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What is it about Iceland that produces such stirring music? The tiny Nordic country seems to have developed its own cottage industry out of crafting festival-ready bands and folksingers to captivate audiences around the world with shimmering string arrangements, hushed vocals and quirky beats that sound as if they could have come from nowhere else. It is this music, and not haddock, that gives Iceland its most valuable export. Björk, múm, Emiliana Torrini, Ólöf Arnalds and Sigur Rós (whose frontman Jonsí recently composed the charming soundtrack to We Bought a Zoo) have all received warm welcomes on Australian tours, and now the latter group’s former string section, the sextet Amiina, returns for the Sydney Festival following their 2011 appearances in Perth.
What’s with the international fjord fever? Many artists, Björk among them, attribute the distinctive national character of Iceland's contemporary music-making to the uniquely breathtaking landscape. While images of smoke and ash billowing from the glacial volcano Eyjafjallajökull may seem that much more poignant when accompanied by Sigur Rós’s powerful bowed electric guitar and soaring melodies, it’s worlds away from the delicate sounds woven together by Amiina in their solo work.
In any case, violinist/multi-instrumentalist Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir is quick to cite Iceland’s strong music education system as a major factor, over and above any geographical features. “In Iceland a high number of kids at some points in their lives are introduced to studying a musical instrument,” she explains over the phone in her strangely mesmerising accent. “In every family there’s at least one or two who practise music of some sort – playing in a band, or singing in one of the many amateur choirs around. So people grow up with it being something quite natural; it’s just like watching TV to play an instrument or sing.”
This broad approach to music-making might account for the classical world’s fascination with the crossover potential of Icelandic artists from pop, folk or rock backgrounds: Kronos Quartet has arranged Sigur Rós’s haunting song Flugufrelsarinn; John Tavener has composed for Björk and the Brodsky Quartet.
It was a rich environment of music-making that nurtured Amiina’s original all-female quartet when it was formed at the Reykjavik College of Music over a decade ago. Maria describes the classical scene in Iceland as “tight-knit, since the country is small and the population is only 300,000,” a community dynamic that could account for the intimacy and miniscule sounds of the ensemble’s gentle chamber music. With Sigur Rós they played stadiums around the world; now they enjoy playing cosy little venues like the Spiegeltent. Björk and múm have been known to retreat into moments of introspection and domesticity in their work; similarly, Amiina – whose cover art for the 2007 album Kurr pictures the four women of the group knitting together – play any instrument they can get their hands on as if it was just lying around the house.
The arsenal of instruments they use to embroider the minimalist creations on Puzzle, in addition to strings, are bowed saw, harmonium, harpsichord, harp, glockenspiel and celesta… Probably the kitchen sink, too. Once a purely instrumental band, Amiina are also singing lyrics for the first time, often with disarmingly fragile delivery.
All well and good, until it’s time to tour. “It became a problem because we had all these instruments on stage and trying to play them at the same time was always a hassle,” laughs Maria. “Sometimes it reminded us more of a ballet – we had choreographed just to be able to not trip over on things or make it happen!” The four women recruited drummer Magnús Trygvason Eliassen and electronics whiz Kippi Kaninus to share the load.
If the music the quartet had been creating was thought of as feminine, the two new members have brought a dimension of strength to Amiina’s crystalline sound. They “maintain the ability to play really delicate music as well as being able to play louder,” says Maria. “Onstage it matters a lot because we used to have to run between instruments to cover all the parts, but now with six it’s a lot easier and gives us freedom to just play.”
With their whimsical DIY approach, the players have expanded their sound palette dramatically since stepping out from the shadow of their former bandmates Sigur Rós. They have also stepped out of the classical mould. “When we first had the dream of making our own music, we didn’t want to use string instruments as the basis but we didn’t really know how to play many other instruments and didn’t own that much,” Maria recalls. “So we just grabbed whatever was at hand, and bought everything that could possibly make new sounds. It was kind of an accident how the sounds came about in the first place – that was not taught in music school.”
This happy accident was a “puzzle” to the group, and became the subject and title of their second full-length album, released in 2011. “Since we’re six in the band now, and playing in other bands as well, it is a nightmare to organise a tour and a great puzzle to make music together as a group,” Maria says.
However mysterious the process, it seems to work. “We’d just start it out and without analysing it just let it happen, and we were very surprised at what actually came out, and sometimes we’d describe it as if we put all of our musical bits together in a pot and stir it, and the soup is very surprising sometimes! When we make music we try and just let it happen and allow it to develop in its own way.”
Now the new line-up has taken the plunge into the world of cinema. In addition to their standard set, Amiina tour Australia with their project Animagica, as soundtrack composers and backing band to vintage silent films by German silhouette animator Lotte Reiniger, with which the sextet “instantly fell in love” and which Maria feels “fitted well with Amiina’s soundscape.”
The fairytale images will delight children but it’s not all but it’s not all fun and games. “The oldest one is from 1922 is very raw and potent, and it’s got black humour in it,” Maria describes a short film based on Cinderella (the other two are Sleeping Beauty and Aladdin). “And with this beautiful artwork it’s got a bit more depth to it than what people are used to today in clichéd Disney. It’s brutal at moments, like the scene where one of the sisters cuts off her heel in order to be able to fit the glass slipper.”
Most of the band members have young children who adore the films in Animagica, says Maria. Are they benefitting from Iceland’s enviable music education system? “Well, most of them are too young to learn instruments yet, but Kippi’s daughter is studying cello and his son is learning the drums.” Maybe it won’t be too long before the youngest members of the Aniima clan join their parents on stage, glockenspiels at the ready.