One of three winners of National Sawdust’s 2019 Hildegard Competition for emerging trans, female, and non-binary composers, Brooklyn- and Reykjavík-based composer Bergrún Snæbjörnsdóttir hails from the peripheries of Iceland. Within her works, Bergrún seeks to establish an internal logic from whence the soundscapes emerge, sometimes integrating visual and aural phenomena into an indivisible whole. Her work has been performed widely by groups such as the Oslo Philharmonic, Nordic Affect, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, and the International Contemporary Ensemble (who will play her 2014 piece Esoteric Mass in July during the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center), and has been featured in events such as Nordic Music Days, the KLANG Festival, the Ultima Festival, Dark Music Days, the SPOR Festival, the Tectonics Festival, ISCM’s World New Music Days, and more.
As a performer, Bergrún has a diverse background, having been a touring and recording musician for Icelandic bands Sigur Rós and Björk as well as performing experimental music in various constellations. She is a member of SLÁTUR (the Society of Artistically Obtrusive Composers Around Reykjavík), and was co-chairwoman of the annual Young Nordic Music Festival. Bergrún completed an MA in composition from Mills College in 2017.
Invited to choose her own interviewer for this National Sawdust Log profile, Bergrún selected the prominent composer and performer Angélica Negrón, a cherished member of the extended National Sawdust family who also has served as Bergrún’s Hildegard mentor. In a recent conversation, they discussed Bergrún’s idyllic early childhood, balancing disparate elements, giving up complete control, and more.
ANGÉLICA NEGRÓN: I wanted to start with childhood memories, and see if you could share your earliest memory that you feel has influenced your music or your art
BERGRÚN SNAEBJÖRNSDÓTTIR: That’s an interesting question, because I never really thought about that. I don’t really have anything specific, except that I grew up in a really small place—I guess you could say in the middle of nowhere. It’s like North Iceland, this place called Hofsós. And I had like the dream childhood: it’s this really beautiful place. It’s in the country, and most of my friends lived on farms, or some of the kids were in the little village. And we would just run around and do whatever we want. And I feel like that really shaped me as a person. Basically, the first nine years of my life were just this perfect kid life, you know? And then I moved, and the fantasy stopped. But I feel like that the whole thing had a big impact on me, the nature, just roaming on the farms and in hills and by the ocean.
And it had a lot of mythology, this place, actually. This villages is in a fjord, and this fjord has an island—or islands actually. But one in particular, the legend is that a troll couple were crossing the fjord with their cow, and then the sun came up and they froze. So when I was a child, me and my friends used to find troll footprints everywhere. And I really believed it; I really believed that we had found these troll footprints. And then there was this a mythological boy that was supposed to eat children; he had red eyes, and I would see him in the distance.
You’ve mentioned mythology and childhood memories; I’m wondering if there are any other influences that you have, besides music, as an artist, either stemming from childhood or more as of now.
I feel like I’ve really always been inspired by science, and science fiction, as well. And I guess mythology, as well: the way we construct these things outside of our reality. and they kind of become our reality. I never really thought about it before, but yeah, I suppose that has been a big influence on my life, because I’ve escaped into science fiction, that kind of material, a lot of my life.
Do you feel like in your music there’s also an attempt of escaping, in a way?
I wouldn’t say escaping. I feel like in my music I kind of sink deeper into myself. It’s more like I open some sort of gate and fall into it. It’s more to do with that. So, yeah, escaping… what’s an alternative word for escaping? It’s like finding, discovering.
You’ve mentioned that your compositions, you think of them as your personal brand of metaphysics. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that. How does your work reflect this? And in that discovery process that you were just describing, have there been any personal revelations that have come through pieces that you’ve written?
Personal revelations… I don’t know about that. Well, I always discover something. Every piece I make, I discover something about myself, because of the way they happen or the way they come about; there’s always something surprising because of the way I construct them. I never know exactly how they’re going to sound in the end, as well, because I don’t compose linearly like a music software program or anything like that. It’s more like a structure that is loosely fitted together—or tightly, sometimes. It’s hard to put into words what you’ve discovered in that process, because it’s music, right?
I know, it’s hard. We’re talking about something really abstract, so it’s really hard to put into words. But I’m very curious about this way of describing your compositions as your personal brand of metaphysics. How does that reflect on the work, and how do you see that?
I think I used that term because I’m doing this work to understand myself, and understand why, and how I perceive what is happening around me—like we all are, I guess.
It’s the opposite of escaping, in a way. It’s digging deeper into that.
Mm-hmm, yeah, it’s more to do with discovery, I think. It’s kind of like it feels like I am personally on this journey of discovering how I can make things fit together. And also, when I got into composition, I didn’t really know anything about new music, really. I just kind of went blindly into it, and did whatever came natural to me. I didn’t really necessarily understand what I was doing or trying to get at, but I could feel it.
And it seems that in that quest, sound is just one element in that equation and that discovery process, and that you also explore other extramusical elements that seem to be as essential as the musical ones. I’m thinking mostly about your use of visuals and lights, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your creative process, and how all of these elements work together.
I feel like, yes, sometimes – well, actually, a lot of the time, but not all the time – I feel like it’s necessary for the way the work is going that there are these visual elements, because of the way I hear and see them at the same time to begin with. My process will start with me hearing and seeing this concept, these connections. I don’t really start out thinking, “I’m going to use this kind of visual or this kind of lights”—well, sometimes that’s what happens. It’s just to serve the purpose of the original concept and idea.
So it’s not one after the other; it seems that they’re fully integrated…
And you think of sound as visual and visual as sound, in a way? Or are they separate compositional elements that form a whole?
I feel they’re more like pushing and pulling each other, like forces that react on each other more, more than I hear visual as sound and vice versa. More like a mathematic instruction for me.
How does this notion that you’re describing of expanding composition to consider other non-sound elements shift your own perception of the work, and the audience’s, as well?
One important thing about using visuals and music, it’s always such a pain for me, because I understand that a visual thing takes a lot more attention than the sound. That’s just how we’re built: we see things first, and then we hear them. So I feel like I have to be really careful about how I use these things. That’s also a big part of my process, just thinking, “How do I fit this comfortably, without especially the visual taking too much space or attention from the sound?” And it’s probably different for everyone who hears and sees the work.
For myself, I’m always discovering, because I’m never doing the same thing. I’m always learning, and sometimes I realize after the fact that this should maybe have been less of this or that. But usually I feel like I strike a balance there—and find out something surprising, as well. I can have all these intentions for a piece and think, oh, yeah, this is how it’s going to be. And then in the end it isn’t quite so, and it’s very interesting to me.
It seems like there’s something about these opposing forces and the push and pull between them, and that’s kind of the space in which discovery happens, and you find new things.
In terms of the audience, as they see and hear a work of yours, what kind of experience do you want the audience to take away from it as they’re in the space?
I never really think so much about what I hope an audience will take away from it, because that’s another thing that also excites me: just letting it be, and hearing afterwards how people felt and what they took away. What I hope will happen is that people would feel some sort of—how do I phrase this? I do hope that people will be feeling comfortable, and comfortably surprised with the way they interact with the work. I hope that there is some sort of shift that happens…
That something is activated, and it’s not just a passive experience?
Yeah, that’s what I would not want: a passive experience. That something in the piece that urged me to make it – which for me is a quite powerful urge – something about that would activate something in them, and there would be some sort of reaction between us. The same push and pull, I guess.
You also talked a lot about letting go, especially when thinking about the audience, and just letting it be. And with some of the elements that you use, there’s also a letting go of control in terms of being the composer, who often does have a lot of control over every note. How do you negotiate that balance of having control of your compositional ideas, but at the same time letting go of some of that control and allowing the performers to have more flexibility on the creative choices in your work?
I always hope that the performer can approach the work ready to experiment and expand. But, you know, sometimes that’s not the case. It depends on the performer. And then sometimes you give too much information; sometimes you give too little information. So you just have to be careful what kind of performer is approaching your piece. But for me, I feel like just hearing different performers performing the piece is so exciting to me. And this is why I try to keep things loose—well, depending on the situation and the performers and the rehearsal time I have, obviously. I try to fit the notation with that. But I always hope that I can create something where every time there’s something different happening, and every performer can bring some sort of personality that will alter the piece to create something different every time. Something that will let you know that it’s not the same time; time is moving. We’re not stuck in this time, and I need to hear something that’s different.
It seems in that case that the performer’s input or expression or interpretation of the work becomes a very important part of that discovery process.
Yeah. And this is why I love working with people who have some sort of an improvisation background, because I feel like they feel a little bit more liberated to take some power for themselves. I love that so much.
Yeah. As composers, one of the main ways in which we communicated with performers is through notation, for better or for worse. And it seems that in your work, because of the nature of it, there might be also a push and pull with notation. I’m wondering if you can talk about your relationship with notation in connection to your creative process, and if it’s an integral part of it or something that’s more of a practical way of documenting your ideas and communicating them to performers.
I feel like I kind of talked about that earlier, which is that it all has to do with the context of who I’m writing a piece for, what situation I’m writing a piece for, what kind of notation comes out of it, and, especially, what is the idea? What is the central idea of the piece? And then I just have to work my way into what is the fitting kind of notation for this kind of piece. It’s still always an experiment, and I’m still always finding out things that work and things that maybe don’t work so well, who is comfortable with what, what kind of performer is comfortable with what kind of notation.
Do you find yourself sometimes being frustrated by the fact that you have to somehow document, and even though you explore different alternate notation systems, there’s still this kind of confined limit of our staff and this main language that’s common for all of us?
Well, yeah, maybe I do get frustrated when I’m not getting that much time with the performers. If I just have to make something and present it, sometimes it can be a little bit… well, you would understand this, I’m sure.
I really wish that all composers could be given a week workshop… no, like an hour would be great. Just an hour, two or three months before you’re actually supposed to turn in something.
The limitations of time are very real, and, as composers. I feel like we have to be strategic, as you were saying, depending on the context and rehearsal time and the performers and how much you know them. Then you have to find the right way of communicating to them what you want that could get you results that are closer to what’s in your head. You talked about time, and I know this is something that, especially at the beginning of our time together, we talked a lot about just finding a routine, and finding a way of scheduling creative work, which is really challenging. I’m wondering if you could talk about what your daily routine looks like, and how does creative work fit into that? What does creating look like, in your daily life?
I feel like the most important part of my day would be when I wake up immediately and I sit down—I don’t know if you’re the same way, but it’s just that calm of the morning is essential. And I feel like I have like those maybe two hours in the morning where I’m in a really good space with thinking or writing or drawing or putting down something on paper. And then maybe if I have some technical work to do, that would be maybe later in the day work, because then I’ve already kind of messed up my brain with this and that—you might as well just do the more mechanical work after you’ve gone through that. That’s kind of mainly how my day goes, in work mode.
You’ve already talked a little bit about how these extramusical elements work in your music, and I know that’s also a big part of the new commission that you wrote for the Hildegard concert. What’s the inspiration or motivation behind that piece? I know you’re exploring some of these things that we’ve been talking about, but in this space specifically, can you share what’s the urge to write it?
Well, I wouldn’t normally say this, but it’s kind of still too raw, so I don’t know if I can actually talk about it. Is that bad?
It’s in very close proximity, in terms of time, and maybe it’s just…
Emotionally, going into a very specific way of how this piece came abouy might be too much for me to get into.
I appreciate you sharing that. I know that when I hear the work, I’ll understand that better, too.
I mean, I’m definitely expanding on some ideas and experimenting more with some techniques along the lines of what we had talked about.
Well, I’m curious to know if there are questions that constantly come up, or questions that you constantly ask yourself, when you’re creating.
Yes. Is this still in line with my original idea? Does it still have that core with this impulse or this feeling that I got to begin with, that made this process start? So regularly I would check back in: am I on the right track and creating what I set up to do? And I feel like that’s definitely a question I ask myself, oh, every day.
So it’s kind of a reflection, in a way, of making sure that you stay on track with your original concept and idea?
Yes. That feeling, that wholeness of the thing that I felt, that I’m trying to represent.
It sounds like it has to do a little bit with the integrity, in a way, of your original idea, and making sure you stay true to it.
Is that something that’s really important to you?
Oh, yeah. Yes, that’s very important to me,
When I’m creating sometimes, I could have been thinking about a piece for months, and when I start writing, again, that push and pull sometimes wants to go in a different direction. A big part of composing is figuring out if it should go there, or if I should stay true to my original idea. I wonder if sometimes that happens to you, too, if there are pieces that just feel like they want to go someplace else, and you’re okay with that.
Yeah, definitely. So when I say that I check back in, it’s not that I have this very rigid original thing. It’s more like, is this story still true to the general feeling? And I do allow myself to go somewhere if I feel like that’s still a part of what it originated from. But definitely, if I feel like it should it go somewhere, I would take stock and then allow myself to go there, yes. And this is something that I think has to happen. How else are we going to organically grow and figure out something else that’s surprising, you know?
Yeah. It’s all part of that discovery process. It’s embracing changes, but also staying true, too. It seems that not only staying true to your original idea, but mostly to who you are as an artist, I think would be the bigger thing. Is there anything connected to your Hildegard piece, or the experience of being one of the winners of this competition, that you would like to share, that has been either particularly challenging or particularly exciting?
It’s just been such a joy getting to talk to you, and bounce off of you things and ideas. I would say that’s been a great pleasure. It’s been very inspiring to be welcomed into this community of strong women—and not only women, you know, the strong community of people, like yourself. That’s amazing to me.
Thank you. I’m so looking forward to hearing your new piece, and also talking later about your discoveries that arise from it, after hearing it.
Bergrún Snæbjörnsdóttir’s music will be featured in the Hildegard Competition Concert at National Sawdust on June 4 at 7pm; nationalsawdust.org