Icelandic producer Valgeir Sigurðsson: It's hard to justify just working for myself
Photo by Samantha West
Iceland-bred producer and composer Valgeir Sigurðsson isn't one to push his presence on others. Sure, he was Björk's preferred engineer for years, eventual co-producer, and even worked on "I've Seen it All," her Oscar-nominated duet with Thom Yorke. He also co-produced Feist's 2011 heralded Metals, and engineered/produced Bonnie "Prince" Billy's ethereal, haunting The Letting Go, among a long list of collaborative credits, but one would never guess his resume from his humble attitude. "It's almost like being invisible is a good kind of quality," he says of his production work.
Valgeir is also the founder of the Icelandic record label/collective the Bedroom Community and runs Greenhouse Studios, located on the outskirts of Reykjavik. With artists such as Nico Muhly, Ben Frost, Sam Amidon and Nadia Sirota, the Bedroom Community is at the forefront of the international post-classical scene. Among their diverse, provocative releases are Sigurðsson's own three albums, which create enveloping, highly emotional sonic landscapes with both electronic and organic sounds.
Not long ago, Sigurðsson was named one of NPR's "Top 100 Composers Under 40," and tonight he will bring his most recent work Architecture of Loss to the SPCO Center as part of the continuing Liquid Music Series. Gimme Noise spoke with Valgier from Iceland, where "winters... aren't that bad as most people would imagine, Iceland being called Iceland and all."
Gimme Noise: The Architecture of Loss was written for dance in collaboration with choreographer Stephen Petronio. Can you talk about that process?
Valgeir Sigurðsson: I presented him with a lot of sketches, then we actually met in the room with the dancers and movement, and that kinda opened my eyes to things I hadn't really thought about... It was revealing for me to see that a piece of music would lend itself perfectly to two people or a solo dancer, but not a group. And other pieces would demand ten, twelve people, a full dance troupe. That was something that, as soon as you tried it, it made sense. It was hard to discuss it, at least for me because I don't have the language of it -- I don't speak dance. It was a pretty open process -- a lot of it was structural, lengths and such... Stephen would get to a point where "this is where my choreography stops so can you make the piece like 20 seconds shorter there and can we get to this part quicker" -- those kinda suggestions.
Do you compose at a specific instrument or at the computer?
It tends to be computer and piano, mostly. I play and write ideas into the computer and go from there. In this particular piece I actually went back to the guitar, which I haven't really been writing on much. My original instrument is guitar, but I don't consider myself a guitarist or a piano player. I think I'm able with a limited ability, put my ideas into form and write them out. It's the compositional aspect of it and the production aspect of it, the last thing I consider myself to be is an instrument player.
Do you adjust your approach as producer versus a composer?
It very much depends on the project, which is one of the interesting and exciting things about collaborating. You always want to go in to collaboration hoping that 1 + 1 = 3. You want to learn something, you want to contribute something. I try not to take over the project if I don't have to -- steer the process, maybe -- but I want to learn something from every project I do. I want it to be a conversation. And it very much depends on which angle I'm coming into the project from. What kind of music, what kind of person, if the project is completely open and needs to be discovered from the ground up, or if its something that's already quite structured.
So for example, you co-produced the last Feist record. What was the role you played in that project?
That was a fun project, 'cause that already had the perfect balance, so to speak, and two co-producers who had already been working on the project, and her previous albums and as co-writers and longtime collaborators. I came in as the new guy, someone to stir things up a little bit, the unexpected, the unknown factor. The people that had been there for 12 years needed someone to come from the outside and get a fresh perspective. So I had to find my place in that dynamic. It took me a couple days to figure it out... maybe I don't need to tell this guy what to play, but be the communicator between these old collaborators, maybe so set in their ways or maybe they need to get excited again about what made them collaborators in the first place. When you listen to something through somebody else's ears, it's like a new shiny mirror reflecting what is going on.
You also produced Bonnie "Prince" Billy's breathtaking 2006 release, The Letting Go, an album, to me, much like Architecture of Loss that expresses intense emotion on a palette of stillness - sound that hangs and sits with you.
The interesting thing about an album like The Letting Go, is that it was built around players that were very strong on their own and came from a different perspective... my feeling is often, the less I have to say, the less I have to do... or intervene, the more successful the process is. I reflect on what's going on in the room, and being the practical, the timekeeper, making sure things get done in time. Sometimes it's almost like being there as an audience member, hoping you will get these people to give the best performance they can and you find different tricks to encourage that. People respond very differently to comments, so you figure out how to say the right thing and comment in the constructive sense... I think that when you're in that situation, it's a lot of pressure and expectations and you have to get it right.
Is it a different kind of pressure in pop world than in classical music?
Oh yes, I think they are different. The sense of time is different: what do you need to get done in when. For me it is a fun challenge to bring things from one world into the other. For the classical world it's always about getting what's on the page onto the tape. And in the rock, it's about sort of creating in the studio. I really like bringing super classical sessions into a pop world, and the other way, bringing the experimental process in with classical musicians.
That's one of the arcing philosophies of the Bedroom Community, no?
Yeah... you're right.. .when I started working with Nico [Muhly] and Nadia [Sirota] and we recorded a piece for his album called "Keep in Touch", one of the first things I did was put a microphone really super close to Nadia's instrument and asked her to play all the wrong sounds on it. For someone who was at Juilliard for years and trained to get all these nuances and nasty things out of the instrument, I think it was something of an unexpected challenge, and something I think Nadia has really explored since. Learning to use the quirks of her instrument, the sound of her breath, or the scratchy sound of the bow on the string... the up closeness, something that you train to get rid of, to me it sounds obvious, that's the thing to try... why not?
The very favorable Pitchfork review of Architecture of Loss closed with this request: "eager to hear is something with a title that isn't shared with a ballet or a film -- something more along the lines of Valgeir Sigurðsson, Op. 1." Are you working on Opus 1? Or not interested in such a piece?
[Laughing] - I couldn't agree more! That's definitely the goal I set myself for whatever thing I will next release, which is not quite in process yet, but there are some brain cells kinda hopping around the idea. It needs to happen and I want to do that. I have a lot of other projects that are related to specific things and it's a priority for me to get a record that's just a record together.
Do you think that's the curse of being a great collaborator? That everyone wants to work with you and you don't have time for your own projects?
Possibly. [Laughs] I enjoy collaborations...like I said before, learning from collaborating is something that keeps me going. Being on my own is harder, and it's getting more to the point where I feel more comfortable, and I feel that it's meaningful, but it often seems hard for me to just take the time to justify just working for myself and to just completely indulge in my own... I considered studying composition, but the studio for me, it took over, because I enjoyed those situations and found myself being quite good at them and people started asking me more and more, then it became even more difficult to find the time. But with the Bedroom Community, that's one of the great things about having this collective, everyone is super encouraging and they seem to want to hear my music as much as I want to hear theirs, so that gives me some sense of, sure that should be fine, I should be able to do that.
Valgeir Sigurðsson. $5-$10, 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, March 12 at the Music Room at SPCO Center. Click here.
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