Music In Conversation
Valgeir Sigurðsson with Ondrej Veselý
Valgeir Sigurðsson is a cross-genre composer and producer from Iceland known for his mixture of contemporary classical writing and use of electronic production familiar from popular styles. Sigurðsson has composed music for film and visual media, stage, as well as concert works and operas. He is also one of the founding members of the Bedroom Community label, which is a global collective of artists active in contemporary classical, alternative, and experimental music.
Ondrej Veselý (Rail): You founded Greenhouse Studios in your twenties from which, a few years later, Bedroom Community was born with its internationally successful production. Could you speak a bit about the beginnings and the crucial moments? How do you see all those years nowadays?
Valgeir Sigurðsson: It was a humble beginning, like many with no other major plan than to create the opportunity to make music. The idea, and the reason, that I decided to form Greenhouse Studios was to have my own space so I could be in charge of deciding what sort of projects I’d work on, who I invited into the studio, and what kind of environment I was setting up. From there, it has developed quickly. I was working with some local artists and friends that I had previously played with in different bands. Those connections came strongly into the studio.
To put it in context, it was in the late nineties, before computers were a big part of the production workflow. They were used as sequencers, as basic audio editors. People were gradually starting to do whole projects inside the computer, and I was still mostly working on tape back then. And that, I think, means something for people today. I did go to recording college to learn about music production and to get the opportunity to work in bigger studios than I had access to in Reykjavík. I spent some time in London and came back home, and that is when I started Greenhouse Studios. The early 2000s was also a time when people were looking into new locations to go and record, and Iceland was starting to be on the map. So, with a studio like Greenhouse we started to attract a lot of people coming from Europe, America, Australia, Japan…
The first major international project that I worked on was the Lars Von Trier film Dancer in the Dark. From there, many other records and projects happened with different artists coming from all over the world to record here. I think the reputation of my work in the studio has radiated from that starting point, I guess. At that point in time, I was also dividing my time between Iceland and New York where I got to know Nico Muhly, who is one of the founding members of the label that became Bedroom Community.
Simultaneously, Ben Frost was moving to Iceland from Australia. We had met through mutual friends a few years earlier when I visited there. Between the three of us, this idea of a label collective came very strongly. Bedroom Community was born out of that. The idea then was that it would just be a platform for us to have our projects released on, almost like the secondary thing. Because I’m not someone who likes to do things by halves, I went all in to set up the label and focused on that for months in 2005–06. Then the first album, Nico Muhly’s Speaks Volumes was released at the end of 2006. And things sort of started taking more shape from then. We gradually added people. Sam Amidon came on board, Daníel Bjarnason came on board. With them, I had projects that I was super interested in nurturing, both from a recording perspective and to share with the world and let the people hear them.
All of this came naturally, there was never a big meeting about like, “this is how we’re going to do this and this is the business plan.” It was very organic, and it still is today. Of course, along the way, we react to whatever has to do with streaming or pressing vinyl and all those external things that we just have to be responsive to. But the main focus is always on creating the music and getting it out there, that is always the drive. We obviously curated very carefully what we were doing and still do, and we realize the importance of telling a specific story of a composer.
Rail: You are successful also as a film music composer and composer of orchestral music.
Sigurðsson: I studied electric guitar before I studied classical guitar, and I was into electronic music before I got into classical composition, if we can call it that. The important thing for me was to push myself into learning new things because I have not been trained as a composer. My background in notation and writing music comes from studying the classical guitar. My foundation is there. I always liked doing small scores and experimenting with writing for different instruments, just as a way of both expressing an idea and learning more about how to do that. It’s similar to the path I took with the studio. I just throw myself into a project and try to learn as much as I can while doing it, drawing from the knowledge that I have acquired before.
I always wanted to write for orchestras and, when I was about seventeen or eighteen, I planned to study composition. But then the studio work took over along with the production stuff, electronic composition and playing in bands. My jumping-off point was when I created the score for the film Dreamland on which Nico Muhly helped me with the orchestration. Even though it was mostly recorded in smaller sections, much of the original score had an orchestral sound and was, in some places, mixed with electronics. So I was eventually invited by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra to make a version of that music for a full orchestra. Of course, it was quite new to me, so I asked Daníel Bjarnason and Petter Ekman (who was his student at the time) to help me with it. That was one big learning experience for me, and as soon as I had one piece for orchestra which got performed quite widely, I was asked to write a new piece for orchestra. That time I decided to do it by myself. I used whatever I had learned and started to write from the perspective that there is somebody waiting for a piece for orchestra written by me. It was a twelve-minute-long piece for full orchestra and electronics. That is kind of typical for me, I like to throw myself into these situations.
Rail: From your quite unique perspective, what does contemporary classical music embody nowadays?
Sigurðsson: I think there is a lot of exciting stuff happening in contemporary classical music, as there is in any type of music; I think that it is very much alive today! I feel like there is still a lot of room to experiment and opportunities to have a wider audience for that music than there ever was. I mean contemporary classical music has been a great partner for films, for example. It has exposed a lot of people who perhaps do not really go to the concert halls or attend experimental concerts to that sound world; they have heard Ligeti more times than they can count. It seeps into the common consciousness and that musical language is not alien to most people anymore. Of course, the institutions are always a little bit behind, it takes them a while, they are rarely the ones that push new stuff. There is always that problem of the new music program being somehow put in the corner. But I think that there are a lot of very good programmers, who cleverly put together new music with the old and expose the audience to new things that they appreciate and are curious about.
And I think that one of the great things about a label like Bedroom Community is to be able to have that sort of diversity in the roster. So people find out about one thing and gradually they discover five other things. It’s almost like a gallery, where you go into the main exhibition and then you go into all the different other rooms where you discover things that you would not maybe necessarily have had access to otherwise. I think the festivals, concert promoters, and programmers have that opportunity more than ever.
I realized during the pandemic how music-making is dependent on opportunities. I am constantly questioning if this pandemic situation, this tragedy, should be somehow reflected in music or if the music should be independent and autonomous from that…
Well, I think the purpose of music in a crisis like this is to distract people and to kind of bring light and hope to their lives. Maybe in ten years it will be interesting to see what it does, but it’s kind of tricky to say directly how it will or should affect what we are doing as creative people. I think that one of the great things about art is that it can give you a perspective on things. It can be a mirror of both some individual experience and of the past. For now, I just know personally that I would not necessarily walk into an exhibition about the pandemic unless it was from a very specific and interesting perspective.