The latest album from Bedroom Community founder VALGEIR SIGURÐSSON sees the composer beginning to stretch his music and ambitions, while marking the latest in a furtive year of creativity for the label as a whole.
By Bob Cluness
The Reykjavík suburb of Breiðholt enjoys a near infamous, if slightly unwarranted reputation amongst people who refer to it as “Reykjavík’s Ghetto.” In a recent interview with the Grapevine, the band 1860 noted that “The gas station is notorious for stabbings,” and you go there “To meet derelicts on speed and buy a tasty hot dog with potato salad.”
But as with everything you’re told about Iceland, you only get part of the truth. Violence in Breiðholt is actually rather rare, and in reality there are two Breiðholts, separated by Breiðholtsbraut road in a weirdly Icelandic version of Detroit’s 8-Mile. You have Efra (Upper) Breiðholt, with its high-rises and wind-exposed streets, and Neðra (Lower) Breiðholt, with its shrubs, cul-de-sacs, and large single houses, looking more like a modern European suburb.
It’s in a far corner of Neðra Breiðholt that I find myself standing in front of Greenhouse Studios. This is the headquarters of the Bedroom Community, the label and artist collective that has been at the forefront of some of the most forward thinking music released in Iceland over the last several years. The street itself is eerily quiet, with only the wind and the birds ringing in my ears. I find the front door and ring the buzzer. The door is opened by the label founder and subject of my interview, Valgeir Sigurðsson.
“Oh, hi there! Glad you made it,” he says. “Would you like a coffee?”
Walking inside, the building’s nondescript exterior gives way to an interior warren of side rooms, offices, studios and mixing rooms. The building itself imposes a soothing bubble while you walk through it, cutting you off from the outside world.
Valgeir tells me what makes the studio so special: “People love to come here just to switch off their normal routine. We’re in a great location; if you want to find food, nightlife, concerts, etc, then you can get on the bus and you’ll be in the city centre in 15-20 minutes. If you want to experience nature, then it’s 10 minutes in the other direction. You can come here, get a lot of work done, and you can still have either an active social life or be very excluded from what’s happening in the outside world. And a lot of people appreciate this.”
It’s in this parallel world where the Bedroom Community members work their ideas, and 2012 has been an incredibly busy year for all concerned. You have Nico Muhly releasing his ‘Drones’ EP trilogy, Ben Frost and Daníel Bjarnason working on numerous solo and joint ventures such as the soundtracks to the films ‘Solaris,’ ‘Djúpið,’ and ‘Frost,’ and new member to the collective, Paul Corley, releasing his debut album, ‘Disquiet’.
But at the forefront, spearheading this surge of creativity is Valgeir himself with his third solo album, ‘Architecture of Loss,’ the score to Stephen Petronio’s ballet piece of the same name, which aims to bring about “The physical manifestations of ‘losing,’ and all that it implies.”
“When he [Stephen] approached me, he had only come up with the title,” Valgeir says. “To begin with, we e-mailed back and forth our thoughts about how the title could relate to sound and how we could mirror that in the music and the dance itself.”
When the title ‘Architecture of Loss,’ you’re confronted with an evocative phrase that suggests many images regarding loss, often of a personal nature. This was something that Valgeir found himself thinking when first with the title. “My first reaction was similar to what you mentioned in that loss is often connected with grief and maybe with personal disappointment or loss of personal control,” he says.
“But when we started talking, we felt that it could also come to mean loss of sound or rhythm. Not in a negative way but more in a positive, or at least neutral, way that this loss creates a space, that the loss of density, of sound, can mean silence, or the disintegration of sound,” Valgeir says. “And then you bring the idea of architecture into it. You can get very technical. This could be something both modern and ancient at the same time. You have the architecture, or building, of an emotion. So it’s a great title because it can mean so many things.”
Despite it being the first time he scored for ballet, the actual process ended up being a fairly painless experience for Valgeir. “One of the things I found most pleasant about the whole process was that it was so open,” he explains. “It wasn’t a case of Stephen going, ‘Here’s my dance,’ and then dictating the terms of the music. On this score, I actually had an upper hand because we talked a lot first, and Stephen knew that he wouldn’t be able to get to do the actual choreography for a while. So I managed to sketch out a lot of things and was able to draft my pieces and present some quite developed ideas, which he was then able to respond to.
“In terms of an actual challenge, the main issue was that dancers count their timings in a completely different way to how musicians count,” Valgeir says. “And that was challenging, because even if you are both talking about music, the way they describe it is like Chinese and English. If you imagine two people who look at a colour scheme and they point at the colour and one person thinks the colour is brown, but the other one thinks its green!”
Listening to ‘Architecture of Loss’ is an immersive experience. The score contains writing and musicianship that is highly controlled and tightly wound. The solemn, minimal piano lines of Nico Muhly and the pulsing, sustained viola lines of Nadia Sirota express the human trait of attempting to exert some form of order over themselves and their surroundings. But all the while, the melodic lines and musical structures fray and disintegrate as they’re attacked from all sides from a range or dissonant sounds and surging electronic rhythms (provided by Valgeir and Shahzad Ismaily) that crackle, scrape and tear away at the core of the music.
The idea of a score with a central structure being attacked was planned. “The structure of the pieces themselves is very tight,” Valgeir says. “This in a way, speaks of the architectural shape of the score, and in some ways is almost strict in its structure and sound. One of the reasons for this is that, in general, I’m not really that much of a free improviser. Even when I write from a point of improvisation, I always look at it again and end up placing a form of structure to it.”
The sense and feeling of loss permeates Valgeir’s previous release ‘Draumalandið’ (“Dreamland”), the soundtrack to the film and book of the same name, which details the rise of heavy industry in Iceland, and its impact on the environment and the local communities. The opening track, “Grýlukvæði,” for example, contains the soft, lilting electro-folk sound of Sam Amidon that harks at something that is pure, innocent. But as the album progresses, the atmosphere of the music changes, with tracks such as “Past Tundra” highlighting the flight of nature from the forces of man and progress. By the time you hear “Economic Hitman,” the musical signature of “Grýlukvæði” is repeated, but this time discordant sounds pollute it. It sounds similar, but feels tainted as if something has been lost, and it can’t be regained.
When it came to how the soundtrack would work within the film and with the wider public, Valgeir wanted the music to have an impact that would make people take notice. “I knew that the book was a big deal in Iceland,” he says. “I was aware that the subject was something that meant a lot to Icelanders. The film was made as a kind of new chapter in the book, another way to look at the story and the situation in general. It’s almost like a quicker way in. I’m sure that many people who saw the film first then went on to read the book.
“The powerful thing in the movie is that you get to see how the people are being manipulated and how they react, and how weird it all is,” he goes on. “In a way the film seems to make it more real and urgent to you. And with the music I wanted to convey that message. It’s not a neutral documentary; it’s more of a polemic. But I still wanted the music to stand on its own as a separate entity. I didn’t want it to be a background score. And part of that was due to my reaction to the movie and where I was musically at the time. I wanted to make a big statement with the music.”
In terms of music and career, Valgeir is at an interesting place. Although his reputation as a producer and studio engineer is assured with his wide body of work with artists such as Feist, to Björk, as well at the Bedroom Community, there is still the sense that musically, he is still stretching into his own skin. This can be seen in the fact that of his three solo releases, only one is of original material (2007’s ‘Ekvílibríum’), while the other two represent scores for film and dance. If it seems he is more comfortable working in a collaborative format than as a solo composer, then Valgeir himself agrees that it’s a way of conditioning himself into doing his work.
“I do a lot of work as a producer and with studio collaborations, and I find it really exciting when there are people in the room working on an idea and you see the idea evolve from one point to another. I always have a lot of people asking me to work with them. It’s a luxury problem in that I have more work coming to me than I have time for. So I constantly have to make time for my own work. And I’ve done it more and more in the last couple of years. But when I do my next piece, I definitely want it to be more like my first solo album.”
In terms of writing and music, one of the by-products of being in the Bedroom Community for everyone is that their separate styles have started to rub off onto each other. Ben Frost’s music has evolved from an abrasive, near industrial sound of drones and processed guitars, to music containing lines that are softer and more organic. Nico Muhly, with his maximalist style of playing and composing, has begun experimenting with drones and a more minimal style. Valgeir, meanwhile, has seen his work move from electronic avant-pop, to music that is more neo-classical in form.
“The good thing is that everyone maintains individuality within the Bedroom Community, but the overlap is there a lot of the time,” Valgeir says. “I might do a little bit of stuff on their records, and they on mine. Sometimes people think that one of us contributed to a record when we actually didn’t! In terms of developing as a composer, I have learned a lot from the others. Nico and Daníel were trained as composers, while Ben went to art school. At one point I was going to take the path of training as a composer, but production became my area of knowledge. So we have these slightly divergent backgrounds that overlap in many places.”
Even though the label has grown in terms of size and roster over the last few years, the impression is still that of a bunch of friends who are simply playing for each other. “That’s the thing with us. It’s not like a normal label when you’re actively looking for artists. We don’t really like to do that. With us we always need to build a personal relationship first,” Valgeir explains.
“People have come to me sometimes saying ‘I would like you to produce my record,’ and I’ve been like, sure that sounds great. I like what you’ve been doing. But then they say, “I don’t have a label, do you think the BC could release it?” And I’m always saying that’s a completely different thing. I have to pretty much put on a different hat from just producing a record. After you’ve been working with someone for a while, you can see them fitting into the BC and what it does, but it’s not really natural for me to start from that side first. It’s usually someone who you’ve been working with and you’ve known for a while first.”
In terms of a future plan or strategy for the label itself, Valgeir explains that it’s just a matter of taking it as it comes. “I don’t think that it’s a really healthy approach if you go, ‘We’re going to start a label and we need investors, we need set up this, this and this,’ because your expectations end up getting rather skewed. You start looking for music and artists for other reasons. You become under pressure to make a product instead of a piece of music.
“Of course if the label grows, then it may not always be like this, but then we never planned to expand beyond just myself Ben and Nico in the first place,” he continues. “There wasn’t really a plan to begin with. It was just that we were looking to create something around the three of us and getting it out there. When I started the label, it was just a vehicle to get our music released and distributed, but then the label grew out of what it was originally meant to be. It was great that it did, but it wasn’t the original plan.”
With a performance of ‘Architecture of Loss’ by a trio comprising of Valgeir, Nadia and Shahzad expected at this year’s Airwaves, it will certainly be a fitting finale to what has been an intense but highly creative year for Valgeir.
Valgeir Sigurðsson will be performing on Thursday November 1, 21:20, at Iðnó
You can buy/stream Valgeir’s music at www.valgeir.net
Main Image by Samantha West