Sunday, February 22, 2015

Hallvardur Asgeirsson 13 questions

Hallvarður Ásgeirsson (Icelandic, born in 1976) is a composer writing instrumental classical composition and electro acoustic music. He is also a performing electric guitarist employing interactive sound processing. Asgeirsson’s work falls into a few categories – avant modern classical composition, electro acoustic music where found sounds are mixed with ambient musical elements, and electronic guitar music where the guitar is used as as a starting point for electronic processing and sound shaping.

Hallvarður studied classical guitar from a young age and electric guitar at the Music Unions School of Music, Reykjavík. He studied electronic music at Kópavogur Music School Electronic Lab 2000-2001 og composition at the composition/new media department at the Icelandic Art Academy 2002-2006. He studied composition at Brooklyn College 2007-2009 where he finished an M.Mus degree and studied with Douglas Cohen, Tania Leon and Jason Eckhart.

Hallvardur has played in many bands such as Storsveit Nix Noltes, Líkn and The Coma Cluster. His works have been performed at International Electroacoustic Music Festival at Brooklyn College, and also his works for robotic instruments and guitar performed at LEMUR (League of Musical Urban Robots) in New York. His composition for the play MIKA was performed at the United Nations in november 2008. Hallvarður won the composition competition New composers at the festival Við Djúpið. The work Heiðskírt was rehearsed by the Nordic Wind Quintet and performed at the music hall Hamrar in Ísafjörður 27.6.2010.

Hallvarður has written a lot for the Halldorophone created by Halldór Úlfarsson. The work Seasons in black (2003) and the work Miniature #5 (2011) which was written for piano and dorophone. The work Serial Killer (2004) was written for a string orchestra and two guitars. The work Paradox XII (2008) was written for violin when the composer was studying at Brooklyn College. It uses “extended technique” for violin.

Hommage to Gerhard Richter's painting 'Grey'

What do you remember about your first guitar?

I played a vintage SG at first, which I have a picture of. It was sold but after that I played a Morris stratocaster for a while. But then my dad bought a Yamaha SG which I played for many years. Unfortunantly it was stolen from an attic room I was living. Around the same time we bought a Gibson Howard Roberts from the 80's which I still play along with a Gibson SG from 2007.

Which was the first and the last record you bought with your own money?

I remember buying buying an album by the Sugarcubes, Life's Too Good. I bought it in Sweden so the cover had a different colour then in Iceland. The last one I bought was a CD with a band called Drangar, which are an Icelandic trio. They're groovy.

What do you want from music?

I guess I wanted to become someone else, or have a different kind of life. Having a means to express yourself is also life changing in itself.

Which work of your own are you most surprised by, and why?

I played in this band called Storsveit Nix Noltes for a few years, we were playing balkan music in our own way, and people would come and dance for hours. That was surprising for me, I enjoyed the communal atmosphere that music brings.

What's the relevance of technique in music, in your opinion?

It's definitely relevant. Sometimes we can become too obsessed by it, so the music becomes only technique. But after awhile it becomes part of us. We keep the best part from each phase we go through.

What is your relationship with the musical traditions of your country?

I've been studying the 'Rímur', which are an Icelandic tradition of folk song. It's basically just one voice, because they didn't have many instruments, only the Langspil and the Icelandic fiddle. It has a sort of midway position between melody and speech. The vocal range is only about a raised 4th, because it's intended for 3 or 4 hours of recital. Some of them are microtonal and have a variable pitch. There's a lot of improvisation.

But beside that I think the tradition that has been created here in the last decades has had a pretty vital, definitive effect on me. People like Jón Leifs and Jórunn Viðar paved the way. There's people like Magnús Blöndal Jóhannesson and Atli Heimir Sveinsson who brought the avant-garde to Iceland. We've come a long way. Even in the last 20 years Iceland has changed tremendously.

With the exception of Rímur and psalms, the musical tradition was created from 1900 onwards.

What’s the difference between a good player and a bad one?

For me it's when people become too good. Like if I go to a concert and the playing is too perfect technically. Or if the sound of a record is too clean. I prefer to go to a punk rock concert and see people getting into it. I like things to have an edge. I think mistakes can be the most important. For me I prefer things to be kind of dirty. That said I also enjoy listening to a great classical performance. But I prefer listening to people who are really into it playing badly then to listening to a perfect performance with no feeling. I prefer mistakes with the right feeling to no mistakes with no feeling.

What are the challenges and benefits of today's digital music scene?

I think for listeners it's definitely a great time, because you can listen to so much more music then before. For musicians it should be a great time too because you can get your music out there much more easily. I don't really see that many downsides to it personally. But of course in my kind of music the focus isn't on record sales anyway.

Define the musical space you're still looking for.

It's a very open space. There's room for black metal and darkness there. But there's also the ethereal side to it. I'm into experimental music, which is the environment to which I belong, but I also like traditional music. I don't want to pick sides. I have a strange relationship with improvisation. I like to improvise but I also like to process the improvisation into something that is more defined. I'm into spectral music but I'm also into 'spiritual' classical music.

How would you define composition?

I don't like to define it too much. I think of it as a process of groping in the dark. I'm always searching. A dialogue can also be very helpful. I'm working with a choreographer which helps. Modern choreography is a very open form, and is intuitive and emotional which I connect with.

What special or extrange techniques do you use?

I'm building an instrument called the Vardiphone with my friend Halldór Úlfarsson. It's a cheap guitar I bought in Brooklyn which is a Fender Coronado clone. We're turning it into a feedback instrument. It had a transducer also but it broke. Now we've built a speaker into it. My friend Þráinn found out you can touch the wood and send the feedback to different nodes in the body.

What's your best musical experience?

I've had a lot of experiences. I think playing loud balkan music and rock music scores high on the list.
All the small experimental concerts I've taken part in, which mean a lot personally. I enjoyed my final concert at Listahaskolinn, were I wrote for a a chamber orchestra. I also enjoy free improvisation, but it's kind of more masochistic in a way because it's very hit and miss. I guess that's part of the charm.

What’s your craziest project about?

I have this ongoing project with choreographer Saga Sigurðardóttir, which is about guitar cabinets and movement. I'm playing through the cabinets and she's moving them around dancing. At one point we had 5 dancers in the project and 5 cabinets. The idea is to move sound through space, and see how the two elements interact.

Hallvardur Asgeirsson (guit, piano, programming, vocals), Pjotr Verstappen (drums, Percussion), Siffvilnius (bass, guitar, synthesizers), Yukiko Shimizu (vocals)

Can you describe a sound experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a musician?

I started out playing with my dad, we would jam together. Then I played with my friends in childrens school. I think having these instruments everywhere around the house helped a lot. My dad used to put a guitar behind every door. I think at first I just listened to his records.

I think the Yamaha keyboards with the notation system where you could slide in different songs and then the keys would light up with the song were also pretty helpful.

What do you recall about your playing learning process?

I think it's some of the best time I've had, when I was studying guitar. Although I was a total nerd of course. Just sitting in your room practicing few hours a day can be very liberating. First I studied classical guitar for two years, but I wanted to be able to change the pieces while performing. The teacher was called Guðmundur Hallvarðsson, strangely his father shared my name. This name is not very common, I think we're just around 14 in Iceland (23 on records). He kindly advised me to apply to The Musicians Union Music School. I studied there for many years. I think the harmony of jazz had a strong effect on me. I studied with Hilmar Jensson there. A lot of Hilmar's students later went into composition. I also studied with Stefán Hjörleifsson and Jón Páll Bjarnason, which is a legendary bebop player.

It was also before all the computers and internet took over. I just had a metronome and a four track. I always recorded a lot so I still have boxes of four track cassettes I still haven't gone through.

Dream about your perfect group

I think it would include Fenriz from Darkthrone, Keiji Haino, Trent Reznor, Dylan Carlson and Alan Sparhawk. Hm, sounds like a guitar orchestra supergroup. We could be called Armageddon Guitar Orchestra.

Alternatively I'd like to try to form a band with my friend Kristján Reynir on drums and a good bass player. We're looking for someone to groove with.

I also have an ensemble which consists of string players, it's a lot of fun to work with them.

What is your relationship with other disciplines such as painting, literature, dance, theater ...?

I wrote one book of poetry which came out in 2003. Now I've been working with a choreographer for the past 3 years. I've written a score for a movie by my friend Grímur Hákonarson. We made two documentaries together a few years ago where I starred as myself (an exaggerrated version). In the first movie I was playing in a country dance band. The band was going very bad, it's a kind of mockumentary. The later one was about street performers in Europe, we travelled around and interviewed a lot of street musicians and finally found Leo Gillespie, king of the buskers. I enjoy the most collaborating with other disciplines.

I've played in a few theater productions as well.

Concept and direction: Saga Sigurðardótti, Music: Hallvarður Ásgeirsson and Good Moon Deer (Guðmundur Ingi Úlfarsson & Ívar Pétur Kjartansson), Set design and costumes: Guðný Hrund Sigurðardóttir

Where are your roots? What are your secret influences?

I think that would be in existentialism and surrealism. For example the writing of Sjón and Haruki Murakami. I also enjoy the art of Edward Munch and Egon Schiele very much. Last year I visited the Orangerie in Paris where Monet's waterlilies are on display. I found it very inspiring and meditative.

What would you enjoy most in an art work?

I enjoy looking at the human condition from different perspective.

If you could, what would you say to yourself 30 years ago, about your musical career?

I would say just enjoy what there is without trying to control it too much.

What quality do you most empatize with in an artist?

I think for me visceral expression and going from gut feeling.

Which living or dead artist would you like to collaborate with?

John Frusciante, Björk, Efrim Menuck, Trent Reznor, Matt Elliott, Keiji Haino just to name a few that I can think of.

What is some valuable advice that someone has given to you in the past?

Well my teacher used to tell me that the reason for being a musician is because we enjoy it. All the rest is just bonus. Its 90% hard work and 10% fun.

Þórdís Claesse, Hallvarður Ásgeirsson, Elvar Sævarsson

What instruments and tools do you use?

I'm using my guitars as well as a lot of analog effects pedals. I'm especially fond of delays. I can hardly get by without a volume pedal. My basic line up is comp-dist-volume-phaser-delay. I have a few analog and digital delays. Now I tend to use the MXR carbon copy and the Pigtronix Echolution the most. I also use Ableton Live and Max4Live, which I'm teaching. I've been using it as an effect board and a looper for guitar performance.

I also use keyboards. I have a Juno-1 which has some great sounds. I also enjoy recording my friends and borrowing the sounds of their instruments.

Skyboxx is a project featuring music by Hallvardur Asgeirsson, Glenn Mohre and Jon Indridason. Video by Anne Herzog

What do you like the most about being a musician?

I enjoy the process of composition. Especially working with other people and then being able to make something out of that process.

What projects are you working on now and what does the future hold?

I'm currently premiering music to a new dance piece on friday. It's called Blýkufl, it's by Saga Sigurðardóttir. It's an electronic music piece with singing from the dancers, based on Sufi philosophy. There's a choir piece which I'm hoping to work on with a choir from the south of Iceland in the summer. We've got this vision of releasing all the dance pieces we've done on Cd's. I hope to get that together in the near future. Next I'm scoring a film called Scanners, by Richard Ramchurn. I'm visiting Scotland for the first time to work on it, so I'm quite excited.


I've been working with my ensemble, we put out a CD on Paradigms Recordings last year, which was performed live in Skálholt. I'm in a band called Sad Owl Brothers, we're working on our first LP. It's a drill'n'bass ambient country band. I'm in a project called Fatherz'n'Sonz, we took part in the Eurovision song contest in Iceland in 2012. I have a friend called Jóhann Gunnarsson, he's a bass player. We like to improvise soundscapes.The Vardiphone is in development, I'm going to see how that developes over the next few projects. I've been teaching in Sauðárkrókur in the north of Iceland this winter, so that keeps me quite occupied, but it's also like a residency in a way.