Interview: Valgeir Sigurðsson on Draumalandið, Inspiration.
by Daniel Haim
Icelandic producer and composer Valgeir Sigurðsson follows the success of his solo debut Ekvílibríum which The Fader called “a singular album, as ornate as it is direct”—with the soundtrack to the documentary film Dreamland (Draumalandið), to be released February 22 on his Bedroom Community label.
Dreamland, a documentary about the exploitation of Iceland’s natural resources, tells a story about huge things the fortunes of a whole nation; the destruction of vast landscapes; and the global economic forces, greater still than any nation, that fuel it all. Sigurðsson matches the film’s serious purpose, bringing his entire roster of Bedroom Community label-mates to contribute in some way to the creation of the score. Composers Nico Muhly and Daníel Bjarnason, industrial wizard Ben Frost, and American folksinger Sam Amidon and the small orchestra assembled for the record swell from moments of expansive beauty into massive, surging symphonic force.
Dreamland the film takes on the delicate task of unmasking the apparent win/win proposition of Iceland’s aluminum smelting boom—clean energy! new jobs! economic growth!—as a false blessing with very real consequences. Likewise, Dreamland the soundtrack takes global, seemingly abstract questions, and offers deeply personal responses.
Sigurðsson’s score makes fierce and direct statements of sorrow and indignation, but it also expresses, with a kind of hushed awe, the beauty of landscapes on the brink of devastation, and the seductive shimmer of the illusions that imperil them. In the album’s opening track, Amidon sings “Grýlukvæði,” an Icelandic folktune about a greedy hag come to devour naughty children, and in turn Valgeir reframes it as a sad, sympathetic reprimand to a people (Icelanders and, by extension, all of humanity) who would sell their birthright to a rapacious multinational.
This is all painted in brushstrokes broad and minute, from palette of hugely varied shades—Amidon’s banjo playing, Bjarnason’s John Cage-style piano treatments, Frost’s halos of distortion—but it all fits together as a coherent musical argument. Heard as an accompaniment to the film, the Dreamland score can disappear into the images and the narrative but on its own, the recording rewards close attention with urgent, emotional and meticulously-scored meditations on the natural sublime.
Sigurðsson earned a degree from SAE in London in 1991 and subsequently started in Reykjavík-based Greenhouse Studios in 1997. He was one of Björk’s closest studio collaborators from 1998 until 2006, handling various duties on her Selmasongs, Vespertine, Family Tree and Medúlla albums, film scores for Dancer In the Dark (Lars Von Trier), Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze) and Drawing Restraint 9 (Matthew Barney). Sigurðsson has also worked with Bonnie “Prince” Billy, múm, CocoRosie, Camille and The Magic Numbers. In 2006 he formed the Bedroom Community record label/collective and has gone on to launch Nico Muhly’s recording career and release acclaimed albums by Ben Frost and Sam Amidon. Sigurðsson has composed music for TV, film and theater as well. Sigurðsson co-composed (with Muhly) music for Scent Opera, which opened at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in May 2009. Sigurðsson’s debut solo album Ekvílibríum was released by Bedroom Community in 2007.
Daniel: Where did all of this begin for you?
Valgeir: In a little basement in downtown Reykjavík, forever-ago. There was a small studio where I got a job as a teenager. But perhaps before that when I got a guitar, I was nine. No, it even goes back to hearing music on the radio or something. Music has always been there, in my head.
Daniel: Nowadays when creativity is a lost breed how do you manage to draw inspiration to being creative and making music?
Valgeir: Is it a lost breed, I don’t know? I certainly don’t notice that, everyone seems to be making something even though a lot of it seems to have been made too many times before. If anything, I’d say that there are way too many musicians, artists, writers, too much of everything. And it’s not all great. Anyway, I like to be around people who are interested in new things and old things and like exchanging ideas and find new ways to express them.
Daniel: Who are your major influences in the music industry?
Valgeir: These same people, who just need to keep doing what they do and strive to be better at what they do each and every day.
Daniel: What keeps you motivated to make music?
Valgeir: Feels like the same question repeated 3 times. Hm… I could add that it’s great when people appreciate what you do, that’s rewarding and makes you want to keep going.
Daniel: How has the music industry changed since you started and how has your perspective about it changed?
Valgeir: I have no idea, I get a little depressed the minute I start to think of The Music Industry. I think that they way people listen to music and how they discover music has probably changed much more than the music industry, which by the way is not even that old. I’m curious to know how listening habits will change in the next 5-10 years.
But I’m such a cottage-industry person anyway, it’s all homegrown. But more and more people go out of their way to hang out at the cottage.
Daniel: What type of music do you mostly listen to, and if you opened your right now what are the last 10 songs played?
Valgeir: Songs by a new band called Dry The River, they would like me to produce their first album and I’m getting to know it… ”Scent Opera” music I made with Nico Muhly, we’re thinking about releasing it and I was checking the mix. Puzzle Muteson’s new song, I’m going to make an album with him and this is a demo he just made. Thom Yorke’s Eraser album because it’s simple and good – and I need to crack the code to Nigel Godrich’s low-end. Work in progress with Erica Mou, Matthew Collings, Nico Muhly, Ben Frost…
Basically I’ve been using the iPod (iPhone) a lot lately to check mixes, work in progress and upcoming Valgeir: projects. And I’ve actually also listened to a lot of music that I’ve not heard for a while. Being in England a lot is making me re-connect with bands I adored a long time ago, The Smiths, The Cure, Coctau Twins… I’ve also been listening to the new Massive Attack, Owen Pallett, Jónsi….
Am I over 10 songs already?
Daniel: You’ve collaborated with such amazing artists. What has been the most memorable experience on the “music road” thus far?
Valgeir: I can’t remember…
Daniel: Let’s talk about Dreamland, what were you aspiring for when you created that brilliant album?
Valgeir: I was creating a soundtrack to the film, and helping to tell that story and give the images “a voice”. But I was thinking about making an album at the same time, I wanted it to be able to stand outside the film and I’m happy that it works.
Daniel: What is Dreamland for you?
Valgeir: This Dreamland is Andri Snær Magnason’s book, and film — and now this album. I think it could have been called Dreamland?.
Daniel: In your own words, can you describe Dreamland and what our readers will find when listening to it?
Valgeir: Good music with rich interesting textures, played on acoustic an electronic instruments by great musicians. And also Sam Amidon singing in Icelandic, a language he has no grasp of whatsoever. It should make you laugh and cry at the same time.