Published January 6, 2017
Gyða Valtysdóttir first rose to prominence as one of the twin singers in the first iteration of múm, but her story over the past few years is very much her own. After studying classical cello in Russia, she spent a few years travelling the world, collaborating, and slowly piecing together ‘Epicycle’—a “covers album” of some of her favourite classical compositions from throughout musical history. We asked her to tell us the story behind her selections.
1. Vision (based on Prokofiev’s Vision Fugitives) is the track that sparked this record, when I played it super slow on piano many years ago, and fell into the space between the notes. That is what I wanted to capture… the space between.
2. Seikilos Epitaph is the oldest surviving musical composition in the world, found on a tombstone in today’s Turkey. I met with Hilmar Jensson, and we improvised around the melody. I took one of these improvisations and asked a friend to add some bagpipes to it. He also played duduk, and it really completed the song. I also added some vocal harmony on it, recorded straight onto the laptop.
3-4. Ancient Mode. I love Harry Partch—he’s really got his own unique space. This was originally written for his own invented microtonal instrument called the “harmonic canon.” We recorded it in (marimba player) Danny Tunick’s living-room in NYC; we had never met so I brought wine and meat. We only had couple of hours to do the recording but half of that went into the meal. Than we played and Shahzad Ismaily joined on percussion.
5. Opus 100. This piece is based on a piano trio by Schubert. I met with Shahzad and the drummer Julian Sartorius. We learned the chords of the pieces and then improvised on it for two hours. This was the best version, with some tiny bits of overdub on it.
6. God Music. Another spark for this record, this is the absolutely heavenly movement from George Crumb’s “Black Angels,” which is immense and intense. I love playing it as a short little song in my live sets. The accompaniment is bowed crystal glasses, though on the recording I used bowls, sampled and then played on a keyboard.
7. Im Wunderschönen Monat Mai by Robert Schumann. Me and Shahzad often slept in the studios we were working. One of them had a huge room, and we made a pirate ship in the middle of it, filled it with candles and blankets. Shahzad fell asleep and I sang this on repeat as we sailed into the night.
8. Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus by Olivier Messiaen is from “Quartet for the End of Time” which he wrote while he was a prisoner of war during WWII. This particulate movement, for cello and piano, is a recycle of “Fête des belles eaux”, written for six Onde-Martenot in 1937. It is so dreamy and trippy and inspired my interpretation. Shahzad plays electric guitar and we’ve been performing this in pubs and bars all over the world.
9. Hildegard von Bingen was a witch-nun, nature-scientist and healer from the 12th century. She had visions from an early age, but in her 40s she was told by the almighty to channel and write down what she heard. At first she was reluctant, but she fell seriously ill until she started to write melodies and poems, most of which are almost Sapphic odes to lady Mary. I read her diary and felt inspired to read over her music on the cello. I recorded it just for fun with a Shure mic lying on a chair, then forgot about it. I found the recordings while working on the record and it slipped in.