Gyða Valtýsdóttir could be at once described as a cellist, composer, artist and mystic but categories are something she feels are divisive. Over the course of our conversation, this is a recurring theme: not only has she evolved a great deal since her musical career began in the iconic Icelandic indie band múm, but the world as she sees it is evolving to a point where old barriers are disappearing.
“The idea of division of anything, categorising in any field, is something that I feel that we as a collective are dissolving,” Gyða says. “It’s just a pattern I see through everything, dissolving these boxes. I think the change is happening in our brains. It’s making more neurological connections to all the rooms in our brains and then you see it expressed in reality.”
Those who are familiar with Gyða’s oeuvre are likely familiar with her ever-present cello, her mastery of which she describes in terms of magic. ”I didn’t really know the instrument before I picked it,” she says. “My older sister told me that the cello was deep and mysterious and that resonated with my seven-year-old self. It didn’t just come naturally; I wasn’t super gifted or anything. I had a love/hate relationship with it, and I did quit for a while, but mastering any instrument is so much a conversation with yourself as well. For me, at least, it was that way. I thought it was highly spiritual, like an esoteric magic school. But that came from my connection to my teacher Gunnar Kvaran.”
Gunnar’s tutelage would prove to have a deeply positive impact on Gyða, in some ways changing her outlook on music itself.
“He really understood me and he took me right away into the world of vibrations. I was very sensitive to energies and this was the first time someone was giving them names, talking about them as a true thing—something tangible. He talked about how you put energy into the notes and how you shape it; it was like learning how to navigate reality.”
Gyða is very sensitive to energies, to the point where “when people talk, there’s a certain energy that fills the words. A lie to me is like a void of energy and it’s so obvious but as a child you just get very confused because there are so many empty words.”
Getting “a Master’s in self-destruction”
After Gyða departed múm, life would take her to many places, from Russia to Switzerland. It was a transformative period in Gyða’s life and not always an easy one.
“The next years in my life were a labyrinth and, to be honest, I was often completely lost,” she recalls. “For some reason I kept putting myself in these odd places that I didn’t feel I belonged to. I did not find a teacher again that understood me—at all—and it was nothing like a mystery school. To study classical music is a bit like getting a Masters degree in self-destruction, because you train your brain to be incredibly critical to the point where it’s damaging. I wasn’t going to be a classical musician; I just wanted to be fluid on the instrument.
“Music is my mother language, I used to get so frustrated with words and I couldn’t understand why we aren’t using telepathy more.”
The times that followed were difficult ones for Gyða; even if in retrospect they proved positive for her, it was not a perspective she held at the time. “I see it as an alchemical process,” she says. “You undo yourself, into pieces and burn it, vapourise it and solidify it again, put them back together but everything has changed. Today there is no discipline in my life to be honest. You don’t really need it if you are truly invested, curious and loving what you do. It is called ‘blissipline’. I find it kind of difficult to talk about the past, because in different times in your life, you view it in different ways. I wasn’t seeing this as an alchemical process at the time.
“At one point I even just wanted to give up. I was 33 and I felt as if I had jumped so often off some sort of a ‘train of fate;’ avoided my calling in a way. I was sure I had just completely failed at life and I just wanted out, I couldn’t see any other way. But I chose life and I stopped everything, forever, if that is what I needed. I took all expectations of myself and had only one dream: to have good human connections, starting with myself.”
“It was the most precious, painful and beautiful time in my life,” she continues. “Even though I did almost nothing but learn how to be a human for a whole year, in those five years since then, everything has been flowing faster and with more ease than I could ever have imagined.”
The magic of interpretation
Part of the problem with classical music, from Gyða’s perspective, again goes back to divisions; “between composer and a performer, the division of the classical world as opposed to ‘pop-music,’ between intellect and creativity. We need the whole spectrum for a healthy balance.” In the spirit of dissolving boundaries, Gyða would stretch her wings and begin a new phase in her life, one marked by the magic of collaboration.
“You have to be very open and sense the other person’s approach, which are all very different,” she says of collaboration. “But you also get to expand yourself, others can pull out a side of you that you cannot reach by yourself. For example with [composer] Úlfur Hansson, we go to a place that feels so right, so strong and actually so much myself, but it is a place unique to our connection, I can’t go there myself.”
Likewise, in a way turning the classical concept of interpretation on its head, or inside out, is Epicycle, a collection of Gyða’s interpretations of compositions from the past. Consistent with her vision of dissolving boundaries, the artists she chose to interpret are incredibly varied and wide-ranging.
“What I’m doing on that album is taking a lot of freedom of interpretation,” Gyða says. “It’s a very personal approach.” This shows in spades, as she covers artists ranging from Schuman, Schubert Prokofiev and Hildegard von Bingen—”a 12th century witch-nun who downloaded her music from God,” as Gyða describes her. “Creating the Epicycle records is about giving myself freedom to approach any music the way I want. Freely, but with respect.”
The easy birth of Evolution
The album that followed, 2018’s Evolution, saw Gyða not only bringing original compositions to the fore, with such haunting songs as ‘Moonchild’ and ‘Í annarri vídd’—a song she describes as “the mother potato of the record”—but also marked a new stage in her development as an artist.
“This record was a very easy birth in a way, but only after years of not finding how to do it in an easy way,” Gyða says. “I think it’s because I was coming from these 10 years of classical training, I had to have the opposite. Being very much in flow, so that I wouldn’t be using this perfectionistic, critical part of myself. The process was very intuitive. I let everything come to me, even the name or the album art. It didn’t make sense to look for a name because I knew it would come … when it did, I found it took me by surprise but I knew not to argue and I started to love it.”
Following Evolution, she would return again to interpretation with Epicycle II—an album she has described as “genre-fluid”—only this time with the added magic of collaboration. Once again, we see Gyða emphasising the need to dissolve boundaries, as evidenced by the artists she chose to collaborate with.
Collaborations and a syncretic horizon
“Epicycle II is an ode to collaboration and interconnection,” she says of this work. “I wouldn’t be who I am without the people I’ve met along the way. The eight musicians on Epicycle II have all been in my life to some extent for the past 20 years. They have inspired me and shaped me as a human and an artist. I also choose them because they have all created their own unique musical language that doesn’t fall easily into any existing category.
“This album is so dear to me because of how much I love everyone on it. Some are not in my life anymore, but it was still a beautiful postcard to the past, to rekindle the connection. Daníel Bjarnason’s piece is the only one that pre-existed, so there was no collaboration in the recording process, but then he joined me for the creation of the video. I think that was the first time we really looked into each other’s eyes since we said goodbye almost 15 years ago. We were partners during the years that shape you the most; learning, sharing, arguing and influencing one another, then departing after six years to become almost strangers again. So there is a bit of a nod to the past, also acceptance.”
Epicycle II does indeed blossom with numerous voices. Therein lies such luminaries as Anna Þorvaldsdóttir, a Grammy-nominated composer whose haunting symphony, “Metacosmos,” has been performed by the New York Philharmonic and the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra. Also making an appearance is Ólöf Arnalds, a multi-instrumentalist who has been moving listeners for years, both on her own and through her numerous collaborations. Many readers are also familiar with “Evol Lamina,” Jónsi’s contribution to the album done in collaboration with Gyða, the video for which—like so many others from Gyða—invites the viewer to experience joy and mystery.
The magic doesn’t end there, either, as she then went into a new album. This album will reflect a more syncretic approach, drawing from past experiences to form a work born from harmony, or allowance of dissonance.
“I think for the first time I’ve reached home in a way,” she explains. “I can now use my whole experience. [Evolution] was done in a way to bypass my left-brain, critical aspect but now I feel like I can use all of it with a kind of harmony with all the different individuals who make me. I’ll allow them to do their thing. I’m at the very beginning but I can sense it; it is kind of floral and can be both dark and incredibly pretty.”
Dissolving the walls
Gyða has a lot to say about evolution, in many respects. It extends through her vision on a wide range of subjects, informing her approach to her art.
“I think it’s everywhere, from a big scale to a small scale, in politics or even within the body,” she says. “The division of the human body and the human soul; of who you are, of personalities; of societies, race and gender. I just think that’s all dissolving and I think that art can help with that.”
“Even in architecture, how things have moved from narrow, boxy spaces into roomier spaces with fewer divisions. But in some ways, the step we are taking, especially in terms of identification, is to add more boxes, triangular boxes, circular boxes, but still always dividing things and labelling them. But it seems inevitable that we are moving to dissolving them completely.”
While the coronavirus pandemic kiboshed many of her initial plans, effectively sequestering her in New York for three months—”I haven’t been three months in one place for over eight years”—she nonetheless saw the moment as a net positive for her.
“I’m not excited about going back to the old life,” Gyða tells us. “It feels like reality is in a liquid form now and we can use that to re-shape it. Right now there’s a huge opportunity to evolve as a species. I just see it like a pattern in your own life, when you have a breakdown and how incredibly powerful it can be for the expansion of your own consciousness. I think it’s the same for humanity in a way. The polarities right now are so extreme. Maybe we need to really feel that to build a more interconnected world.”
“It’s a gift but it feels like a hell when you’re in it, it is really a death of the ego. So it’s like, ‘do I want to pick up that old ego, or move forwards?’ I think we are at that moment as a collective and the ego of society is our social construct.”
Beyond the binary
This vision of hers also informs her thoughts about the nonbinary gender identity and children growing up in these interesting times.
“I’ve thought about these things a lot in terms of identity,” she says. “We have to change society faster than we are helping trans children. Thankfully society has started to become more acceptant of trans people, but it is still an acceptance based on an old way of looking at things. We have more options in some countries, but you still have to choose. It’s related to everything else in terms of dissolving the boxes and having a more open mind about reality. Nonbinary is becoming a concept that we’re understanding and embracing. That is so important; to feel like you live in a society that allows all of it to exist. These are the ones, along with anyone else who doesn’t fit in, who are fighting for a better world for all of us.”
“Authenticity is something I felt I had to work towards for a long time,” Gyða continues. “I see that for the young generation growing up now, authenticity is so much more a present thing. I wish I would have grown up in that. I guess my complexity with it also has something to do with growing up as a twin [her sister, Kristín Anna, is also a musician in her own right]. You’re sharing your identity with someone who might be completely different from you. You are not just discovering who you are, but also getting rid of your twin in the whole soup of identity.”
The spiritual path of polyamory
At this point in the conversation, we turned to a subject that also reflects the importance Gyða places on dissolving boundaries: polyamory. Her perspective on this subject demonstrates her drive to embrace the dissipation of categorisation. And the journey there began early in her life.
“There were obviously so many different levels of love, physicality and connection and it didn’t have anything to do with gender,” Gyða explains. “I didn’t even identify with bisexuality because that wasn’t it; I felt like there was no closet to come out of. However, when I actually started a relationship with a woman, we both had partners. Polyamory or ethical non-monogamy were new concepts for me and I felt like it was still such a taboo. And all of the sudden I built this closet. It felt so contradictory to myself. Even if it is much more common in the queer community but people are still kind of quiet about it.”
The discovery and realisation of polyamory would prove to be an epiphany for her.
“It truly exploded my preconception of a relationship and it finally started to make sense,” she says. “There are no rules, it didn’t make sense to just move the rules a little bit further out—they all had to go to find the ultimate trust and honesty.
“For me, polyamory is a spiritual path, it goes so far beyond sex. It is about full dedication to trust and honesty, also towards yourself. You can really start to share every aspect of yourself with your partner(s). And allow the person you love to blossom in their utmost way, even if that blossom is sparked by another person. Those who have entered our relationship have enriched it and left us with precious gifts, but to be honest it was sort of a disaster in the beginning. While you’re peeling the layers off, that is painful but very worth it. And don’t get me wrong, ‘conscious monogamy’ is beautiful; it is like a diamond, but we can learn a lot from polyamory to reach that.”
For Gyða, polyamory is not only in keeping with the evolution of society; it may also heal the way we currently do relationships.
“If we are to build a new world, the fastest way is breaking down the social construct,” she says. “Let’s admit it, we are failing miserably at love and relationships! We can do so much better. It is sort of approaching everything with an open curiosity; to ask ‘who are you and what is this relationship?’ instead of ‘oh, this is a relationship; this is how that should go.’ Get rid of the recipes. We can have so many nurturing relationships and we really need that, I think connection is what we humans are needing the most.
To watch humanity blossom
As we began to conclude our conversation, I realised I had completely forgotten to ask about her winning the prestigious Nordic Council Music Prize last year.
”It caught me by surprise. I actually tried to give the nomination back,” she says, laughing. “I felt like it was too early, that I should have reached some point in my career, which I didn’t feel I had reached. I’ve gone into so many different directions and each time I felt as if I’m starting at the beginning. It has been such a winding road that I tend to forget all the things that I’ve done.”
Gyða considers this thought for a moment, and then adds: “It sounds like a very complex thing for me to be a musician. It is like that because I only know how to be too personal, combined with this urge to be private. You are always exposing your heart. It took a breakdown to come to terms with that, but it also wasn’t really a choice.
Gyða’s philosophy informs all of her work and even in the midst of these tumultuous times, her optimism shines through.
“I feel like that’s what we’re working on right now, on a global scale,” Gyða says. “We have to open up our minds. You know how you can make a melon grow into a square? It’s like to stop doing that, with everything. If we didn’t have all these forms and criticism, all these beliefs in how things should be; if we just watch humanity blossom, what would it look like? How would it feel to be human?”
You can buy Gyða’s music in stores, and at her Bandcamp. You can also buy Epicycle II from the Grapevine shop, both on CD and vinyl. Gyða will also be performing at Harpa on September 23rd, as a part of the Reykjavík Arts Festival. Tickets are on sale here.
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