Skúli Sverrisson: Chamber Music of Different Sort

By Bradley Bambarger <2011>

Schoenberg’s early tone poem Transfigured Night was famously described by one disoriented critic as sounding as if the score of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde had been “smeared while the ink was still wet.” The image appeals to Skúli Sverrisson as we discuss the allure of art that feels “slightly out of focus.” But the Icelandic multi-instrumentalist and composer has his own image to illustrate the impulse behind the atmospheric songs without words of his album Sería II.

“Do you know how you can be walking through a subway station here in New York and hear a musician playing something — and it sounds almost familiar, but you can’t quite make out what is?” Sverrisson asks. “It’s intriguing because your brain is trying to grasp it, but once you get close enough, you suddenly realize it’s just some pop song played in not such an interesting way. It only sounded strange and beautiful through the distance and noise of the station.

“I like when listening itself is a creative experience, when you can enter into the sound on your own instead of being directed what to listen for,” he continues. “It’s also like when you’re looking at one of Gerhard Richter’s abstract paintings, where you don’t know quite what to focus on. The fascination of art like that holds longer to me. In the Sería music, I didn’t want there to be too much of a grid for the listening experience, with a lead voice on, say, saxophone or with a strong rhythm on drums. And this music is very much about listening.”

“Her Looking Back,” one of the most intoxicating numbers on Sería II, presents a characteristically rich, almost orchestral Sverrisson arrangement of guitars, six-string bass, dobro and charango plus piano, organ, celeste, omnichord, bass clarinet, viola, cello and, in the mix like another instrument, the vocalese of Icelandic singer Ólöf Arnalds. Emotional light and shade are juxtaposed in an unsettling way, with a floating, almost Gallic wistfulness vying with a darker, even grave undertow. True to Sverrisson’s ideal, the listening experience can be like seeing shapes in slow-moving clouds — what seemed amorphous at first then seems obvious, though the shapes soon shift again, the new perspective conjuring different impressions.

Sería II — the follow-up to Sería, which was named 2006 album of the year at the Icelandic Music Awards — is chamber music of a different sort, with the sonic fabric woven from the influences of classical minimalism, folk instrumentation, jazz-honed facility and studio experimentation. Born in 1966, Sverrisson grew up in a household where his father, a printer and amateur trumpeter, kept records by Miles Davis and John Coltrane playing. Sverrisson took up the bass, and his first band was a teen-jazz outfit with future art-pop star Björk. He came to the U.S. to study at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, becoming a devotee of virtuosic improvisation and eventually playing with the likes of avant-fusion guitarist Allan Holdsworth.

“I was interested in the vocabulary of virtuosity and how far musicians could take that,” Sverrisson says. “But I felt like an outsider in that music, really. It can be fun to play, but I began moving away from the, for lack of a better word, masculine approach to music-making, that sort of athleticism.”

In the mid-’90s, Sverrisson joined with fellow jazz-trained players in the downtown New York band Pachora to experiment with Eastern folk melodies and instruments. Further from the typical virtuosity path was his first solo album, 1997’s Seremonie, an ambient set of treated, layered bass guitar sounds influenced by sonic alchemists from Brian Eno to Jim O’Rourke. He has veered between worlds ever since, whether contributing to albums by New York art-rock band Blonde Redhead, playing with progressive-jazz icon Wadada Leo Smith, serving as music director for performance-art veteran Laurie Anderson or collaborating with clarinetist-composer Anthony Burr on the sublime A Thousand Incidents Arise, the first in a series of albums featuring long, meditative pieces partly inspired by abstract-minimalist composer Morton Feldman.

“Just as with religion or politics, I’ve never wanted to belong to a certain tribe in music, whether it’s the jazz tribe, indie-rock tribe, whatever,” Sverrisson says, adding that trumpeter and “Fourth World” sonic conceptualist Jon Hassell was a key influence for blending instrumental skill, ambient sensibilities, electronic manipulation and international strains of folk music for an original sound that resisted any notion of genre. “Hassell created this music that’s hard to define but very personal, singular, visionary. I’ve always been attracted to music that doesn’t rely on the same few archetypes we hear over and over but seems to come out of nowhere, like Morton Feldman in New York in the ’50s, Tropicália in Brazil in the ’60s or Krautrock with Can and others in Germany in the ’70s — music that creates its own world.”

“Sería” means “series” in Icelandic, with Sverrisson planning to make a handful of like-minded albums. The first Sería was about “discovering a sound,” he says, and unlike its wordless follow-up, it featured several vocal tunes (three by Arnalds and one from Anderson). One wouldn’t guess it from the album’s contemplative, otherworldly aura, but Sverrisson composed Sería II while living in New Orleans, drawn there for a woman. He fell in love with the Crescent City, too, for its deathless spirit of communal music-making.

“Iceland and New Orleans are obviously very, very different places, but it’s a little like Iceland there in that everyone seems to play music, singing in choirs, playing in brass bands,” Sverrisson says. “Music exists outside of the business and lives in the community. That idea is important to the Sería music in that it’s based on friendships and the social aspect of playing. My musician friends and I all collect instruments and pass them around. The result doesn’t sound like folk music, but it comes from a similar sensibility.”

Sverrisson’s main instrument is a six-string electric bass guitar tuned like a baritone guitar (E to F), which he plays with a claw-like, finger-picked style that owes as much to classical, flamenco and other guitar techniques from around the world as it does traditional bass method. But he wrote the songs of Sería II on various instruments to challenge his creativity, coming up with “Her Looking Back” on the bouzouki. Sverrisson and his kindred spirits — including Arnalds, Burr, viola player Eyvind Kang and guitarist Amedeo Pace of Blonde Redhead — then re-orchestrated the pieces from his demos, trying out lines originally for guitar on toy piano, or transferring what was on clarinet to viola.

Jazz reed player Chris Speed, who worked with Sverrisson in Pachora and other settings since, vouches for the way that the Sería music mirrors the man: “I’ve spent many nights eating, drinking and listening to music with Skúli, talking about music, making music. He’s one of the most thoughtful, soulful artists I’ve ever known — and the Sería records are music only he could have made. The subtlety and depth of feeling there, the virtuosity without ever sounding technical, the inspiring pursuit of beauty, the mysteriousness of it all — that’s him.”

Through touring with Laurie Anderson, Sverrisson got the chance to play with her significant other, rock legend Lou Reed — which taught him a lesson. “Lou can have a forbidding reputation, but I’ve had a lot of fun playing music with him,” Sverrisson says. “He’s someone who if you play a really interesting chord that he has never heard before, he’ll look up and smile with this sense of wonder. That’s an inspiring thing. Really, the most important thing for any musician is retaining the capability of being surprised and delighted by sound.”

(Originally published in the winter 2011 issue of Listen magazine.)

Longtime music journalist, from Billboard to Gramophone to DownBeat to, etc. Founder/curator of the Sound It Out jazz concert series in New York City.

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