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Sigurður Sævarsson, An Icelandic Voice

Sigurður Sævarsson una voce dall'Islanda

Since hearing the ethereal HAMRAHLÍÐ Choir at the World Symposium of Choral Music in Copenhagen in 2008 under the direction of founder Þorgerður Ingólfsdóttir, I have been drawn to the choral music of Iceland. To my North American ear, the homogeneous cultural population of Iceland combined with their cohesive choral tradition seems to promote a strong culture of vocal ensemble competency due to the naturally aligned and acoustically resonant vowels of the language. I would like to offer a special thanks to Valgerður G. Halldórsdóttir and the Icelandic Music Centre for her help in exposing our readers to the gorgeous music of this county.

 

CT: Much of your writing seems a kind of landscape music, incorporating lilting ostinati, drones, and some chant, and you have elegant and somewhat surprising tonal shifts permeating many of your songs. There is a great spaciousness in your writing, and critic John Quinn described one of your pieces as having a “fragile beauty”. How does being Icelandic influence your compositional style?

Sigurður Sævarsson, An Icelandic Voice
Sigurður Sævarsson

SS: Maybe one explanation for this “spaciousness” in my music is the all-encompassing Icelandic nature. Iceland has few and small wooded areas or forests. As one journeys through Iceland, there are views as far as the eye can see. I find it delightful to stand and   look out to sea, the distant, majestic mountains, or else study the mosses and tiny flowers. Most of my choral works are written with the acoustics of a large church in mind, where each note can weave around the next, creating a gentle, fine web around the soul. Of course, my music has to be coloured by the beautiful and impressive music which I have listened to throughout my life and sometimes been lucky enough to perform, from Palestrina to James MacMillan. Iceland’s musical history is not long, in fact one could say it did not really begin until the first part of the twentieth century. So, for this reason, Icelandic composers have looked to composers from other countries as their models. That’s why, I think, Icelandic choral music is so varied. The influences come from many sources; most composers went abroad for their further studies, both to Europe and the United States. The first choir in Iceland was founded around 1850. A group of progressive thinkers who thought it was important for the renaissance of the country that Icelanders stopped the old tradition of singing old chanted rhymes and quintsong (an oral folk practice of singing in parallel fifths) and change to more modern forms of song. This first choir was founded by students and teachers at the “Lærði Skólinn”, the only school for higher education in the country at that time. Within a short time, male choirs were dominant in the country’s music-making, they were thought to embody the notion of national pride and the nation’s struggle for independence. The first women’s choir was not founded until 1918. Until then, women had only sung in the handful of mixed choirs, which were often formed for special occasions, for example, royal visits by the Danish king, and also in churches. A vast amount of choral music has been composed in Iceland since the beginning of the 20th Century. In the early days, composers wrote nationalistic works, not surprisingly, as at this time Icelanders were deeply occupied with national freedom and love of their country, which gave the impetus to the founding of the first choirs in Iceland. The first major Icelandic choral work was performed in 1930, a cantata celebrating the one thousand year anniversary of the founding of the Althing, the oldest parliamentary institution in the world.

CT: Nathan Hall wrote in the Reykjavik Grapevine: “Sigurður invents moments for voices that shine like bells, chiming in and then fading out to a near-inaudible whisper.” Please share your compositional process specifically for a cappella choir.

SS: It is always the text from where I begin. The words lead me onwards. If the text somehow doesn’t move me, then I can’t compose to it. I have often said that with the notes, I am painting scenery around the text. It does not matter whether the work is short or large, I always use the same technique. When I am composing an a cappella work, I need to take more care than usual not to tire the voices, they need to shine from the first note to the last. Simplicity is something else I always strive to respect. I want the listener to hear every note and where it is going – there’s more chance too, that the text comes across clearly. I have had much valuable experience from singing in excellent choirs with great conductors. With them, I have taken part in a rich and varied repertoire of works. Many great works, which have influenced me and others that were not so great. However, one can still learn much from the not-so-great works!

CT: After choosing a text, what is the first thing you do in crafting a larger work? 

SS: I start by reading the text over and over. I want to know it as well as if I had written it myself. If I am working with a text that I have to edit, as in my “Passion of Hallgrímur” (based on all 50 of Hallgrímur Pétursson’s Psalms), then I work with the text as if it were a libretto. The aim is to make the “storyline” as clear as possible, and also that the work does not become too long. I don’t write a note until the text is completely ready. Then, if I feel that something more is needed as the work proceeds, I go back to the text to find more. I compose fairly slowly, somtimes taking weeks over a particular phrase that I think could be improved. After that, I need time to distance myself from the work, a few weeks or a month or two, in order to come back to it fresh before I finally let it go. This also applies to my shorter works. It’s often the case that while one work is “proving” on the shelf, another work has already been started.

CT: How did your instruction at Boston University differ from your instruction in Reykjavík?

SS: The biggest difference I noticed straight away was that in the U.S., I did nothing but study. At home in Iceland, I was working alongside studying, as well as singing in the choir of the Icelandic Opera. Naturally, in Boston everything was much larger than in Iceland. The atmosphere at Boston University was great and I met some wonderful people there. Originally, I enrolled in the Masters Degree program for singers, but added an extra year to also complete my Masters in composition. I was very happy with my teachers in both departments. I also took part in the opera department and sang in the world premiere of Freshwater by Andy Vores. One of my most rewarding experiences was singing in the Marsh Chapel Choir under the direction of Julian Wachner. We rehearsed on Thursdays and sang at Sunday services, which were broadcast live. We covered a lot of repertoire, in the Sunday services and concerts, and it was a great experience working with Julian.

CT: The 13th century Icelandic sagas are handy text sources in terms of their directness and being in the public domain. What will you set next from this body of poetry?

SS: Icelanders are more well-known for their historic Sagas than music. Ever since Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241) penned the Edda – which J.R.R. Tolkien said influenced him greatly when he wrote his “Lord of the Rings” – many great storytellers and poets have written some of Iceland’s most precious pearls. I have studied various texts from this time, some of which are not easy to approach. I had an idea to write music to the Edda, which, of course, is a mammoth task which I have yet to start, the same applies to my next opera – the libretto for the opera is ready; now the composer just has to sit down at the piano and start.

CT: Describe your dream commission.

SS: There’s so much that I want to write for choir. I have assembled quite a few texts which I want to use. Of course, when I get a commission, I ask if there is a favourite text they want me to set to music. My dream commission would be to write a piece with a great text for an excellent and keen choral director and choir. One could not ask for more.

CT: Which are your favorite choral ensembles to listen to (besides Schola Cantorum, of course)?

SS: I must admit I haven’t followed any particular choir very much. I do, however, buy choral CDs, but usually, I am buying the work, not necessarily the performers. This isn’t ideal, I know, as sometimes I have to buy another version of the music because of flaws in performance. This doesn’t happen very often though. Going over my collection, I see that I have the most recordings by the Monteverdi Choir, followed by Trinity College Choir and The Sixteen. Nowadays, there are so many great choirs and choral directors.

CT: Name a few other composers that you might recommend to conductors who have never heard Icelandic music before to give them a broader sense of the choral music of your country.

SS: Most Icelandic composers have, at some point in their careers, composed choral music. There are a few ambitious choirs and choral directors in Iceland who commission new works. An example of this is the Hamrahlíð Choir under their director Ms. Þorgerður Ingólfsdóttir. I think I am right in saying that there are only two of us Icelandic composers who have almost entirely devoted themselves to writing choral music in recent years; myself and my colleague from Schola Cantorum, Hreiðar Ingi. If people are interested in getting to know Icelandic choral music better, the Icelandic Music Information Centre itm@mic.is has a knowledgeable staff that is always ready to guide and recommend. And, of course, everybody is welcome to visit my website www.sigurdursaevarsson.com where I am also willing to help.

Sigurður Sævarsson began the study of singing at the Keflavík School of Music in Iceland with Árni Sighvatsson at age 23, having already been introduced to the violin at age seven. He then attended the New Music School in Reykjavík, where he studied with Sigurður Demetz and Alina Dubik. In 1994, Sigurður began graduate studies at Boston University, where his teachers included William Sharp, Charles Fussel, Sam Headrick and Martin Amlin. In 1997, he earned M.M. degrees in both voice and composition. Sævarsson’s main focus since then has been composing opera and choral music. His published oeuvre includes many short choral works, four larger choral works (Requiem, Missa PacisChristmas Oratorio, and Hallgrímspassía), two operas, two chamber music works, and one song cycle for bass. Currently, Sigurður is a member of Schola Cantorum, one of Iceland’s most respected choirs, and serves as the Principal of The New Music School in Reykjavík. Email: s@sigurdursaevarsson.com

(Sigurður Sævarsson, An Icelandic Voice)

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