The opening strings on Icelandic composer, producer and performer Valgeir Sigurðsson’s new album ‘Dissonance’ feel poised and collected, almost glacial in pace, building gradually as the tension envelops the listener. Some context from the composer sheds light on the unconventional beginning. “The title piece is based on a few bars—a few seconds actually—from Mozart,” says Valgeir. “I took the bars and stretched the 40 seconds out to 23 minutes. The movement is the same as Mozart envisioned, only much slower.”
Valgeir’s description shows the traits that have made him a prominent figure in the Icelandic music community. Originally trained as a classical guitarist, he soon became a sought after studio collaborator; a polymath who could produce, engineer and compose, as well as playing a range of instruments. A run of collaborations with Björk, starting with ‘Selma Songs’, led to various credits on four of her albums. His other credits include Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Brian Eno and the score for environmental documentary ‘Dreamland’. This array of projects all emanate from his custom-built Greenhouse Studios, located in a suburb of Reykjavík, and the Bedroom Community record label this thriving creative hub spawned.
Valgeir’s solo work could be categorized as classical, but the use of electronic technology makes it difficult to pigeonhole. ‘Dissonance’ is his first solo album since 2012’s ‘Architecture of Loss’, and features large-scale works drawing inspiration from apocalyptic themes, while also displaying his eye for detail and texture.
String Quartet No. 19, completed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart over two centuries ago, was ahead of its time when it was composed, and seems ripe for reimagining. “The introduction sounds dissonant and ‘un-Mozart,’ in a way, in complete contrast to everything else from that period,” says Valgeir. “The story goes that the sheet music was sent back from the printer because it had to be a mistake. It builds up fast, creating dissonance, then dissolves into beautiful chords. It sounds like Shostakovich or something—unusual and strange, for the time it came out.”
The viola da gamba, an antiquated instrument that preceded the modern violin and cello, plays a vital role. Valgeir layered his collaborator Liam Byrne’s string performances, routing the signals back out to amps, speakers and effects before recording the entire thing back to tape. The intricacies of the recording process present some obvious hurdles in terms of performing the piece live, which Valgeir will do at Sónar Barcelona in June.
“What do I do with a complicated piece like this?” muses Valgeir. “I’d need a 60-70 strong symphony to play it. But of course I can’t go on tour and expect to have a symphony waiting in every city.” Instead, he plans to do most live shows with only Liam, the viola da gamba player. “It will sound different,” he says. “It’s an experiment.”
Sónar is known for presenting both popular and unconventional music, but Valgeir’s compositions may not be what audiences first associate with the festival. “Sónar is a good platform for experimental music, but the show could just as well belong in venues for acoustic music,” says Valgeir. “I never make music with the audience in mind. If I like it, I can only hope that it finds its way to the listener.”
No Nights Dark Enough
As “Dissonance” dissipates, the ethereal strings of “No Nights Dark Enough” fade in. Valgeir originally composed the piece for the City of London Sinfonia in honour of 17th century composer John Dowland, but edited out around half of it to fit the album. “I felt I had a record that worked as a whole,” says Valgeir, “and I don’t think that the recorded and the performance versions need to be the same, anyway.”
A prolific producer and mastering engineer, Valgeir has collaborated with an impressive list of talent, including Damon Albarn, Oneohtrix Point Never and CocoRosie, as well as countrymen Jóhann Jóhannsson, Hildur Guðnadóttir and Sigur rós. Some of the qualities that make him in demand are evident when he speaks: he’s focussed, yet warm and approachable. Despite his busy schedule, he finds time for his solo projects, which he asserts are never an insular endeavour.
“Making music is always collaborative,” he says. “Someone may have the guiding vision, but operating in isolation is not for me. In art you need a dialogue to expand the project. You keep learning something new, discovering something old or finding new styles of music that you hadn’t heard before. It opens new dimensions. If you’re set in your own ways it’s like working a conveyor belt. Assembling a box according to your prescribed formula and moving on to the next one doesn’t appeal to me.”
However, there is something deeply personal about the album, with Valgeir’s explorations leading to a particular outcome that only he could arrive at. “There is a kind of sound which I feel is mine to pursue,” says Valgeir. “Nobody else is going to take it and run with it, and it’s a cleansing process to package it as a solo album and keep a forward momentum. I can leave my train of thought and open up to new ideas.”
The closing piece starts with sudden intensity before subsiding into an eerie calm, almost as if it means to lure the listener into a false sense of security. Titled “1875,” the piece was commissioned on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of Icelandic settlement in Manitoba, Canada. “It represents the voyage,” says Valgeir. “It started with a bang—a volcanic eruption—before the travellers set out on an uncertain journey. And they ended up in an even colder place than Iceland.”
Despite his international acclaim, Valgeir remains based in Iceland, working from his Greenhouse studio with his labelmates. “I like living here,” he explains, “even though I have problems with the politics and the social structure. I’ve lived abroad and I travel a lot for work, but it’s always good to come home.”
Bedroom Community, the label Valgeir founded with Nico Muhly and Ben Frost, celebrated its tenth anniversary last year, and recently started working with newcomers aYia. “We’re creating room for Bedroom Community to function as a platform for music that we like,” explains Valgeir, “but aren’t necessarily hands-on involved in.”
The label also continues to grow internationally, as was always the plan. “We started expanding straight away, because we never saw the label as having a chance in Iceland,” finishes Valgeir. “It’s a small society, and our music is, shall we say… eccentric.”
Steindór Grétar Jónsson