Part 1

Name: Una Sveinbjarnardóttir
Nationality: Icelandic
Occupation: Composer, violinist
Current Release: South of the Circle with the Siggi String Quartet on Sono Luminus
Recommendations: Gerhard Richter: Annunciation after Titian, 1973 (343-1)

If you enjoyed this interview with Una Sveinbjarnardóttir and would like to find out more about her and her work, the website of the Siggi String Quartet is a good place to start.

When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences?

I started composing “for my drawer” while studying in Berlin. Before that, I did write a pop song in high schooI and the occasional cadenza. I also wrote poems “for the drawer,” most of which are still in the drawer. But the music writing got more serious after 2005 and I started writing capriccios for solo violin.

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?

It was probably the urge to take part earlier in the creative phase that drove me towards composing. As a performer one gets the piece of music after drastic decisions have been made. It was fascinating to me to be involved in the creative process from the very beginning. The transition has taken time. I am very much influenced by early music and also by poetry and the sound of words in general. The time playing with the Ensemble Modern and playing with Björk has had great influence. Improvisation has always been a part of my life as a violinist and I enjoy the tension between the horizontal melodic and the vertical and harmonic. "Opacity" might be a good example of that direction.

What were some of the most important creative challenges when starting out as a composer and how have they changed over time?

Having composed “for the drawer” for a long time, my biggest challenge was to come forward and show my work to people. My good friends and mentors Atli Heimir Sveinsson and Jóhann Jóhannsson gave me the courage to proceed and I am eternally grateful for their advice, criticism and sense of humour. One of my first exercises was to simplify everything A LOT! After having studied classical violin all these years, I had to get away from the small print and feel things in a larger context too. At the beginning, it felt really scary but now the structure is more present in my work from the early stages.

Tell us about your studio/work space, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?

I do most of my work in the practising studio, but I do have a favourite place on earth to compose, a beautiful church in the village of Flateyri in the Northwest of Iceland. It is a magical place. I compose in intense periods, and I tend to cook food in between to relax, mostly veggie soups and all kinds of weird Icelandic lamb dishes. I am still struggling with the technology ...

Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?

A normal day starts with strong black coffee and violin playing. Family life and music sometimes blend in perfectly, but it can be a real challenge with two creative kids and a strict schedule. I get good help from the family and we have amazing babysitters. Also a dash of carelessness in terms of household and norms has served me well.

There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?

Perhaps freedom. To feel free makes me enthusiastic. Not necessarily rested - I have experienced great working phases in an exhausted state.

Could you take me through the process of composing on the basis of one of your pieces that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art? 

My piece "El Desnudo" is one of my favourites. It came to me very fast after reading Pablo Neruda’s poem. I borrowed one of his books from my father and I started writing the piece the same day, and it was ready a week later.

How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at? 

Right now I am playing around with Ableton when I find the time. Technology is great and unfortunately too much of a mystery to me. But it is enjoyable to be in a learning phase, that also goes for Sibelius. I am constantly learning. One thing is certain, I do not excel at technology.

Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives, including the artists performing your work?

Collaborations are great and it does influence the creative process to know who is playing/singing the piece. It has been amazing with the Siggi String Quartet, and they have had a huge impact on the outcome of "Opacity". The comments and the expertise of musicians, instrumentalists and singers is very valuable in the process.

How is writing the music and having it performed live connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?

It is always a thrill to hear a live performance. For me the relationship between improvisation and composition has to be really clear. As a performer, I know how hard it is to switch gears from a detailed score into free improvisation and back, and the structure always has to be there, for the best results and the “freedom” of the performer.

Time is a variable only seldomly discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?

Timings are important, in music and in life. But each work has its own time and length. In my experience the piece takes the time it needs. And some pieces take a long time. The same goes for repetitions. There is an Icelandic saying about the good verse that you cannot sing often enough. There is something to it.

How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?

In the beginning of the process I have an idea about the sound and how it blends. As the work develops the sound may change but in most cases it is a given element to work with.

Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?

Sound can connect to all senses, I find. It can bring about amazing feelings mentally and physically. It is truly a privilege to be a musician, thinking of it.

Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?

I have a concept for each work I do, based on a thought or a certain theme or place, even a poem or a story. My approach and my responsibility is to let these ideas flow in the right direction. Sometimes it comes easily and sometimes not. As a performer I had great fun playing the piece "Panama Papers" written by the violist of the Siggi String Quartet, Þórunn Ósk Marinósdóttir, a political satire inspired by the fall of the Icelandic out-of-proportion big banks and the vast collection of tax free money of Icelandic neo-rich people piling up in Panama.

It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?

In an optimal world everyone would be able to learn to play an instrument. But we are living exciting times. The categorization of music is fading luckily, the idea of some music being nobler than the other is getting outdated and the soloist-übermensch is also a figure of yesterday. People are welcoming their feelings, the young generation is very much in contact with themselves and the environment. It allows them a kind of introvert honesty towards themselves and the world older generations could only dream of.