Icelandic composer Valgeir Sigurðsson has worked with Björk, Damon Albarn, Sigur Rós, and many more. His new collection of long-form works feature emotional string arrangements in a digital setting.
Thanks to his part in establishing the Bedroom Community label, Icelandic composer Valgeir Sigurðssonalso doubles as a classical impresario. He has long worked closely with label co-founder Nico Muhly, collaborating on the occasional short opera and helping to produce a series of drone EPs. On his own albums for the imprint, Valgeir has put his stamp on contemporary electro-acoustic trends, with the chamber music programs Architecture of Loss and Draumalandið.
Already in 2017, Valgeir has contributed a pair of compelling pieces to an album by the group Nordic Affect. That pair of compositions gives a sense of his range. The propulsive electronic opus “Antigravity” would fit nicely on many of his prior solo sets, while on “Raindamage,” he foregrounds acoustic instruments while incorporating digital effects. For his own label, Valgeir now offers an ambitious program of long-form works that touch on the computer-edited acoustic approach of “Raindamage,” two of which come loaded with weighty concepts that reach back into classical music’s past.
The expansive title track makes a direct reference to Mozart’s String Quartet No. 19, commonly called the “Dissonance” quartet (thanks to the overlapping, chromatic lines that are present during its opening). Valgeir’s intention was to stretch Mozart’s initial gambit into a much longer piece: “I took the bars and stretched the 40 seconds out to 23 minutes. The movement is the same as Mozart envisioned, only much slower.” As an experiment, this seems promising, but this particular adaptation robs Mozart’s progression of too much drama.
In the String Quartet No. 19, part of the wonderment is caused by the fact that the initial music is packed with so many clashing elements. Even as the music swoons slowly, this density quickly outstrips your ability to keep track of the overall direction, which gives the writing a dizzying power. During Valgeir’s “Dissonance,” which was multi-tracked in the studio and later modified digitally, a listener can become too well accustomed to each portion of the music, and the crucial sense of surprise is gone.
Other extended works on the album have more purchase on ingenuity. The title of “No Nights Dark Enough” references the lyrics to English Renaissance composer John Dowland’s iconic “Flow, My Tears.” Valgeir does honor to the source material; this Dowland-influenced music is still suffused with sorrow. But the sudden, downward-sliding tones in the first movement (“flow”) have a savagery that feels beholden to no past. The second movement (“infamy sings”) sets some fast-repeating piano lines against drawn-out brass and string exclamations, and the contrast feels like some elegantly shouted objection in the face of trauma. The glitchier third section (“fear and grief and pain”) treads on some production grounds Trent Reznor might recognize. This emerging sense of a bummed-out lineage—from Dowland to The Fragile to Valgeir—makes a strange, perfect form of sense.
The album’s final piece is the three-movement “1875.” Pitched as a reflection on an historic Icelandic settlement in Canada, it’s foremost an acoustic piece. And the composer’s ability to craft a journeying instrumental narrative is never in doubt. After a jarring beginning, it explores moods of unease—eventually closing in a hushed, chilling fashion. Valgeir surely has more electronic beats and drones to create, but purely symphonic writing remains well within his grasp.
Seth Colter Walls