P&C interview: Snorri Hallgrímsson / by Sergio Díaz De Rojas

By Björk Óskarsdóttir

Snorri Hallgrímsson by Nicolas Hyatt

Snorri Hallgrímsson by Nicolas Hyatt

15th of June will mark the release date of Snorri Hallgrímsson's first album, Orbit. Hallgrímsson, a recent name at the Canadian-based Moderna Records, has an impressive background in composing. Holding degrees in composition from Iceland Academy of the Arts and Berklee College of Music, Hallgrímsson has scored several projects for screen and is a long-term collaborator of his compatriot Ólafur Arnalds. Orbit is a curious construction of music, using distorted beats, piano, strings and vocal elements to achieve a result, which conveys clearly an internal dialogue, a struggle, and ambivalence. 

You've summarized the project under the name Orbit, a term from physics. Could you elaborate on how the title sheds light on the album concept?

Most of the songs on Orbit were written shortly after I moved back to Iceland. I had been living in Spain and Mexico, where I made so many wonderful friends from all over the world. Coming back, Iceland felt half-empty. While Iceland is my ‘home,’ it felt much less so when I came back because of all the people in my life who weren’t there. Now I’ve accepted that no place will ever feel fully home – for better or worse. Nevertheless, I’m always searching for that feeling, planning and organizing trips to try to see the people I miss.

The title Orbit comes from a poem of the same name that my wife wrote about coffee (her best friend while she experienced her first Icelandic winter). There’s a line that goes “I spin consistent circles ‘round the centre”, which I blatantly stole, as I thought it described how I felt perfectly: Drifting from place to place, but held on a steady course by the very people I’m searching for. Ironically, I actually hate coffee...

Having lived, studied and worked in such interesting and different corners of the world, in what ways have these different cultures influenced your working process as a composer?

The most obvious answer is work/life balance. Everything feels more laid back in Spain, and even more so in Mexico. Since the cost of living was so low, I could afford to work less and take more time on each project. In Iceland, I need to work constantly just to be able to make a living as a composer. But in my experience, having more time doesn’t mean you’ll spend that time working on your own projects. When I’m too relaxed, I can’t get myself to work on anything – and when I’m constantly working, I can’t stop. Finding the right balance between the two is the hard part. Maybe there’s a fourth country where I’ll find it?

You have made the great decision to use your own voice on this album. The voice itself and the style of singing gives a very personal and organic, fragile touch to the soundscape. Was it always in the cards for this one, to sing?

Thank you! Yes and no. I’m much more experienced in writing instrumental music, and generally, I focus more on harmony and atmosphere than melody. Usually, I start a song without even knowing whether there will be vocals or not. The main reason I decided to sing on this album was exactly to make it feel and sound more personal. I work a lot with Ólafur Arnalds, one of the forerunners of neo-classical music. He’s had a huge influence on composers in that genre so I was very aware of the need to establish my own sound, that felt personal to me. One of the best ways to do that was to use my own voice.

It’s also funny that you ask because Moderna Records almost exclusively releases instrumental music. When I told them I wanted to sing... well I’ve seen happier people in my life. I actually ended up singing way more than I anticipated on the album. Sorry guys! In all seriousness though, they’ve been great throughout this whole process in giving me the freedom to do what I think is right. 

Snorri Hallgrímsson by Nicolas Hyatt

Snorri Hallgrímsson by Nicolas Hyatt

Is the lyric-writing process for you any similar to the composing of the music?

Yes, I think I subconsciously approach it in a similar minimalistic way. My music isn’t really telling a story, rather it’s describing a feeling or a state of being. So once I’ve found a text, or a harmony, that accurately portrays that, I don’t feel a need to expand or complicate it. Instead, I find repetition is a very powerful tool and I use it purposefully when writing both music and lyrics.

All of the album’s lyrics are in English, yet the two instrumental tracks have Icelandic titles. How come?

My wife, Jelena (herself an incredible songwriter), actually wrote a lot of the lyrics on the album. She’s a native English speaker. I also get her to look over the stuff I write. I’m aware of how easy it is to settle for over-used clichés when you’re not writing in your native language because you don’t realize how limited your vocabulary actually is, even when you think you speak fluently. It’s very handy to have a personal thesaurus at home!

The two tracks with Icelandic titles are named after lines of poetry they were inspired by. They also happen to be the only instrumental tracks on the album. Those tracks are more internal somehow, and it made sense to use my native language to express that. I think your native language can strip you down more, whereas other languages don’t fully reveal what’s behind the mask. Maybe I write lyrics in English because I’m subconsciously afraid of showing too much of myself?

Your native Iceland has a rich choral tradition and a large repertoire of some eerie folk tunes with dark lyrics. Somehow they came to mind from time to time, listening through Orbit. Do they ever ring through your mind or was this a coincidental effect?

I had an Argentinian teacher once who always said my music sounded cold. I was pretty sure it was just because I was the only person from Iceland he knew. It became a running joke among my classmates and still is. I used to be annoyed by it (OK maybe I still am), but I also have to admit there might be something to it, though I’m not trying to make my music sound ‘Icelandic’.

I’ve sung in many choirs and still do. I’ve also written a lot of choral music which inevitably is inspired by Icelandic choral tradition, which in turn is partially inspired by those eerie folk tunes and rhymes. And writing choral music heavily inspired the approach to the songwriting on this album, the harmony in particular. The string chords in the track Homeless are “borrowed” from a choral piece of mine, and the album’s outro Týnd er tunga þín is built around a heavily processed live recording of the same piece. Manipulating my own choir recordings is something I really love doing. It can create this dark, almost uncomfortable beauty which is so inspiring to me.

Finally, the official video from the album track Still Life was premiered recently, you have talked about it revolving around the relationship between architecture and nature. It´s a very nice angle to the concept, how did it come about?

I’m glad you think so because, in my completely unbiased opinion, the video is absolutely gorgeous! I was so lucky to get to work with Gala Hernández, a fantastic director based in Paris. I trusted her completely so I gave her free rein. I had previously scored one of her beautiful films, so I knew she was capable of capturing this fragile, bleak melancholy that in some ways characterizes my music.

The video begins by showing how simple things in nature have inspired city architecture. But then Gala takes it further by capturing ordinary people in suburban Paris going about their day surrounded by these huge lifeless buildings—a reminder of how far we have come from our natural roots. These images, combined with the line “spring, unbearable and never-ending”, show this depressingly mundane reality in an almost dystopian way.

But this is just my interpretation of her video—Gala may not agree with me at all. To me, the best art leaves room for you to portray your own feelings through it. That’s what Gala’s video to Still Life does for me, and what I hope my music can do for other people.

Preorder Orbit here .