Valgeir Sigurdsson is probably best known for his collaborations with Björk, as well as his film scores for Dancer in the Dark, Being John Malkovich, and Drawing Restraint 9. He also released a solo album in 2007, Ekvílibríum.
But the Icelandic producer, engineer, and composer’s latest project, Dreamland [Bedroom Community], may have the most impact of everything he’s done to date. Dreamland, released on February 22, is a soundtrack to the documentary of the same name. The film is an eye-opening account of global politicians’ exploitation of Iceland’s natural resources. More specifically, it's an exposé of Iceland’s aluminum smelting initiative, resulting in the destruction of the country's landscapes and wildlife.
Sigurdsson enlisted the help of composers Nico Muhly and Daníel Bjarnason, producer/artist Ben Frost, American folksinger Sam Amidon, and an orchestra to sonically illustrate the film. Here, Sigurdsson talks about producing the soundtrack in Reykjavík’s Greenhouse Studios (http://www.greenhouse.is).
Is your process of writing and recording a soundtrack very different from creating a regular album?
Yes, I find it to be a somewhat different thing, although the recording itself is not all that different. There is always a tight deadline and you have to consider the directors and film people’s opinion and hopefully marry it with your own. The film dictates the music’s pacing and mood a lot of the time, so you are already working with a set of parameters. It’s not like I am a seasoned film composer, but I’ve done a fair bit of scoring to picture before, as well as working on other people’s film scores. What I try to come up with first is a few themes and a decision on the palette of sounds that I will be using, which is not entirely different to making an album. But everything happens faster, and there is a lot of pressure in filmmaking. I like working under pressure and looming deadlines.
What kinds of sounds and ideas came to mind when you first started, and did you set any limitations on the process?
There is music in about two thirds of the movie, and it’s already quite dialogue-heavy as well. One of the aspects of this film that made it particularly good to write music for is that there are some long sequences and wide shots where you are taking in all the information from the narrator and the interviews, so the story is illustrated only through music and pictures. I wanted the music to match and underline these images, as well as help the directors to tell the story. There is sadness, danger, tension, relief, beauty. I had no real dogma or limitations other than what the time and the budget would allow, and I basically managed to do everything I set out to do. I wanted the music to resonate with the pictures, and many of the images called upon strings and brass, and I wanted the electronics to represent some sort of danger or a twisted reality.
Could you pick a track on Dreamland and explain the step-by-step process of creating it, from writing to recording to mixing?
“Grylukvæöi” is an old Icelandic song that the directors suggested we use, so I reworked this song with Sam Amidon, Ben Frost, and Nico Muhly, and it became one of the themes in the film, almost a signature for the evil forces. As we decided to use that old folk song, it made a lot of sense to me to bring Sam into it, and I thought it would be an exciting challenge to get him to sing in Icelandic, a language he does not speak or understand.
Reworking folk songs is Sam’s thing and it was interesting for me to approach it from another end; rather than him coming up with an old American song—like we’ve done for his records—I presented this Icelandic song to him, and he reacted to my ideas on that. So he and I put down the first sketches, and I collected a lot of material from his banjo and singing, which I then gave to Ben who came up with the amazing programmed beat and processed Sam’s voice and put the song into a whole new perspective. I then asked Nico to contribute, and he put down layers of piano-drones and gave me a bunch of string material to work with. It was such a fun process. It was also great that our newest label mate on Bedroom Community, Daníel Bjarnason, had made a piano preparation that we were recording on a separate occasion for one of his own pieces. I had sampled that piano and I got my assistant to build me a set of instruments in [Native Instruments] Kontakt, with velocity layers and triggers, and I used that throughout the score.
How did your collaborations with Muhly, Daníel Bjarnason, Ben Frost, and Sam Amidon play out in the studio? What kinds of instructions did you give them, and how did you work together?
Nico and I work together all the time on a variety of projects and have done for years now, but it still amazes me how fast it is. For Dreamland, our collaboration was on the orchestration part, anything from me giving him a near-finished arrangement that he wrote out and conducted, to me asking him to write an entire arrangement from scratch. For “Past Tundra,” I had created the whole piece except that I left an open space where I knew I wanted Nico to write a part for the solo viola. We know each other’s needs so well by now that I only had to give him a couple of hints for what I was looking for and he hit it spot on without a need for any back and forth, and we recorded it with Nadia Sirota in one take. That kind of speed and fluidity is something you can only achieve with people you work with a lot and know very well. For instance, while we were recording the strings and the brass, he would suggest materials in addition to what was written and just get the players to give me passages of stuff that I later could place in the music.
With Ben, I’d ask him for advice, thoughts, feedback, and if there was anything he’d like to play around with or add. Similarly with Sam, Daníel, and everyone in our collective, it’s just amazing to be able to draw from such a wide pool of musical abilities and opinions. Everyone is very generous when it comes to collaboration.
Did you try any recording experiments on the album?
I recorded and mixed the entire album at my studio in Iceland, Greenhouse Studios, and everything was done in 5.1 Surround, until I did the album mixes, when of course I had to mix in stereo. The great thing about recording at your own place is that you are continuously experimenting with different settings, mic placements, room treatments and the gear that you have, so these experiments become a part of your vocabulary. In film work, this is particularly useful where things need to happen quite fast very often.
But I did take a good [amount of] time in the writing process to play around with some new things, and one of them was a percussion instrument made out of a gas container that was built by this kid in Iceland as an art-school project. It was just sitting there in the corner of the live room one day and I borrowed it. He was very proud when he heard it in the film’s closing sequence.?
What are five pieces of gear you couldn’t live without?
I try to convince myself that no piece of gear is indispensable, but here are five things that play a big part in everything I record:?
SSL AWS 900 mixing desk
Apple computer running Pro Tools|HD, Native Instruments Kontakt, and Ableton Live?
Neve 1073 and 1084 preamps and EQs
Teletronix LA-2A compressors?
Brüel & Kjær (DPA) 4006 microphone?
Hear music from Dreamland at http://www.valgeir.net