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Watch: Jónsi and Alex Somers mesmerise the Concert Hall

And hear from Somers on creating Riceboy Sleeps, recognising its 10th anniversary and performing the full album live for the first time.

Josh Milch

When Jónsi Birgisson and his partner Alex Somers made their expansive ambient record Riceboy Sleeps, they never intended to perform it live. Alex was already a a lover of ambient music, having studied studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston (where the pair met), while Jonsi had five full-length studio records under his belt as frontman of the acclaimed post-rock ensemble Sigur Rós. The collaboration adopts a different sensability — forming what Somers describes as "the blueprints of our relationship".

Prior to Vivid LIVE, the pair had only ever performed excerpts of the record at a Victorian Gothic church in New York City. Now, in its 10th anniversary year, Jonsi and Alex have fully realised their vision with an ensemble of 21 musicians and 12-strong choir in the cathedral that is the Concert Hall. The performance offered a majestic conclusion to the Opera House's 23-day contemporary music festival. 

JM: First of all, congratulations on your performance at the Opera House, I know it uplifted a lot of souls in the Concert Hall. How did it feel to bring the album to life in its entirety for the first time in 10 years?

AS: We were just so so happy — to be honest we were really grateful. We couldn’t believe that we got to play the first ever performance of our album in that space. With all those beautiful, generous people. We felt the music translated pretty well and thought the audience was really nice, the players were great, we thought the conductor did a good job. You always want more rehearsal time, but we feel like we managed to do everything in time and I feel like there was a good feeling in the room.

Was it a conscious decision to hold off performing the album until now?

Absolutely. I mean the record is very understated — it kind of embraces smallness in a way that is just inherent to everything we do, and for that reason we never played it live. When it was brought to our attention that the record was going to have its 10th birthday, it felt nice to just do as a gesture towards it, to recognise it and fully realise it in a way we never had.

When I listen to 'Boy 1904', I feel like there are undertones of chromaticism and Renaissance choral music — did you ever take a conscious inspiration from those periods in making this record?

Actually not very much, but you’re right — 'Boy 1904' is the one choral piece that definitely draws from some of that era of vocal music, of Renaissance vocal music. But to be really honest, Jónsi and I aren’t super familiar with a lot of that kind of music. We have friends that are steeped in that world and when we come across it we’re like “What is this called?!” — and they’ll be like — “This is Renaissance” and we’ll be like “ooh!”. So I think some of that flavour somehow squeezed into that piece of music. But I would say outside of 'Boy 1904' I would go so far as to say there was zero classical music influence on that record, even though I studied music, Jónsi hasn’t — we don’t listen to much or know very much about it. I mean we have loved certain Gavin Bryars pieces to death, we love certain Arvo Pärt music, some certain John Tavner. So we do know some of it — but it’s not where we draw our influence from.

It was more punk to be honest. The DIY punk spirit of capturing small sounds, slowing them down to various speeds and then adding effects and then hearing these small details that were all around us. And then, building pieces of music on top of them, just instinctively. That was more how we were working, you know?

Image: Prudence Upton

“The album sonically and technically is very imperfect. If was making now, it would sound so different...”

That’s such an interesting contrast — approaching an ambient piece of music with a punk sensibility and then handing it over to a classically-trained orchestra and choir. What’s it like to impart your music and have it realised by an ensemble of players like that?

It was a really cool process. So in order to do that we had two amazing collaborators that helped us fully realise the piece— Robert Ames who runs the London Contemporary Orchestra and David Handler in New York City who works closely with the Wordless Music Orchestra. When we made the record, we worked with a small string ensemble, and a small choir — everything else we played ourselves, so this was taking those ideas we did back then and kind of like translating and reorchestrating them so they would make more sense in an ensemble that was larger and they did a great job. They really got it. They added things that weren’t there that they imagined — and we were like “Oh we didn’t actually play that, but it’s cool.” It almost had the impact of the game 'telephone' [aka. chinese whispers]. It was neat because we knew that would happen, and then it did and we really liked it. And then there were times where we didn’t like it and we just told them. We worked on this on and off for a long time — about a year — so we had time. Pretty much all the non-linear ideas happened by accident or imagination.

Obviously 10 years is a long time in anyone’s life — let alone in a musical career. How do you feel you’ve developed musically since the record — do you think you bring something different to the record than you would have 10 years ago?

Definitely. I feel like it’s a whole lifetime ago. The album sonically and technically is very imperfect.  If was making now, it would sound so different because I’ve learned so much about engineering and mixing. I do think that being an amaetur, as I was back then, really freed me up creatively. I wasn’t concerned with things that didn’t register in my mind. So I honestly think it all happened the way it was meant to be. To be able to make a record that is kind of homemade and DIY and a little bit lo-fi was just part of my path and I’m glad I didn’t know what I know now then because then it would’ve been different.

I guess right after when this record came out I became obsessed with audio engineering and mixing and producing — so more studio kind of work. I got obsessed with sound. So that was the path I went down for a couple of years. I opened my own recording studio in Reykjavík, I invested in studio equipment and microphones. With the help of some friends and a lot of self-teaching, I learned how to record instruments, where to put the microphones, how to space them, how to layer them, how to mix it all together. So that’s where I put my energy.

So now, being someone who writes music and composes music and also is thinking a lot about sound and layering and mixing — it’s really informed my process in a way.

Image: Prudence Upton

Image: Prudence Upton

Did you and Jónsi have distinct roles in the compositional process?

For this album, this stuff was all written together. And neither one of us were really engineers back then so it was engineered kind of by both us, working with what we had. Jónsi knew a little bit more about engineering because he had been in a band for a long time and spent some time in recording studios. 

If you think about the songs in basic harmony — left hand, right hand — bass, chord progression and upper register/melody. Every single song was co-written. One of us would do the chords and one of us would do the counterpoint like the high-harmony, and vice versa. I’m pretty sure there’s not anything that one of us just wrote. We did so much together — like I would write something and think it was on a good trajectory, and then Jónsi would put these beautiful chord movements under it that I’d never heard. So we really worked closely together in that respect. 

The Australian magazine Limelight described your performance of Riceboy Sleeps in Tasmania as being like held by “aurally nurturing hands.” Why do you think ambient music resonates more strongly with people today than ever before?

I don’t know, I’ve been wondering that too. It’s like a joke in my friend circle because I’ve been listening to ambient music since I was fifteen or sixteen, when I discovered Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works II. And then that led me to other things. It’s been such an important part of my life, I feel like it strips away everything else — it’s just pure melody. Maybe for some people it’s a little bit too slow and patient and just boring. But I love melody, I’ve always loved melody. So I love ambient music that doesn’t shy away from being highly melodic. Maybe we need that. It does seem like it’s having a moment, that more people than ever before care a little bit about ambient music or are patient enough to invest listening to ambient music and people are making it and it’s beautiful. Maybe we just need it, it’s a counterpoint to the crazy world, it’s a counterpoint to your outerworld and you create an inner world that’s changing at your own pace. What do you think?

I’ve started to think of it as a response to the intensity and saturation of digital culture — in some ways it offers a form of enforced respite, you have to look away from the information overload, but you do it sonically. 

That’s cool, I like that. And this new wave of ambient stuff — it’s not cheesy. I think for a long time, people just thought of it as “New Age” synth pads going on for 18 minutes. I think people are a little bit less allergic to it now, because there’s alternative ambient stuff that can take all different kinds of forms. You can do ambient music that’s like really harsh or intense, or really soothing or beautiful. Orchestral or synthy or acoustic — there are so many different forms of it now which maybe wasn’t the case years ago. 

Thanks for taking the time Alex, lovely to chat.

Thanks for being so supportive of our album and our show, it really meant a lot to be doing this at this time in our lives.

Image: Prudence Upton

“Maybe we just need it, it’s a counterpoint to the crazy world, it’s a counterpoint to your outerworld and you create an inner world that’s changing at your own pace.”

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