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Reykjavík Festival brings the Bedroom Community collective from Iceland to LA

by Michelle Lanz | The Frame

Composer Nico Muhly co-founded Bedroom Community with Valgeir Sigurðsson and Ben Frost. Courtesy of Bedroomcommunity.net

The Iceland-based record label and artist collective Bedroom Community was founded in 2006 by composers Valgeir Sigurðsson of Iceland, American Nico Muhly and Australian Ben Frost. 

The trio started the label as a way to collaborate, record and distribute their music, but it has since grown to include other artists — including Sam Amidon and Nadia Sirota — who all create music and tour together. 

Bedroom Community artists are set to perform on April 17 as part of the L.A. Philharmonic’s Reykjavik Festival, which celebrates Icelandic music.

The Frame's John Horn caught up with Muhly and Sigurðsson at the Walt Disney Concert Hall ahead of their performance. 

Interview highlights:

On how Icelandic music has evolved since they started the label: 

Nico Muhly: I think it's actually really exploded since 2005 or 2006. Around then there were maybe two or three Icelandic artists that people knew: Sigur Rós and Björk. Then, there were all these other bands that started becoming known outside of Iceland. You then became aware that there was instrumental music coming out of Iceland — really good orchestral music. The same way that when the L.A. Phil moved into Disney Hall, it revolutionized, not just the orchestra, but L.A. The same thing just happened in Iceland a couple of years ago when they built this beautiful concert hall, Harpa. The orchestra, [which] used to play literally in a movie theater, went there and then it changed the availability of contemporary Icelandic instrumental music to the world.

On Iceland's renewed commitment to arts and music after the financial crisis of 2008-2011:

Valgeir Sigurðsson: I think it was always there. What happened before the crash — the bubble that burst in the end — was people were losing sight and that perspective was being distorted. But I think that it was a wakeup call back to reality that we're just a small country. We can just make things with our hands and do things. We just create the things the only way we know how to create them. We did this whole drinking champagne on rooftops, and as long as that lasts, we can enjoy it. 

NM: I heard champagne corks popping last time I was there.

VS: It is starting up a little bit. I think people involved in the arts maybe remember better than people in business. Our memory may be a bit more long-term and we're not necessarily popping champagne now.

NM: I used to work a lot in the Netherlands and they were rolling in money. They really value the arts a lot. There was this big cut a couple of years ago — or a series of cuts — and I noticed that the quality of the compositional output improved by 400 percent. It went from being, Do whatever you want and write this impractical piece for 300 trombones, to, We have to make it with our hands

On when they first met:

VS: We met in New York in 2004.

NM: At that time, I was working for Phillip Glass, the composer, and he owned this recording studio in SoHo. You were there working with Björk. And basically the room I was working in was a MIDI production room. I wasn't really using it all the time and so they took over my room and we just met in the hallway. 

On the genesis of Bedroom Community:

NM: Part of the initial conversations were that I never thought about recording my music. It never occurred to me. I went to Juilliard and nobody ever talked about it. No one ever said, Here's how classical music can exist in a recorded way. When people asked me how my music [sounded], I'd either hand them a score or these unbelievably terrible cassette tapes of these terribly recorded things. I made a couple of things that were experiments in combining live music — acoustic instruments and prerecorded electronics. I gave [Valgeir] one of them and [his] comment was, The music is amazing, but what you need to do is get in a plane the day after tomorrow and come to Iceland and record this like an adult

VS: By contrast, the way I think about my music was, I don't know what to do with this in a live context, but I know how to record stuff. I was terrified to think about performance. 

On Bedroom Community's performance at the L.A. Phil's Reykjavík Festival:

VS: The thing that we are presenting here is called the Whale Watching Tour. This is a concept that we've been touring with. The idea is to bring together the people on the label in a live context, because we all collaborated on the recordings. What we did was to form a band that rotates the frontman. The thing with the Whale Watching Tour is a surprise every time because it's never the same. 

On the thread between the artists in Bedroom Community:

NM: The fact that we all like each other's music is the continuity. But I think also because the model — the physical space in which this happens — is a home. A live/work studio. That itself gives it a connection that most of this work was made in the same room. 

On the void they wanted their label to fill:

VS: For my music and for Ben's and Nico's, when I was getting to know them and their music, I thought, I really want to help them get this music out there. And I need my music to get out there too. I don't know a label that will really do all of these things together. I have this DIY thing in me that's, Let's just do it then. Let's find out what it takes. The next was six months [of] figuring out distribution, manufacturing and artwork. 

On their creative process for writing music:

VS: Everything I do, I do really slowly. Everything Nico does, he does really fast.

NM: That's a distinction that is less about how it sounds or what it feels like, but more about process, if that makes sense. For me, work-for-hire doesn't feel like I'm being charged with doing something. It's usually that I get asked to write something for which I already have a seed in my head, or it's been something I've always wanted to write. Because I come up from the classical tradition, we have in our heads like, string quartet — that's something that you should write at some point. Or wind octet — there are models. So for me, work-for-hire is like a film score, whereas a commissioned thing is always like answering a question that I didn't know I'd asked. 

On scoring for film:

NM: Writing a film score is one of the places where music feels so powerful — I don't want to say emotionally powerful, but literally, with a single harp note, you can change the whole effect of the movie. One of the craziest things is when you get sent a film to score, if you turn off the music, it's unwatchable. Sometimes what I do is, I just sit at my piano and play middle C. It changes it immediately. The minute you put a note on a scene, it's totally radically different. If you have a helicopter flying over a beautiful Icelandic landscape, there are about 80 ways to interpret that. You can do "The Secret of Nimh" theme song or you can do folk music or the crazy cowboy music at the end of "Grizzly Man." The best example of this is of course "Koyaanisqatsi," where you're looking at this unbelievable landscape and Phillip [Glass] is like, Let me tell you what this is about — this is Hopi apocalypse.

On how music and language intersect:

NM: It works in a slightly more granular way. Most of my music is, on some level, about language, inasmuch as music can be about anything. In a lot of cases, the impetus or the starting point will be wordplay. It'll be two words juxtaposed. Or it's about learning languages or it's about translation. So I think about language as much as I think about music. I'm actively obsessed and read linguistics books. So for me, it's all super-connected. That being said, there are a lot of things that I want to talk about in a more meta way, and I think writing an essay about it is much more productive. In terms of communicative strategy, the two are the same, but, for me specifically, my music is obliquely communicative. I'm not aiming for one climax like, This is the moral of the story.

On music and its ability to affect audience members differently: 

VS: I think that's one of the great things about the Whale Watching Tours that we have done. There's a range of experiences, and people walk away from it with very different ideas. We meet people after and everyone has a different story and process that then continues and engages in ways in a different way.

NM: It's actually a crazy idea for a show: take five or six people whose music is cosmetically quite different and make a show out of it. What makes it work is that each music has its own emotional possibilities. And juxtaposition — putting together the set list — is one of the scariest things. You have to create a journey without it feeling like a journey. It's not like we move from small-to-loud or sad-to-happy. It's a slightly different, more circular, labyrinthine process.

The community of Icelandic musicians:

VS: Most people know each other. There are not a lot of people who specialize in just one thing. That, I think, contributes to what we do in terms of collaborating and experimenting with different formats and ideas that you maybe don't get a chance to do when you're in a larger community, where you call the specialist in this particular thing. We like to mix our things up a little bit. The label is not one — you wouldn't belong in one section of the record store. I think that's very natural for Iceland to mix things together like that. 

NM: The first time I went to Iceland I was like, Oh, wait, this is actually paradise without them making a big deal about it. They were just like, Obviously I'm in this thrash metal band, but also am a really good oboist. It's totally strange. 

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