Premiere: “Reykjavík” by Hugar

Wondrous soundscapes from the Icelandic duo of Bergur Þórisson and Pétur Jónsson

The path to “Reykjavík,” the fourth single from Icelandic duo Hugar‘s forthcoming album, The Vasulka Effect: Music for the Motion Picture (out 2 October), involved a convergence of visual inspirations. First, there was the documentary The Vasulka Effect, directed by Hrafnhildur Gunnarsdóttir. Hugar (aka Bergur Þórisson and Pétur Jónsson) composed the film’s score and although this song isn’t part of that body of music, it does grow from it. Then there was the groundbreaking work of the documentary’s subjects, Steina and Woody Vasulka, two pioneers in the medium of video art. Ultimately, the gentle, orchestral track (which follows the release of “Enigma“) spills forth like a stream of water over a fall, mingling with the air, coalescing once more for its conclusion. It calls to mind the stunning beauty of Hugar’s home nation—which also happens to be the birthplace of Steina Vasulka.

An influential part of the Icelandic music community, Hugar has collaborated with the likes of Sigur Rós, Jóhann Jóhannsson and Ólafur Arnalds. (Many may also be familiar with Þórisson’s work as Björk‘s touring musical director.) The duo self-released their debut self-titled album in 2014. Six years later, The Vasulka Effect: Music for the Motion Picture marks their second full-length album but from it, each single further reflects their use of sound as landscape, with every note as alive as a blade of grass in a gust of wind. We spoke to the band about the album and how its development compares to the way they work when unattached from other artists.

This is born from a 20-song album born from a film score. Can you share your process for bringing the music together? Did you incorporate inspiration outside of the film, too?

We were incredibly fortunate to get the opportunity to work on this film. The film is about two magnificent artists—Steina and Woody Vasulka—who are now considered the pioneers of video art. Steina is from Iceland and met Woody when studying in Prague and they became engaged during the first time they met. They then moved together to New York where they became a part of the city’s vibrant art scene in the ’60s and ’70s.

When we were approached to write the music for the film, the film was in the editing stage so most of our inspiration came directly from the artists rather than the scenes in the film per se. We did a lot of experiments, incorporating vintage sound generators and tape machines, drawing inspiration from the process behind the works of the Vasulkas. We were extremely lucky that Steina could come to our studio at one point and hang out with us for a day. Her incredible creativity is very inspiring as well as how she perceives her surroundings.

And then how did you craft an album out of that score?

After we had delivered the music for the film, we kept working on the music and the album started growing out of the film score. We approached it as more of an album from that point on. We ended up with 20 pieces of music, some derived directly from the score but others with additional elements and arrangements.

How did this music differ from the other work you both do?

These songs were inspired by the story of the Vasulkas’ life and work. Compared to our previous albums, this one grew from more experimentation and we worked with more hardware equipment—vintage sound generators, tape machines and vacuum tube technology. This led us to different ideas than our regular methods while still sounding like Hugar.

How would you describe your song-crafting process as a duo over the years?

There is always a lot of back and forth. We work both individually and together in the studio and then combine everything into fully sculpted tracks. We play most of the instruments ourselves and arrange, record and mix everything together in the studio.

Iceland has a significant, magnificent ambient, orchestral music scene. How has it flourished so much? Do other musicians and producers provide inspiration to you, as well?

There is a great sense of community in the Icelandic music scene and everyone is very helpful and inspiring to each other. Someone once said that since our weather is below average, people end up in a garage somewhere playing music quite a lot and from that comes a great number of interesting bands and good musicians.

Images courtesy of Anna Maggý and Hugar