as one of the leading dance-makers of his generation. What makes Petronio unique is how he combines music, visual art and fashion to create “powerfully modern landscapes for the senses.” A quick look at some of the musicians Petronio has collaborated with in the past reveals some of music’s best-loved composers: Nick Cave, Johnny Greenwood, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson and Michael Nyman.
Indeed, fellow Bedroom Community labelmate Nico Muhly has himself previously worked alongside Petronio for the dance piece entitled ‘I Drink The Air Before Me’, an evening length score which was intended to be “big, ecstatic and celebratory” (celebrating Stephen’s company’s 25th anniversary). The Nico Muhly album bearing the same name was put out by Bedroom Community in 2010 with Sigurðsson accredited co-producer (alongside Dan Bora) and programming (with Ben Frost).
To date, Sigurðsson has released two prior solo works; his debut solo album ‘Ekvílibríum’ in 2007, followed by a release of his soundtrack for ‘Dreamland’ (Draumalandið) in 2010. However, these three solo works from Sigurðsson only scratch the surface of the rich musical oeuvre he has been creating over the last couple of decades.
Most notably, Sigurðsson’s collaborative work with Björk would propel Sigurðsson’s status as a technical musical master. He would work alongside Björk (as engineer and programmer) on the soundtrack for Lars Von Trier’s ‘Dancer in the Dark’. This fruitful collaboration would continue for the best part of a decade, Sigurðsson playing a major role in Björk’s studio recording output.
Over the years, Sigurðsson would lend his technical mastery to a whole range of musical projects. Indeed, some of my personal favorite albums over the last number of years have been worked on by Sigurðsson. Fellow-Icelandic classically trained cellist Hildur Gudnadóttir’s extraordinary album ‘Without Sinking’ was put out by Touch in 2009; Sigurðsson mixed the album (alongside Gudnadóttir). Sigurðsson co-produced (and assisted on arrangements) Feist’s 2011 masterpiece ‘Metals’. Other collaborators include Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Paul Corley, CocoRosie, and múm, amongst many others.
‘Architecture Of Loss’ was recorded in Sigurðsson’s own Greenhouse Studios in Reykjavík, Iceland. Sigurðsson composed, produced recorded and mixed the album, while also responsible for composing the electronics, piano, baritone guitar, programming and percussion. Guest musicians for the album include: Shahzad Ismaily, Nadia Sirota, Nico Muhly and Helgi Jónsson.
The album itself is a true delight, filled with one gem to the next. My current favorite is the fourth piece, entitled ‘Between Monuments’, where strings and piano combine to stunning effect, building to its dramatic earth-shaking finale. Elsewhere, the meandering ‘Reverse Erased’ recalls Hildur Gudnadóttir’s ‘Without Sinking’ in it’s pulsing and wonderfully atmospheric journey. The album drifts wonderfully between quiet, ambient shades of electronic sounds, to extremely visceral volume-raising sonic textures.
Yet, all the time, Sigurðsson’s technical mastery is in full evidence. Never does any one component take over, or seek to detract from the overall tone or mood of the particular piece of music; creating hard-edged and often beautifully subtle textures along the way. A true feast for the senses awaits the listener. A true musical creation from one of music’s most gifted and essential modern composers.
“But maybe the last part of the symphony was the music she loved the best – glad and like the greatest people in the world running and springing up in a hard, free way. Wonderful music like this was the worst hurt there could be. The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen.”
(—Carson McCullers, ‘The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter’, 1940)
Interview with Valgeir Sigurðsson.
Congratulations Valgeir on your amazing new album ‘Architecture Of Loss’. It is such powerful music, filled with an outpour of emotion. It is a real pleasure and honour for me to ask you a few questions about your music. Thank you for your time.
I’m glad to hear that, thank you. I hope you will be able to come to one of our shows this spring, and really do I hope that we can come play Ireland.
‘Architecture of Loss’ was originally composed for the same titled ballet by Stephen Petronio. I am intrigued to know more about your mindset and process involved when composing music with a physical performance in mind, by its players and dancers?
I don’t know if it’s that much different to composing for another occasion. Like, I don’t crawl into a cave and think “movement, movement, movement”… But on the other hand, there is the dialog between the composer and the choreographer that really sets the tone of the piece, and it was riveting to see what Stephen came up with when we first sat in their rehearsal space in New York and he tried out different movements with the dancers playing back my initial demos. I learned a lot from that, that I was then able to take back home to my studio and work the ideas further and focus in on what we discussed and experimented with in the physical space.
Please discuss the digital processes involved in your music?
Many of the pieces started from digitally manipulating raw recordings that I had made, both new recordings and older that I had lying around. And with these processed bits of audio I started piecing together structures and motifs that I had mostly written on a piano. I respond really well to abstract sounds and things that sound familiar but not pure, so I like to distort and disconnect many of the acoustic sounds that I use for source material from what they are intended to sound like. The piece deals with formation and disintegration, and one way of addressing that in the writing was to start with something our and completely turn it inside out.
There is a wonderful tight-knit ensemble of musicians on ‘Architecture of Loss’, several highly talented Bedroom Community artists. I would love to gain an insight into this use of sparse musical materials on the album. The effect of which adds rich textures and new dimensions to the pieces themselves.
Before starting the writing process I thought long and hard about who I’d like to be able to bring with me into the performance, and I chose Nadia and Shahzad because they are each on their own extreme as performers and probably have a very different approach to what they do. I wanted to be able to push and pull in these two opposite directions, with Nadia’s viola as the central ‘voice’ of the music and Shahzad the unpredictable groove-machine.
My favourite piece is ‘The Crumbling’. I love the sound of the hypnotic strings amidst the beautiful piano notes. Can you shed some light on this heart-wrenching piece of music please?
I think it’s all right in there, if people care to listen. It’s such a super simple cyclical piece built out of a bouncing bass-note figure and a slowly moving piano motif over which the viola soars and sometimes takes the lead. It’s meant to be sort of discomforting. What I’m especially pleased with in that piece is how spare it is, I did strive to use as few notes and as much space and silence as I possibly could and I think it worked out well.
Your second album was the soundtrack to the film ‘Draumalandið’. Discuss please the differences between composing music for film and music for ballet/performance?
I approached both projects as writing the music that I wanted to write at the time, but there was an element of telling a story or following a narrative that was suggested already. The major difference for me was that one was composed with the performance aspect in mind and the other was realised as a studio project, and the performance came as an afterthought.
I love all the releases on the Bedroom Community label. The records always deliver and inspire. You are the founder of the Bedroom Community label and Greenhouse Studios in Iceland. Please tell me about the close family of Bedroom Community and its prolific development over its relatively short lifespan?
I don’t know if I think of it as a particularly prolific output, we’ve put out less than 20 records in our 6 years of existence and that’s probably not a lot compared to many labels who release a seemingly endless stream of albums. But yes, it’s a tightly knit family of people who all really enjoy working together and learning from each other. We have excruciatingly high standards and all we care about is making the best records we possibly can.
Describe Greenhouse Studios and the reasons why it’s such a magical place in the creation of art through sound?
It’s a place that feels homey and technical at the same time, it has a spirit of creativity and the studio setup is very fluent. A place is not much without the people and we make sure to nurture every aspect of the creative process, including making nice meals and having a good time. The fact that it’s home to Bedroom Community does give the studio an added dimension too, where as many studios depend entirely on visiting artists and bands Greenhouse is constantly channeling the output of the Bedroom Community as well as a fresh and new inspiration from musicians from all over the world.
Iceland is a country I would love to visit and experience. How does this place inspire your music?
It’s pretty hard for me to say exactly how it might influence my music, but my basic theory is that your experiences and surroundings will influence who you are and therefore how you make music and any other art or form of expression. The only time I’ve consciously drawn on this place I’m from was when I wrote Dreamland, that was definitely written as Music for Landscape.. You should come visit!
What records inspire you most lately?
Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely.