Icelandic composer Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson (1958) is many things: a free-thinking composer, a prolific creator of soundtracks for movies (including for the film “Mona”, by the Latvian director Ināra Kolmane), a winner of various awards, a producer, and a generator of cooperative projects. He is profoundly reserved and timid, with an almost inarticulate manner of speaking. It almost seemed as if I would fail to make a real connection with him when, suddenly, our conversation was interrupted by his first smile – he has a glowing smile, and although it's slightly ironical in nature, it is very, very kind.
Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson. Photo: Māris Kiseļovs, film studio DEVIŅI archive
Let's begin with the traditional Icelandic form of music, which in English could be called “rhymes” (ríma, plural – rímur).
We know more about ríma from a literary aspect, and less from a musical one. We have definite historical information on this tradition that goes back about 250 years; we have 75-year-old recordings of rímur, sung by people who's grandparents had sung them. So, we're speaking of approximately the 18th century here. But the age of the tradition itself could be even seven or eight centuries old.
Ríma is a very peculiar form. In Iceland, we have an overall very complicated and strictly regulated poetic tradition – it must use complex metaphors and a complicated composition style, and people were very intimidated by this tradition because there was literally only a handful of people who knew how to use it; so, the tradition was very esoteric. It was essentially pagan, and even a few centuries after we had become Christians, we still used pagan metaphors in our verse.
In his time, Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241) wrote a book about mythology and the educating of poets. But our poetic tradition had already become so ponderous and, as I already mentioned – esoteric, that it died a natural death. European influences arrived and, possibly from England, in came the rhyming stanza; it was at this time that the ríma tradition was born. The old sagas were put into a popular, more easily understood form. The same old metaphors were used, but in a style that was simpler to grasp. It's interesting that the ríma tradition has survived for all of these long centuries, and even today, people sing and compose their own verse in this form – very similar to the one that has been preserved since the time of the vikings. It is still alive and active, and doesn't seem ready to die off. That's really strange because already back when I was young, I was told that this is an archaic and silly tradition that will, most likely, soon disappear. But in truth, nothing disappears.
Ríma isn't the only traditional form of music, or is it?
No, no. Our traditional music also has other elements of archaic musical forms. Back in my early youth, we were taught that Icelanders didn't have their own music until the 19th century, which is when the first composer (to have received an education in academic music in Denmark) came to Iceland. Complete rubbish. We have so many ancient manuscripts that have examples of musical notation. In these manuscripts you can also find songs of purely Icelandic origin, and they're quite similar to the rímur.
Icelandic music and verse have a peculiar metre: in Europe, it is usually regular – two-part or three-part, whereas we have a seven-part metre. It looks as if Icelanders have a rather strange sense of rhythm. If you want to find something similar to Icelandic music, you just might have to go to Northern Africa – even though we haven't had any contact with Africa.
That then settles the issue of metre, but how about intervals – do Icelanders have micro-intonation?
Yes, but we've lost it in the current day. Listening to old recordings, you can hear how singers from before used Pythagorean tuning, in which the third is between the traditional tempered minor and major third. The same for the ends of lines – you can hear sound-figures that are similar to something like a quarter-tone, or at least something like that (laughs).
Is it true that in your ancient songs, you made liberal use of parallel fifths? At least that's what we non-Icelanders tend to think.
Yes, this singing in parallel fifths is widespread with us. Of course, it calls to mind canonical singing of the middle ages – the Latin mass cantus firmus. I can't even say if it's a specifically Icelandic tradition, but in any sense, it seems to me that we use this way of singing more successfully – with a much larger dramatic effect, than the church did. I never feel shivers down my spine when I hear old monks singing cantus firmus, but when I hear Icelandic songs in fifths, I get goosebumps.
How did Church and pagan traditions co-exist in Icelandic music – did they influence one another, or did they have separate paths, like two parallel streams?
I think that they have always been close to one another. Iceland's conversion to Christianity was a political and economic decision. We could no longer trade with Denmark, and it was the King of Norway who actually made us convert. Nevertheless, for at least three hundred more years, Iceland remained quite pagan – we used the same pagan first names, and the Church-given name was added to that; and that continued up until the 15th century. And our poetry continues to live – up to the current day – and at its foundation are all of the pagan myths. One could say that we were Christians, but our pagan roots lived on in us for all of these centuries.
I read an interview with you in which you spoke of the National Church.
That is the official church of Iceland – Lutheranism. I was born as a Lutheran, but in Iceland, when one turns sixteen, you have the right to choose which religion you want to belong to. Luckily, the year before I turned sixteen years old, our pagan roots were officially recognized. And when I turned sixteen, I got carried away with everything that was pagan.
Tell me about the great musician, Steindór Andersen.
My meeting him came about directly through the newly-allowed pagan church [the neo-pagan religious organization Ásatrúarfélagið, which was recognized in 1973 – O.S.]. At that same age of sixteen, I was lucky enough to meet Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson (1924 – 1993); he was the first high priest of Ásatrúarfélagið, and also a very good singer of rímur, because he born into a family where this tradition had been handed down through the generations. They were seven brothers and sisters, of which six composed rímur. The seventh sister did it in her sleep. Sveinbjörn was unique, and he had a considerable library. If you came to him with a poem or a metre of verse, he would immediately remember some ancient song.
When I first met Beinteinsson, I thought he was an old man, but he was probably around forty. Most likely, it was his long white beard that made him look ancient. I absolutely fell in love with the ríma tradition. Thirty years ago my friend, the film director Fridrik Thor Fridriksson (1954), made the documentary film Rock in Reykjavik, and I helped him with it. It's a film about music in Iceland, and at the beginning, there are scenes with a ríma singer. It shows our roots – what is at the foundation of our rock and roll.
So, Sveinbjörn was the one responsible for my love of ríma. And when I met with the high priest shortly before his death, he told me I should get to know a wonderful young man with a great voice. That's what he said – young. At the time, Steindór Andersen (1954) was almost forty.
Although immediately after that, I left Iceland and was gone for six years. Of course, I forgot all about this young person. When I returned to Iceland, I heard people talking about some wonderful man with a great voice. It turned out that they were speaking about Steindór. We met, and we immediately made a connection. Since then, we have, more or less, worked together. He is unique. He has such a sense of hearing that he notices all of the nuances. Steindór listens to old recordings and figures out how to emulate with his own voice what he has heard. In addition, it comes very easily to him. We have many well-trained singers that try to sing rímur, but it sounds quite miserable – because their singing is missing all of those small faults that differentiate true ríma singing. They are, and always will be, academic singers; but to sing rímur, you need to have your feet firmly rooted in it.
I have had both the joy and the privilege to work with Steindór for over a dozen years now. This summer we will be releasing an album on which we have been working for about six years. The idea is to take traditional music and steer in into the modern day. We use rock & roll and a string quartet, but nevertheless, I don't think we've lost our ties to tradition.
Do you sing yourself?
Yes, but I never sing in the same room, or even the same building, as Steindór. That would be too humiliating for me... (laughs heartily).
Tell me about your childhood and your eventual path towards music.
I grew up in very privileged circumstances – in a big house in which my grandparents also lived. My father had to continue his studies in Germany, so I didn't see him for the period when I was two to five years old. My grandmother's sister and her husband, Pall Isolfsson (1893-1974), who was the organist at Reykjavik Cathedral, also lived in the house. He had had the opportunity to study under Karl Straube, in Leipzig. I'll add that Pall was the first non-German to be allowed to play the organ during services at the Church of St. Thomas in Leipzig. And as it turned out, fate just happened to allocate him as my babysitter.
Every morning, Pall Isolfsson would take me to the city's cathedral – he had to practice, so there was nothing to do but take me along. And so it was that at three years of age, I sat next to the organ; sometimes I was allowed to work the registers, and I'd watch the funerals and weddings that took place. I grew up accompanied by marvelous music – Bach, Pachelbel, Buchstehude. Pall was fantastic. He was also a great philosopher of life; he'd speak to me as if I were an adult, and he greatly influenced me.
We lived in a very artistically-minded house – writers would come for lunch. When I was growing up, there were always great people around, and I'd always act older than my years and I would listen to them talk. It was a crazy, but absolutely privileged atmosphere for an only child to grow up in.
There came the time when I started to learn to play the violin and the piano, and when I was about eleven, I began to compose. Pall was strict – he said that if I practiced eight hours a day, I had it in me to become truly great. But I only wanted to practice for about an hour, and then just write music. But no – I had to practice first. And then, it dawned on me that I would never be a genius at performing. So I thought, maybe I could become a composer?
Music has always been the main thing in my life. I tried to do other things, too – archeology, linguistics – but music always drew me back. It is like a spell.
You have done a great body of work in cinema.
Yes, I've composed the music for about 40 films, and I started very early. Fridrik Thor Fridriksson and I went to the same school. One day, he told me that he wanted to make films, and I answered – good, I'll write the music for your films. That's what we decided, and so that's what we did (chuckles). It was just as crazy as that. I wrote the music for his first film, but only a part of it was used – the rest was Frank Zappa, whom we both really liked.
How do you usually work with film soundtracks? First comes the film, then the music?
The way it goes with Fridrik is, he tells me the idea – so that in a sense, I'm already participating during the writing of the screenplay. With other directors, though, I watch what has already been filmed – obsessively. I'll watch the film even a thousand times, until I feel that I know what it is about. First comes what I like to call “the time for inspiration” – a sketching of the themes. Then comes the period of so-called “mathematical work”: minutes, seconds, rhythm... And then there's the second creative phase, in which you allow the musical themes that you have written to “breathe”. I think that that is a wonderful process. It satisfies both the creative and rational compulsions; it is like a marriage between intuition and the mind. Be creative and, at the same time, constructive. I really like to be alone with my thoughts of sound, but I also really need periods of time out in the fresh air, so that the thoughts that live in my head can get out and show themselves. That is always a wonderful surprise.
What was it like working with the film “Mona”?
“Mona” had several different versions. After watching it for the first time, I literally fell in love with it. I think that Ināra is one of the most fantastic directors that I've ever met. I've had the opportunity to work with very many female film directors, which is something, considering how few women in the world work in this profession. I like them, and in some way, they like me (smiles). Ināra's way of visual thinking is not unlike that of the Icelandic director Kristín Jóhannesdóttir – excellent scene composition, and an original and unique way of getting the actors to do the best that they are capable of.
I could also call “Mona” my personal crusade. I very much wanted to do the music for this film, but at the time, Iceland was experiencing a huge economical downturn, and it looked as if it was going to be tough for “Mona”; but I couldn't even allow myself to think that this film might not end up getting finished. I'll add that I was absolutely impassioned that it would be my music that would be heard in the film. And then, it just happened that I included one of my composition students – Erns Eldjarns – in making the music for the film. What he composed was completely different than what I would have done, but nevertheless, I decided that this would be a teacher and student co-project; the final result ended up being half composed by me, the other half by Erns. Moreover, it's impossible to tell which episodes belong to which composer. We became as if one. I borrowed some of his techniques – he borrowed some from me.
Was that the first time that you worked in tandem with someone?
Yes, but as a producer, I've worked with many different Icelandic groups. And I really like this work, because every once in a while, I become tired of being alone – of doing it all alone. I like to work with people; it's an opportunity to come into contact with various styles. I've produced both death metal groups and old Chicago blues players – I like this extreme amplitude. One of my favorite artists is this guy who is like the Bob Dylan of Iceland. He's one of Iceland's all-time best poets and completely crazy. I've produced a lot of his albums. It really is inspiring and worthy to work with so many different musical styles.
You use the word “crazy” quite often; it leaves one with the impression that Icelanders are a crazy kind of people.
Iceland has a population of only 300,000 – that would be like a small city in America or England. And at the same time, we have this strange idea that we can offer something to the world. We have created poetry and music that, in our opinion, the world could like. And that does sound crazy if we remember that, at the end of the 19th century, there were literally only a couple of dozen people who started it all, convinced that we will conquer the world. It's strange, but we really have done it. We publish our own books, produce our own music CD's, and we distribute it all outside of Iceland. It is hard to achieve great success in our country, simply because there are so few of us. To have someone hear us, we have to go outside of Iceland. If at home we have an audience of 50 people, then outside of Iceland, that audience will be 50 thousand.
But where does the craziness come from?
I think from our conviction that we have something to say; that what we say has a message.
In listening to traditional Icelandic music, one gets the feeling that it is very closely tied to the natural environment of Iceland. Is that true?
To be absolutely truthful, I used to think that that was just one big perceptive cliché. But when I remember the years that I spent away from Iceland – when I worked in Denmark, which was very advantageous both financially and artistically – I have to say that I felt horrible, because I missed the mountains and sea of Iceland. After five years, I saw Iceland in my dreams nightly, and when my daughter was born, I just HAD to go back, because the thought of her growing up outside of Iceland made me sick. So you see, that cliché about the Icelanders' close connection to their country turned out true – I couldn't live anywhere else; I had to return. At the same time, there are so many things in Iceland that I can't stand – we really must be a strange nation. When the financial crisis was nearing, when people were getting rich really quickly, everyone was just talking about property and money – it was so un-Icelandic. I felt as if that wasn't us, those are not Icelanders that are experiencing all of this. Because over the span of six generations, we have become very interrelated; you could say that every one of us is very distantly related to every other Icelander. And when problems arise, a whole self-help network forms. That is what I really like in Iceland. In the period before the financial crisis, we had lost that. That's why I was very happy when everything collapsed. We were forced to return to the essential; to that which we are; to that which is really important.
There's a certain group of people in Latvia for whom the group Sigur Rós is practically a cult. Tell me about your work with them.
Iceland has this recording company called Bad Taste (Smekkleysa), which was established by the group The Sugarcubes. It was an altruistic exploit, because when The Sugarcubes received international acclaim and became rich, they decided to put their money into this recording company, so that it could promote Icelandic music. Under the wing of this company, both classical music and albums by new groups were released. And the guitarist for The Sugarcubes, Thor Eldon, once told me that he had heard this wonderful group – at the time they called themselves Victory Rose [the English translation of Sigur Rós – O.S.] – and sent me a recording. I still lived in Denmark at the time. I listened to this music, and I thought it was fantastic. I called Ken Thomas, an English producer who, I thought, would best know how to work with this kind of music. Under the tutelage of Ken, they recorded their second album, which most people know as Sigur Rós's first album, Ágætis byrjun, and it was excellent. Ken had sent me the first unfinished mixes, and I remember how I sat in a Copenhagen cafe, listening to those recordings and crying.
I usually like to work alone, except when I'm working as a producer. But this was the first time that I had ever thought: “I would like to be a part of this group”. I felt a blood-tie with these musicians. When I moved back to Iceland, I met with the guys and offered to do a co-project with them. That turned out to be Hrafnagaldur Óðins, which is basically pagan mythology for a 40-piece orchestra and Sigur Rós. A dream project! It might come out on DVD this year.
Was it created for the Reykjavik Arts Festival?
Yes. But we first performed it at London's Barbican Centre. Then a month later in Reykjavik, and we've also performed it in Paris. A wonderful project! I'd have to say that I feel as if the boys from Sigur Rós are my own children. In the 1980's, when we established the Bad Taste company in Iceland, we had to start from nothing. Currently, we have at least three recording houses that take care of new talents and help them develop. Back then, we needed help ourselves.