Rhizome D.C. made this podcast interview leading up to a concert in Rhizome D.C. on November 8th 2022 with the USA Clangers.

Pétur Grétarsson did an episode which was dedicated to my opera Einvaldsóður. His radio show is called Hátalarinn on Radio 1 on the Icelandic National Radio. It is now available as a podcast.

An interview in Icelandic regarding a concert in Mengi in 2017
Interview in Icelandic regarding a performance of the ensemble Fersteinn in Mengi in 2017

15 Questions to Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson

img  Tobias Fischer

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
I am feeling good except for a little cold I may or may not be coming down with. I am located now in Reykjavík, Iceland.

What’s on your schedule right now?
I am working on a piece for the Icelandic Flute Orchestra to be premiered in July and several other upcoming compositions. The album Horpma just came out on Carrier Records, and there will be some happenings in relation to the release. I also have been performing recently with a quartet which I call Fersteinn which performs a series of quartets that I have been writing for the last two years or so. The quartets have an animated score – as do most of my pieces – and they usually have the instrumentation mandolin, recorder, game call and saxophone or variations of that instrumentation, the instruments are sometimes exchanged with something vaguely similar.

How would you describe and rate the music scene of the country you are currently living in?
Needless to say the Icelandic music scene is very small, especially at the margins. But it is very active and I am part of an organization called S.L.Á.T.U.R. which is a vehicle for lots of interaction and advancement, discourse between several experimental composers. So the activities and the interactions are wonderful. Living in a provincial area makes you sometimes less provincial in the sense that you are not isolated in the province of your field but you start looking into other art forms as well, out of necessity. So I enjoy it a lot also because one has the space to establish something particularly where there was not much before. One can modulate the culture and things can happen quite spontaneously.

What are currently your main compositional challenges?
To become more clear. Making all the elements that seem harsh and isolated, come together and sing. It is also an issue of how the notation and everything communicates with performers or how recordings and editing are done. But I have been lucky recently to have a few great performances where I felt the clarity was there. It takes good performers also.

What do you usually start with when composing?
A short fragment from a recording of an improvisation on two to four notes or sounds. Sometimes it can also be a field recording but also with two to four defined functions. The main thing for me is to start with a “motive” that has the right kind of rhythmic tension and elasticity.

How do you see the relationship between timbre and composition?

I like to treat timbre with a fixed epistemology and have the possibility of “translation” of timbres to a certain extent. It is in the possibility for translation where things acquire meaning. Completely idiomatic sounds – i.e. instrument specific – are therefore meaningless to a certain extent. In a way it is absurd to think of a c on two different instruments to be the same note as has been pointed out in the theory of Harmolodics. However, it is one useful way of limiting things, having a fixed system of correspondences, but it is a completely arbitrary one, it could be anything. In the same way one can decide that this sound in this device corresponds somehow to another sound in another device, that way the whole thing can be translated, arranged “correctly” according to an arbitrary system. I also think that a parameter like timbre is never isolated from anything else, a timbre is altered by a sense of harmony and whatever goes along with it. What you hear before and after and along with a sound changes the perception of timbre.

How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
I do free improvisations from time to time. It is very different from when I compose. However as I said earlier I usually start out with recordings of goal-oriented improvisations that I do, where the goal is to achieve certain characteristics. Then I work with that slowly, traditionally to a certain extent. I like to be able to improvise in the style that I write, and to a certain extent I can, but I run out of fingers and hands very quickly though, but it all evolves out of these improvised fragments. I try to compose like I would write a text like this one. A lot of what I say has been formed over a long time, yet there is a sense of spontaneity and still one cannot really tell how much I have edited the text I am writing or if it was sketched out a lot beforehand.

Russian composer Alexander Danilevski said: “The musical innovations of the 21st century will not be intonational ones; they will be based on developing a new musical form and dramaturgy.” What are your thoughts on this?
I think that at all times all parameters have worked together in order to make musical works what they are. You cannot for instance take form or rhythm out of a piece, because a piece of music cannot exist without time. I don´t think there is any one way music has been or will be developing. I think you have to tune your radar carefully in order to see a clear pattern that informs you about what will happen in music in the near future. By making the tuning of the radar more specific, lots of important details may get lost. In my piece Horpma as well as many others I am quite concerned with intonation so obviously I don´t agree with this statement. However I do not thank there is more weight on that particular parameter than any other in that specific work for instance. Musical form and dramaturgy has always been evolving as well as any other musical parameter and will probably continue to do so, in many directions at the same time, although one can isolate trends branching out from time to time. But if there is enough data to choose from we can see what we want to see.

Do you feel it important that an audience is able to deduct the processes and ideas behind a work purely on the basis of the music? If so, what are your processes for making these transparent?

To an extent yes. Not necessarily the processes but there is a certain impression, a specific way of listening I would prefer, talking to people after they hear my music I can tell how well they “get it” or if I was clear enough for someone to get anything. So there is something specific to get, it´s hard to explain it in few words. I want the piece to inform you of how you should listen to it. I think this is possible and I think many composers have achieved it in the past, but it is quite challenging. In order for things to be transparent in this sense they do not need to be simple, clear is not the same as simple. But I guess certain ways of making a behaviour discernible generally speaking are repetitions in whole or in part, silences, register, amount of different sonorities and how information is spread across different parameters. Accents are important. I am always in the process of figuring this out.

How would you define the term “interpretation”? How important is it for you to work closely together with the artists performing your work?
In most pieces it is very important. For me interpretation is not just a matter of simply forwarding a message. Performers read themselves into the piece. They project their reading through the piece. They will eventually have to construct what they think the piece is. That is what good performers do, they get their hands into the dough and are not afraid of getting their hands dirty. I see the role of a composer as a playwright and sometimes a director as well. You have the script an you can provide insights that might encourage understanding. But there is always a line where you cannot go further in explaining anything and the performers have to find or build the music out of what you have given them, and ultimately what they build out of those materials is the result. As a composer I provide a recipe, usually a detailed one, but if it was not for this kind of interaction and the stimulation that it gives, I would only make purely electronic music. It is wonderful to hear the “text” come to life.

The role of the composer is always subject to change. What’s your view on the (e.g. political/social/creative) tasks of composers today and how do you try to meet these goals in your work?
I try to enjoy the process of making music as much as I can, be very focused and work very regularly. The epistemology that my music springs out of is perhaps a response to certain structures that are mirrored across many aspects of modern global culture, but very indirectly, it is more of an afterthought really. When I see a common pattern I see why the most common way of doing things will not work for an idea I have. With observing patterns that are all over the place I feel I am able to alter them in my own work. I think that the composers task is to create something wonderful and that is a very profound thing, even if it will not work out or very few people will like it. I do not have any faith in music as criticism. I think it is easy to get confused with those sort of ideologies. Music is most important. It is the perfect vehicle for itself. No science understands its power. Therefore one needs to be careful as well. Only by living in a city and going to the local grocery store we consume a lot of things that might be very harmful, through our ears I mean.

How, do you feel, could contemporary compositions reach the attention of a wider audience without excessive compromises?
Through the use of web media like this one it can. It is hard to get any information on new and experimental music in general, I know that growing up on an island. Anything online and particularly things that are for free will help people to cultivate their interest. But one can ask: “why is there a need for a wider audience? Gold is valuable because it is rare isn´t it?” Is it a matter of selecting between value and scarcity on one side and wide audiences on the other? I am thinking of, why are recordings, concerts and scores so rare and expensive. There are not artistic compromises that need to be made but re-evaluations of interest and copyright in particular. Copyright laws are younger and more arbitrary then most people think. Composers tend to get a lot of their money from these kinds of things, but this way of making money conflicts with the modern ways of communication, modern copyright laws are the offspring of the print medium. Copyright limits any attempt to reach the attention of a wider audience through the Internet – which is the only path to get any attention for anything nowadays. I think it is fine to have a small audience for some things, Icelandic poetry for instance has a very small audience, but that makes it all the more interesting in some ways. Music does not have this language barrier so there is no reason to ignore the audience who would be interested if they only had access.

Composers have traditionally found it hard to secure a living with their art. What are the financial realities you’re living with and in which way, do you feel, could they be improved?
When I was graduating from the Iceland Academy of Arts, Icelandic composer Atli Heimir Sveinsson asked me and a friend of mine what we intended to do once we were graduated. We told him that if money wasn’t a problem we would just like to concentrate on composing. He replied: “Money is never a problem!”.

You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?
I am one of the artistic directors of a festival called Sláturtíð which is annually held in Reykjavík, Iceland – annually in the sense that it has been held twice and will be held again this year. Come to Reykjavík in late September/early October and you will hear. Also I am taking part in putting on a concert series at the Reykjavík Art Museum. I cannot tell about neither of these things until the line up is already clear.

Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?
Yes. Every piece I write is a small step towards it in one way or another. I have several dreams like that. But generally I imagine my music becoming as fluid and direct as if sitting on top of a butterfly flying aimlessly watching interesting environments of elastic things falling and bouncing, switching between such environments without a clear rhetoric but still feeling purposeful. If I knew how to do describe it better I would have made it already.

Taken from from 2011.