The universe is making music all the time

Chosen One: Amiina

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Interview with María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, Amiina.

“…I think we all felt that we wanted to broaden out to other things and playing with Sigur Rós was key to that: to realize that even dealing with string instruments we can do whatever we can and to evoke your own musicality in your own way is a wonderful thing.”

— María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir

Words: Mark Carry, Artwork: Craig Carry



“The lighthouse stands alone off the beaten path, transmitting a message out across the ocean. Sometimes, musicians seem to play a similar role: a message is being projected out into the environment, without any guarantee that it will reach its destination. It is impossible to say who will receive it, or to which uses it will be put.

Still, the only option is to keep on transmitting the message.”

— taken from the sleevenotes to Amiina’s “The Lighthouse Project”.

Ever since their debut EP ‘AnimaminA’ was released in 2004, a plethora of transmissions have graced the earth’s atmosphere, direct from their homeland base of Reykjavík, Iceland. The magic of music-making and live performance is inherent in all of Amiina’s body of work, and with each new project and musical venture – scoring the works for Lotte Reiniger’s  fairy tale films is one of the more recent artistic explorations – showcasing (as ever) the band at the peak of their powers, projecting divine music to the world outside.

At present the band comprises six members – Edda Rún Ólafsdóttir, Hildur Ársælsdóttir, Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, Sólrún Sumarliðadóttir, Magnús Trygvason Eliassen and Guðmundur Vignir Karlsson (aka Kippi Kaninus). The bands origins go back to the late 1990s when four girls studying string instruments at the Reykjavík College of Music formed a string quartet, playing classical music, but increasingly moving on to playing all sorts of music with various bands in Reykjavík.

In 1999 the quartet joined Icelandic band Sigur Rós on stage. The collaboration has continued ever since with amiina contributing strings to Sigur Rós music on tours and in the recording studio on the albums ( ) , Takk and Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust. I first crossed paths with Ammina’s unique blend of music at Sigur Rós’ spellbinding concert in Dublin’s Olympia Theatre, in support of their album ( ). I gladly recall the power unleashed by their intimate performance, and just how quiet a space can become. Several years later, the band have returned numerous times to this island of ours, and particularly my hometown of Cork.

In much the same way as Lotte Reiniger’s utterly timeless fairy tale films, inspired by Chinese silhouette puppetry, the resolutely unique music of Amiina occupies its own wonderful and visionary world of sound whose trajectory points to where the land meets the sea, forever reaching new horizons.


Interview with María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, Amiina.

I’m really excited about your upcoming live show in Cork this September. It looks very special in the way that it will be a live score to animated films by Lotte Reiniger. I’d love for you to discuss your love for this director and your reason for going with this idea?

María Sigfúsdóttir: Initially it was a commission or an idea from a theatre festival called the Branchage Film Festival asked us to look into scoring one of Lotte Reiniger’s films. And because we didn’t know Reiniger’s films before, as soon as we saw her work and her style and the whole setting we thought it was a perfect match. So after composing the first film we thought we might continue and throughout the years we have revisited that to add one more because these films are quite short; each of them is like ten or fifteen minutes. So we added throughout the years a number of scores so this time in Ireland we will be doing one new score – a brand new score – so in total we have made scores for five films so we’ll be performing three scores, among them will be one new one. So we are slowly building up a collection of scores to selected short films and we hope eventually we will be able to release with all the visuals because it is a kind of two-part thing because it is a fairy-tale, some of them are well-known and some are less well-known to us today. Since they were not silent in their original version so we need to narrate them through the music so it’s a kind of two-part thing. We always feel like we’re collaborating with Lotte Reiniger even though she has passed away.

For creating the music itself the process must be quite different from making your own Amiina albums or in a way it may not be all that dissimilar?

MS: It is different in a way that we totally follow the story-line and to be able to make it really clear even though it’s not exactly theatrical we try to take the meaning and atmosphere of each scene in the film and reproduce them in the music what we feel like. When you have a narrator, the story tells you what is coming up, if it’s a scary part for example and because we are skipping the narrator –we just have it on mute – we need to emphasize the story-lines in order for the whole thing to be understood. It usually comes really naturally to us, what feel or sound or instrumentation is suitable each time and also since that the stories are quite varied, some of them are from The Brothers Grimm which are more Nordic tales and some is from ‘One Thousand And One Arabian Nights’ which is a totally different world and sound world and heritage so it’s also fun to switch between those atmospheres in there. Usually we let the films tell us the music: we don’t try to compose it, we try to find the music within the films and extract it out without interfering too much.

It’s a wonderful match because even the music of Amiina across the different albums possess this sort of fairy-tale and magical realm in the music so it’s very fitting that this collaboration has come about.

MS: Well I feel it is a good match because fairy-tales in general, they are timeless even though they originate in a certain time they have traveled across centuries and over and over when you tell the same story it becomes timeless where you have a feel of something ancient but because it is in the now it’s kind of timeless. Lotte Reiniger’s technique of the silhouette animation was also timeless, it’s something that was done in Indonesia like the shadow puppetry have been in Indonesia for centuries and it’s something that is global and also her language of imagery is timeless – it’s not set in time like when you see 80’s cartoons they look like 80’s cartoons and they don’t look like anything else – and with Amiina’s sound quality it’s kind of the same. We don’t rely on technique or a style that has tied us with a certain bracket in music so all of these things; the storylines of the fairy-tales and Lotte Reiniger’s technique and Amiina’s sound world, they are all referring to past and present so it is open and it’s not referring to anything else in itself which is nice, we don’t have an electric guitar that is in a way an 18th century painting from a tale set in Germany or whatever. So I think it’s made it fairly easy for us to access the work in that way.

Even the instrumentation that you have, there is so many possibilities between the wide array of instruments you use, for example the saw. There’s always so many wonderful elements in the music.

I’d love for you to go back to when you and the other three members originally met at the College of Music and first formed Amiina?

MS: Basically we – the four girls – started out as a string quartet and in music college we were probably all open to searching for new energy even though we didn’t realize back then. So after having worked together, we found that it was really important who you work with and what energy and the energy was so relaxed that we didn’t need to decide on or speak about actively on things, it just happened so we decided on working further and taking things further. After playing with Sigur Rós as a string section, I think we found out that it’s probably the energy that we liked within the string quartet was similar to what people feel like when they are in a band, you know things happen easily without too much discussion and you get that musical flow.

So we decided on trying to make our own music and trying making music on other instruments than the strings because our focal point and point of view and all the music we had done before that had been through the strings. And with the work with Sigur Rós, we discovered that there are so many ways of making music even if you have this one instrument: the sound quality and sound production and the whole context of it; it matters. So basically we had been in classical music trained like the classical music trains you – you are specifically dealing with very specified kind of music and your focus is really specified. There is nothing wrong with that but I think we all felt that we wanted to broaden out to other things and playing with Sigur Rós was key to that: to realize that even dealing with string instruments we can do whatever we can and to evoke your own musicality in your own way is a wonderful thing.

So we just decided to start by playing around with whatever we had and in the beginning it was weird because we decided not to make songs on a guitar, bass and drums because we didn’t know how to play those instruments. We thought that there are so many bands in the world who play those instruments and know how to play them, it’s kind of a waste of time for us to do that because we are probably stronger in other things. We decided to take up things that were not particularly used on as instruments and that’s where all this started with the glass spoon and the saw and bells and all of these things that are not typical in a band but is more just out of curiosity and the fact that we didn’t know how to play the guitar and drums. We found out since we started that it was really free also to approach another instrument or something that produced sound we were not experts on because we had been training quite hard with the strings and with so much knowledge of what is good and bad on an instrument it can be limiting.

So if you have no idea of what you are doing sometimes you just let go of all those things so I love when people who are musicians approach an instrument that they don’t know how to play I think that is the most natural sound that are produced is when people are not so self-aware of themselves and that’s where we started. Then when we had collected a bunch of weird instruments we started forming more into the direction where we are today and we still do have a lot of other instruments – when travelling we can’t travel with all of them because of the airline business [laughs] – so we bring half of the instruments and it always compromises what we can bring with us.


It’s always lovely looking back over a band’s discography and particularly with Amiina where each album tells its own unique story. For example, the Lighthouse Project must have been a very interesting experience?

MS: Yeah that was really interesting. I think for us with a point in time when we took a couple of steps back from complicated sounds and production into less is more through the fact that we happened to have this series of lighthouse concerts. I guess it’s similar in Ireland, our lighthouses are really small and there are many so if you want to play a lighthouse sometimes you might be fitted in a tall building that has many floors but with a really tiny ground floor. Some of them might be acoustically brilliant and reverberating and some of them are a boxed shape and you might be playing within the machinery – these places don’t all have electricity so they need to have old oil machines – so you might be seated in a totally different setting but all of them are quite small. So, the audience is crammed really close and the feeling of the end of the edge of the land where the land meets the sea and the feeling of this intimacy and the feeling of the purpose of this building – a lighthouse which is to produce light to guide the ships – so we got really surprised how strong that feeling is and I do know that a lot of people fantasize this about lighthouses since it’s also something from the past when people used to live in them and run them so a lot of them are automatic but these places there is nothing really like it because they are buildings in a place where people wouldn’t choose to live because they need to be there because of the navigation of it. So they are quite amazing I think.

I love how in more recent years with the added elements of drums and electronics there are new dimensions to your own music and sound world.

MS: Yeah it’s quite a few layers now that we can travel between. I think we would love to be able to keep hold of the various forms of Amiina so we can switch between the intimate into the larger settings as well.

I wonder actually María what are your thoughts or would you have ideas for the next Amiina record?

MS: Well it’s an interesting question because Amiina has been on a really slow pace in the past three years because we’re all having kids and we’re at the stage where family life takes more time so really we can do whatever we like, there is no channel for it. We have been wondering and we are quite excited actually to see what happens next. I guess we will just try to let it happen naturally, we’ve never taken a conscious step before and it’s been really good for us not to push things because if it’s too calculated – in a way we’ve tried this to be like, OK we have done this and that and it was really cool to do more of this – and when you force things into a direction it hasn’t been working really well with us. So I think we’re just really looking forward to seeing what we create – because now we’re obviously older and everyone has experienced different things and that will all probably affect how we make and what music we make – so it’s just interesting to see.

It must have been a nice sense of nostalgia when a few weeks ago there was the anniversary of those very special shows with Sigur Rós. It must be very nice to think back on those particular moments?

MS: It was both nice and scary and weird because first of all, I do not feel like it’s been fifteen years and I think that’s really scary [laughs] and it brought back really good memories of this time where I and we all – both for the band Sigur Rós, Amiina and all personally – were discovering and experiencing a lot of things for the first time like entering a venue where there is a thousand people cheering. The feelings like that you forget just how thrilling it was and bonding with the audience and bonding with each other, with Amiina and also Amiina with Sigur Rós which was a really strong life-changing experience to feel that strong musical bond, it was just amazing. Also what I found was weird was my memories of how we played the music was totally different because this release concert – the first concert was the very, very first time we played with the guys – and then we toured with them for eight years and obviously everyone had changed their style of performance – so I found it really funny to hear Jónsi’s voice being not as trained and finding the string playing I found it much more classical than I remembered because we all matured throughout the years. So I found it actually quite funny to hear [laughs], it was just cute, I found it interesting to hear how beautifully humanised it sounded. There is also going to be a release of the concert later this year.

Well I didn’t see those very first shows but I remember seeing you and Sigur Rós in the Olympia Theatre in Dublin during the untitled album tour. And I remember how special it was seeing Amiina first and then how you obviously stay onstage and Sigur Rós come on. It was so powerful to witness the whole journey the music takes you on.

MS: I guess it must have been special because I didn’t think of it at the time. A lot of the times it is odd to have a supporting act that has a totally different style and then there is a break and the main act comes and it’s kind of schizophrenic and into the next chapter. We didn’t think of it at the time but it must have made it a bit more completed as a whole or something. It was quite special and for us it was amazing, I mean we were performing music for three hours each night for years, you know it kept us in shape.

One last thing María, in terms of books or film or music are there certain things you’re a big fan of lately?

MS: There has been some new things. For example an artist that I am always fond of is Marissa Nadler, she is this American singer who has this timeless style of singer-songwriting that I really love. As for books – I’m thinking of what’s on my bedside table now – I have a little collection of short stories by Alice Munroe called ‘Family Furnishings’. Also a book about the birth of the modern world as in the modern science, I find it quite interesting because the first scientists were thinking a lot like philosophers or artists whereas in science if you look at it now it’s almost like the opposite of art. In the beginning they needed to be so creative about their thinking that you can almost feel like they were trying to create a song or music so that’s interesting. As for film, I’m really looking forward to seeing a recent Icelandic film called ‘Rams’ which got some prize in Cannes recently and I think it will be travelling internationally quite a lot so I think you will be able to catch it somewhere in Ireland.



For all information on upcoming tour dates, discography & news updates for Amiina:


Written by markcarry

August 19, 2015 at 11:37 am

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