I have been wondering what to call the music on Dissonance, Valgeir Sigurðsson’s intoxicating, reflective fourth album, released ten years after he formed the adventurous music collective Bedroom Community. It seems easy to some extent to give Dissonance and the way it mixes noise and sound a label that makes a certain classifying sense, even for music that is made in direct, elusive opposition to the limiting, spoiling restrictions of classification, music not made to belong anywhere in particular, or music made to belong somewhere in a future not yet determined.
Dissonance is post-minimalist, post-ambient or post-something else, or it is plainly, fantastically electronic, the ever-evolving sound of the ever-evolving machine age. Or it is the kind of classical music someone would produce who grew up a fan of the more glamorously weird, outsider pop, who became obsessed in the recording studio that became his workshop with the processes and principles of the remix, and then discovered a history of instrumental music – music beginning where words end – from Bach and Brahms to Cage and Adams, and then there is no stopping him, from listening and discovering, and transforming and recontextualising it into his own music and the inquisitive, campaigning creation of lucid sonic effect.
I can think of Dissonance as classical music – a striving for vivid and stable but rearranging order in a disordered world – made by a composer who has learnt, because of the varied collaborations he has been involved in and because of his own natural inclinations, to work with acoustic instruments as a romantic conceptualist and scientist and with electronics as a time traveller and poetic collagist.
He loves working out how the electronic and the acoustic should touch each other, and belong together, in the way composers have for years been exploring the relationship between instruments. He’s not afraid to distort, and treat, and take outside itself, the idea, the routines and ‘steady-state’, of classical music. It is a post-digital, post-virtual classical music produced in an era of dizzying infinite choice. But it’s more, much more, than that.
It is definitely multi-dimensional music which exists in a post-chronological musical network where you can find an entire volatile history of electronic music from the late 50s to the right now, and over there, through the mist, through all sorts of mystery, Ligeti’s Atmospheres, Bach’s organ music, Bartok’s Fourth and Fifth String Quartets, Berg’s Lyric Suite, late Beethoven Quartets, Webern’s Bagatelles . . . like all great music it is a portal through which you enter to find other great music and certain, favourite art it is made to sound like – Mark Rothko’s veils of paint, the physical sensation of time, Richard Serra’s epic fragments of industry, the monumental structural insertions into daily life, resounding abstract shapes shaping everyday experience, the innate poetry that lies within an exploration of mundane materials.
Dissonance is named, partly, because of Mozart’s String Quartet No. 19 in C Major, K465, the notorious so called ‘Dissonance’ Quartet completed in January, 1785. Early published scores were returned to the printers, because the harmonies in the introduction seemed to some to be a mistake creating near cacophony, an accidental or absent minded omission of violin notes on Mozart’s part not a deliberate, visionary attempt to produce a particular, radically unnerving spatial effect. And it’s named partly because these are anxious, stressful times, and there is a suggestion, often emerging from investigations of the pleasure and purpose of music through a Mozart prism, that music helps us tolerate cognitive dissonances and aids accumulation of knowledge and cultural evolution.
Valgeir Sigurðsson admits he is feeling certain pressure and emotional turbulence himself – private, local pressures, a growing family and new responsibilities, creative challenges, artistic demands, a general sense of personal and cultural vertigo, a feeling of almost grief caused by a crazed, darkening reality, a disintegrating, hardening culture and all sorts of tensions and excesses. He is feeling both distant from the modern world and profoundly connected to it, severed from it and bound to it; one of those many in-between spaces he roams through as musician, producer, listener and artist on a continuous journey meditating on the fluidity of sound, searching for some kind of magic and illumination and sounds that seem so pure they seem to be singing for the first time.
On Dissonance he is also occupying the spaces between the heightened melancholy and fearful darkness of so-called early music, and the positive, fluid visions of contemporary composed, programmed and designed electronic music, where the most absorbing, thrilling new speculative music has landed the other side of the conventional classical classifications, the fractured other side of all those centuries of time and space. All those centuries, all that life and art, fear and wonder, love and hate, whispers and screams, all those progressions and inventions, arrivals and departures, dreams and disappointments, and how little the human experience has actually changed, as it constantly dissolves into an isolation that Dissonance reflects through a tenuous balance between evocation and abstraction.
Sigurðsson, a master of sound, hears further and deeper than most, and his music forms out of geography, mythology and imaginative memory, out of love and fear. The meaning and drama of the music is contained within the compositions themselves, not where the music might or not belong within a scene, or genre, or location. I still wonder what to call it, for the sake of breaking it out of a place, rather than fixing it in place, to perhaps surprise myself with what I come up with.
The music he makes is, perhaps, spectacular northern music, from up and out there, where all forms of psychic and physical protection becomes completely necessary faced with the weather, and the isolation, and the secretive, disorientating movements of the invisible.
It is uncanny, stark soul music, where the composer emphatically takes control of reality, rejects rules, and finds spiritual freedom. It is fiendish, active folk, where the music becomes the site of an existential encounter with reality. It is a mysterious sort of exotic, electrical and mystical country music, as old as the hills, at the racing edge of the fragile future, remembering things that haven’t happened yet, featuring distressed, charred rhythms, a subdued relentlessness, its own distinct mood and haunting, provocative power.
It is music made to acknowledge, and confront, apocalyptic times. Music holding on to vital inner life despite all the external phenomena clamouring for attention and the complex music realities of our present century. Music that begins, because it must, and then becomes something new waiting to be discovered by those who look to music to help them move through the world from one place to another, and stay safe, and ready for what happens next. It doesn’t matter what it’s called; it matters that it exists.
– Paul Morley
“Long before there were any Valgeir Sigurðsson albums in the world, many records bore the mark of his masterful production and engineering. […] Sigurðsson owns Greenhouse Studios in Reykjavik, which is also his home. He finds it important to share space and connect with the musicians who record there. He serves as producer, mixer, engineer, programmer, and composer for artists who record there. […]
Greenhouse Studios is also the nerve center for artists on the Bedroom Community label that Sigurðsson started in 2006. The Bedroom Community roster is a tiny but eclectic grouping of artists, all of whom Sigurðsson works with intimately. The label has fostered the careers of such critically acclaimed musicians as Nico Muhly, Ben Frost, and Sam Amidon. […]
Though Sigurðsson’s genius as a producer/engineer is staggering, the incredible depth of his vision best emerges in his own music. Whether he is crafting solo albums or writing commissioned pieces for orchestras, his works are all as carefully considered as they are deeply felt.”
“Dissonance embodies, almost by definition, the idea of things falling apart, a feeling of unrest, of issues unresolved, of disagreement. Sigurðsson offers that and more over the course of three symphonic works that are by turns dense and bleak yet magisterial. […]
Sigurðsson applies his engineer credentials […] to the way he composes, and how he meticulously records the Reykjavik Sinfonia. He divides the orchestra up section by section — even instrument by instrument — and records the parts separately; then, like a jigsaw puzzle, puts it all back together in the studio.
With this technique, one could argue Sigurðsson actually conquers the unresolved unrest of dissonance. By harnessing complete control over his soundworld (like Goya did in oils with his disturbing “Black Paintings“), Sigurðsson possesses the power to wield darkness into a singularly mesmerizing art.”
`Feat. Liam Byrne at Sónar Barcelona 2017. Visuals by Yannick Jacquet.
With Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Ben Frost and Jodie Landau