Essay by Paul Morley
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
History freely dilates and collapses on Valgeir Sigurðsson’s Dissonance, his first solo release since 2012. Its three large-scale works are haunted by the old Western tradition, infused with the ethereal workings of electronics and sound manipulation.Dissonance treads elegantly along a fine line between traditional symphonic organicism and the fissures of the faltering structures of reality. It takes forward Sigurðsson’s typically expansive, panoramic writing, and elevates it to a perpetual construction and deconstruction of time and space.
These are hardly his first experiments with the archaic technology of classical instruments, but here the distance between past and present is precisely what the music itself is designed to explore, and to distort.
Recorded and produced between September 2015 and November 2016 at Greenhouse Studios, Dissonance is disarmingly human, reflecting the most extreme four years of Sigurðsson’s life full of ecstatic joy and deep sorrow. Dissonance is a personal and collective musical treatise to explore and question a world that is collapsing under its internal dissonances.
The recording process on Dissonance incorporates an orchestral recording technique that Sigurðsson has been developing for some years now, where he breaks up the orchestra and records each of its sections separately. Layer after layer he records performances by collaborators Liam Byrne and Reykjavík Sinfonia. A handful of string players and just one of each of the orchestra’s instruments are then multiplied to create an imaginary orchestra. This method enables Sigurðsson’s complete control over all the details and nuances, and the trade-off for the time-consuming process is a truly unique sounding ensemble that is at the composer’s disposal for further electronic manipulation. This also results in an elastic palette of sound for the live performance version of Dissonance which Sigurðsson will take to the stage in 2017, alongside Liam Byrne (on strings) and visuals created by the Antivj collective.
released April 21, 2017
Written by Valgeir Sigurðsson
Dissonance arranged by Liam Byrne and Valgeir Sigurðsson (after W.A. Mozart)
Additional production and electronics on * by Paul Corley
Liam Byrne played the manifold Viola da Gamba on Dissonance
Electronics by Valgeir Sigurðsson
No Nights Dark Enough & Eighteen Hundred & Seventy-five Performed by Reykjavík Sinfonia:
Flute, Piccalo Flute: Melkorka Ólafsdóttir
Oboe: Daði Kolbeinsson
Clarinet & Bass Clarinet: Rúnar Óskarsson
Bassoon: Michael Kaularts
Trumpet: Guðmundur Hafsteinsson
French Horn: Stefán Jón Bernharðsson
Trombone: Sigurður Þorbergsson
Tuba: Ron Nimrod
1st violin: Ari Þór Vilhjálmsson
2nd violin: Pálína Árnadóttir
Viola: Þórunn Ósk Marínósdóttir
Cello: Sigurður Bjarki Gunnarsson
Contrabass: Borgar Magnason
Harp: Katie Buckley
Percussion: Frank Aarnik
Piano: Tinna Þorsteinsdóttir
Produced, Mixed & Mastered by Valgeir Sigurðsson
Engineered by Paul Evans and Valgeir Sigurðsson
Edited by Paul Evans
Executed at Greenhouse Studios, Reykjavík
Photography: Brendan Canty & Colm O’ Herlihy,
Graphic design by Francis Redman
No Nights Dark Enough commissioned by Spitalfields Festival, London. First performance by City of London Sinfonia & Hugh Brunt 2014
This recording contains a portion of the work.
Eighteen Hundred & Seventy-five commissioned by Winnipeg New Music Festival. First performance given by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra & Alexander Mickelthwate 2013
The all hearing advisory board; Paul Corley, Liam Byrne, Paul Evans, Ben Frost, Nico Muhly.
Thank you, Bedroom Community & Greenhouse teams, & every single intern, past and present.
Robin Rimbaud, everyone at Spitalfields Festival, everyone at New Music Festival Winnipeg,
Published by Faber Music Publishing Ltd.
This is a Bedroom Community record.
℗&© 2017 Bedroom Community