Hróðmar Ingi Sigurbjörnsson

– ITM-7-13 Íslensk tónverkamiðstöð 2000


Sverrir Guðjónsson began his singing career as a child. He has always had strong connections with the theatre, and has been involved in various genres of music. As a countertenor he studied and worked in London in 1988-91. In addition to performing historic music, Sverrir has premiered many new compositions especially composed for his vocal range. “Stokkseyri” is one of them. Among CDs recorded by Sverrir is “Epitaph” a collection of Icelandic folk songs with a medieval ambience, which was issued and distributed world-wide by the respected French company Opus 111 in the summer of 1999. Critics of the prestigious “Gramophone” magazine nominated “Epitaph” one of the most interesting CDs of 1999. Sverrir also sings with the “a capella” vocal group Voces Thules, which is at present recording the extensive “Thorlakstidir” (“Officium of St. Thorlakur”), preserved in a manuscript from ca. 1400, which will fill four CDs.

ITM-7-13 Iceland Music Information Centre 2000

The Music:

Septet was written in 1998, and premiered in June 1999 by CAPUT. In his review on the concert, Gunnsteinn Ólafsson, music critic of the daily Morgunblaðið, refers to the clearly audible influence of gypsy and Yiddish music, and good old Bartók. Hróðmar says that these similarities are pure coincidence; he was not consciously working with any musical tradition or trend in this work. “I simply invented my own keys, to which I maintained throughout the septet. And there were those chromatic scales which one often hears in Bartók and eastern European music. Scales like that permit such varied and splendid chords, which I thoroughly enjoy!”

Stokkseyri was Hróðmar’s first tonal work, and he says that some of the audience were rather taken aback by all that overwhelming harmony. “I met someone after the première who said, ” what a romantic piece it is.” And I could see he thought it was a bit much. I don’t know, Stokkseyri was sparked off by my wanting to do something beautiful and enjoyable, that’s the way I think music should be. I suppose I’m changing a bit, becoming more insouciant. In the past, you see, I would sit down to try to write the immortal musical work, which would be 100% solid, and could be analysed and studied without revealing any imperfections. Now I am far more confident about mixing all sorts of things together, any old style. This is naturally a strong tendency in the present day – one tends to hear this stylistic eclecticism in eastern European composers: Arvo Pärt, Sofiu Gubaidulina, Alfred Schnittke. The only necessity is that I enjoy working with music. I want it to be beautiful, dramatic and full of contrasts. You see, I think music includes everything, should include everything. One writes something ugly, so that what follows will be even more beautiful. That’s how one constructs music. Maybe that’s why I’ve taken the path I have. I like arranging for choirs, and writing in a light style. These are things I felt I needed to do. One does these things, works on them, finds new aspects of them, then one has done something new and can carry on, with the benefit of experience.”

The composer: Interview with Hróðmar Ingi Sigurbjörnsson

The music on this CD could hardly be labelled especially difficult or inaccessible – harmony and romanticism make their mark on both Stokkseyri and Septet by Hróðmar Ingi Sigurbjörnsson (b. 1958). He says himself that he is a conservative composer, who finds “the sound of a super string orchestra the most beautiful thing in the world.” Not that Stokkseyri and Septet are typical of Hróðmar’s oeuvre, which includes the dissonant Symphony of Songs (Ljóðasinfóníu) that was nominated for the Nordic Council Music prize in 1991, serialist composition and various other pieces that developed from the avant-garde trends of the 1960s and 70s – and he found it quite difficult to take the step of composing a tonal work like Stokkseyri.

Hróðmar’s music career began in pop. He joined a band, Melchior, at the age of 15, “when the other guitarist in the group settled in Denmark.” The band included three young students at the Reykjavík High School: Hilmar Oddsson, Karl Roth Karlsson and Arnþór Jónsson. It made several records, the first under the impressive title Björgúlfur-Benóný-Grímúlfur-Melkjör-Emanúel-Egilsson-Leir-Fæt-Bíleigandi-Bergrisi-Hermaníus-Þengill-Trefill. The music was a sort of non-electrified pop/rock melange with touch of the classical. Hróðmar says that he found himself thinking of those times as he composed the works heard here. As if he had come full circle, and was doing similar things again. And he says he does not really believe that people change much during their creative career. “One is always writing the same music. One learns something new, and goes through various things, but one is always in search of the same feeling – in some way. It’s just the emphasis that changes.”

After playing for two years with Melchior, Hróðmar started formal music studies, studying classical guitar at the Sigursveinn College of Music. At the age of 18 he decided he needed to know more about composing – he felt he had “backed himself into a corner in composing,” as he puts it. After this he attended the newly founded Department of Theory and Composition, where he studied with Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson and Atli Heimir Sveinsson. He found himself in a group of composition students that included Haukur Tómasson (1960), Guðni Franzson (1961), Kjartan Ólafsson (1958), Hákon Leifsson (1958), Hilmar Þórðarson (1960), Atli Ingólfsson (1962), Ríkharður H. Friðriksson (1960) and Finnur Torfi Stefánsson (1947). At the Reykjavík College of Music, Hróðmar composed his first opus, a twelve-tone piece for a guitar duet. But the emphasis of his student years was on filling in the gaps in his uneven musical knowledge – listening to classical and romantic music, 20th-century music and the rest. “I hadn’t done any of that. Because when you study the guitar you don’t exactly play the works of the great masters – except Bach, of course. So I spent all my time listening. Compositions from the first quarter of the 20th century had a great impact on me, the works of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Mahler and Bartók.”

Hróðmar graduated from the Reykjavík College of Music in 1984, and then went abroad for further studies. He studied at the Utrecht Music Conservatory in the Netherlands, under the supervision of Dutch composer Joep Straesser, graduating in 1988. The school was a demanding one, and Hróðmar says he took his studies “extremely seriously.” His Symphony of Songs, mentioned above, for solo voices, mixed choir and orchestra, was composed towards the end of his student years in the Netherlands, as were several pieces for chamber groups and solo instruments, including his final project: ten-minute Variations for piano, chosen for the ISCM (International Society for Contemporary Music) festival in 1990.

I was on an avant-garde course of study in the Netherlands, and I spent a lot of time listening to avant-garde music from the period 1960-1980, music that developed from the revolutionary music of Stockhausen and Boulez. That was where I learned what I know – built the foundation on which I base everything today. It taught me an incredible amount to go through the music of that time, and that was where I got to know some of my favourite composers, such as György Ligeti. Some compositions from that time are of course really tedious – and haven’t lasted. And there are things I did then which I feel aren’t alive – I have thought of taking them off my list of compositions. Which is probably inevitable when one is learning, feeling one’s way and finding one’s own tone.”

From the CD brochure. © 2000 Elísabet Indra Ragnarsdóttir; translation: Anna Yates