Ice queens play nice

Kilkenny-bound Ami­ina share a home­land with Björk and Sigur Rós, and while show­ing Tony Clay­ton-Lea around Reyk­javik’s high­lights, they ex­plain what makes Ice­land so spe­cial

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

IT IS THE morn­ing af­ter the night be­fore, and af­ter traips­ing around the cen­tre of Reyk­javik at 3am – with the sky still as bright as a sil­ver but­ton – your dis­con­certed cor­re­spon­dent is talk­ing to three de­mure, quite stu­dious mem­bers of Ami­ina at a small ta­ble in a cafe on Lau­gave­gur, the city’s main street. Sól­rún Su­mar­liðadót­tir, Hil­dur Ársæls­dót­tir and Edda Rún Ólafs­dót­tir (the other mem­ber, Maria Huld Markan Sigfús­dót­tir, is away for the week­end) are, of course, used to the 20-hour bright­ness dur­ing the sum­mer months (and the 20-hour dark­ness dur­ing the win­ter pe­riod), but for some­one who is used to sleep­ing in the dark, this mid­night sun lark is to­tally mess­ing with my in­nate, per­fectly poised karma.

The pre­vi­ous night, the three Ami­ina women brought me on a brief tour of the city’s hotspots – a cool and buzzy bar, a quiet gay bar and a stuffed rock venue where one of Ami­ina’s road­ies was in­dulging his in­ner Hard Rock God pro­cliv­i­ties. It all amounted to a whis­tle-stop guide to a city that has pro­duced two of the most in­no­va­tive acts of the past 20 years – Björk and Sigur Rós.

In truth, you can add Ami­ina to that short list. The most im­por­tant thing to know about the band – who are com­ing to Ire­land next week as part of the 2009 Kilkenny Arts Fes­ti­val – is that their mu­sic is beau­ti­ful, and is very much a con­stituent prod­uct of their up­bring­ing and their unique is­land life.

It is com­mon in Ice­land, they say, for chil­dren to study a mu­si­cal in­stru­ment, in­clud­ing recorder, vi­o­lin, flute and pi­ano; in­deed, the study of mu­sic is sub­sidised by the state, which makes it even eas­ier for par­ents to get it to hap­pen.

“Dur­ing the sec­ond World War,” says Sól­rún, who does most of the talk­ing, “a lot of refugees came to Ice­land from Europe – lots of mu­si­cians – and some­thing started hap­pen­ing, mu­si­cally. The na­tional sym­phony or­ches­tra started around that time, too. Be­fore that, there wasn’t much em­pha­sis on mu­sic, al­though many peo­ple sang in choirs, and peo­ple al­ways sung to­gether, but study­ing an in­stru­ment wasn’t com­mon. We were also lucky enough to get a cou­ple of politi­cians in the gov­ern­ment, and they pushed for­ward their in­ter­est in mu­sic to the ex­tent that they pro­moted the mu­sic ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem. There are mu­sic schools all over the is­land now. Mu­sic is the main arts ac­tiv­ity in Ice­land, more so than dance and vis­ual arts.”

The mem­bers of Ami­ina have known each other for years – Hil­dur and Maria from child­hood (“We had the same vi­o­lin teacher,” says Hil­dur), and all four from the Reyk­javik School of Mu­sic in the mid-1990s. In 1998, dur­ing a gov­ern­ment-as­sisted sum­mer pro­gramme for teenagers and young peo­ple, the women for­malised their ideas for a group. Their out­put at that point was cham­ber mu­sic from the clas­si­cal reper­toire.

“We didn’t re­ally start to write our own mu­sic un­til 1999,” says Hil­dur, “which is when we be­gan to play with Sigur Rós for a while. At that point, Sigur Rós would not have been known out­side Ice­land.”

“The first time we worked with them,” re­calls Sól­rún, “was the launch con­cert of [Sigur Rós’s 1999 al­bum] Ágaetis Byr­jun. At that time, we hadn’t been do­ing any­thing other than read­ing sheet mu­sic and per­form­ing mu­sic by oth­ers. But when we started with Sigur Rós, they re­ally do cre­atively, be­cause that’s how they work.”

“They also made us re­alise how much fun it would be,” adds Hil­dur. “And how dif­fer­ent. When we start to cre­ate a piece of mu­sic, it changes each time. Some­times it’s a chord struc­ture; some­times it’s a melody or a sound­scape.”

Ami­ina’s mu­sic is best ex­pe­ri­enced live, but lis­ten­ing to al­bums such as Kurr (and other rare EPs such as the re­cently re­leased Re Mi­nore) will give you a sense of how their is­land en­vi­ron­ment, if not the ac­tual to­pog­ra­phy, has in­flu­enced them.

Nowhere near as cli­mac­tic or dra­matic as Sigur Rós or as skit­tish as Björk, Ami­ina play gen­tle yet ten­sile mu­sic as if their col­lec­tive life de­pended on it. They use an ar­ray of in­stru­men­ta­tion, in­clud­ing zither, Ir­ish harp, mu­si­cal saws, mu­sic boxes, drink­ing glasses, met­al­lo­phone, gui­tars and har­mo­nium – “We have a theremin but we haven’t learned how to play it yet,” says Hil­dur. De­spite their en­vi­ron­ment, they claim that their mu­sic hasn’t been di­rectly in­flu­enced by Ice­landic folk mu­sic, which is largely song-based. Sub­tle changes are afoot, how­ever, as the women are presently work­ing with some male mu­si­cians, but don’t ex­pect any heavy in­jec­tion of testos­terone any­time soon.

Yet what­ever we’ll hear at Kilkenny or on forth­com­ing re­leases is bound to be in­trin­si­cally con­nected to their home­land – in­tri­cately ro­man­tic, rap­tur­ous, dreamy, dra­matic and not a lit­tle bit un­usual.

“One thing that is spe­cial about Ice­land,” ex­plains Sól­rún, “is that we are a small com­mu­nity, and as we live on an is­land we have to work with each other to get along. There is a lot of co-work­ing with bands go­ing on, so there is this good com­mu­nity – not re­ally a sense of com­pe­ti­tion but more of as­sis­tance. Also, the pop­u­lar mu­sic scene has bonds with the is­land’s clas­si­cal mu­si­cians, be­cause we all grew up to­gether, went to the same mu­sic schools. Some­times we might work with peo­ple from the sym­phony or­ches­tra or with a heavy metal band. So there are a lot of cross-con­nec­tions.”

“Also, the mu­si­cians here,” com­ments Hil­dur, “gen­er­ally don’t de­pend on mak­ing lots of money by hav­ing to sell many records, so the feel­ing is just to en­joy what you’re do­ing. They have – like some of us, maybe – an­other job, and they’re do­ing it just for fun.”

The pri­mary aim for Ami­ina, im­ply the women, is to make a liv­ing from mak­ing and play­ing mu­sic, but that, re­marks Sól­rún, is the main am­bi­tion for a lot of bands.

“It’s a del­i­cate bal­ance, be­cause when you get to a cer­tain level of suc­cess, there is a dan­ger that what you then do is di­rected by money.” It de­pends on who you work with, she says, and whether there are pres­sures from man­agers or record com­pa­nies.

“We’re still just try­ing to fig­ure out how the mu­sic busi­ness works. It’s such a jun­gle, it’s hard to fig­ure out where you stand. We’re just tak­ing a few months at a time, and that’s all we can do. We all have our sep­a­rate lives – Maria has a baby, Hil­dur is ex­pect­ing in Oc­to­ber – so there are no long-term plans. It’s all so hard to pre­dict.”

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