María recalls setting up at the base of the lighthouse while visitors were scattered up six flights of stairs all the way to the top. Thanks to the natural acoustics in the building, the music Amiina performed that day filled the whole space and was as clear on the ground floor of the lighthouse as at the top. At the end of the show, a father with two young boys approached the band. He had been standing at the very top of the lighthouse for the whole set. “I felt this strange feeling that the lighthouse was producing music instead of light,” María recalls him saying. “I felt like the music came from down there, up to the lens, and then [was projected] out over the sea.”
Inspired by this experience and poised for big changes within the band, Amiina set off, accompanied by a photographer, one spouse, one newborn baby and another about to be born, playing an intimate series of live shows in lighthouses around Iceland. Now, four years, two new members, and one album later, Amiina is releasing ‘The Lighthouse Project,’ a collection of new live recordings of the songs played on that tour. “It is like a memory,” María says. “A photo album that you take out and flip through.”
A delicate balance
Amiina was founded by Edda Rún Ólafsdóttir, Hildur Ársælsdóttir, María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir and Sólrún Sumarli›adóttir in the late 1990s as a string quartet with multi-layered and richly inventive instrumentation; in addition to the aforementioned saws, glasses, and string instruments, their compositions make use of xylophones, bells, synthesizers, kalimbas, and all manner of harps, among other things. There is an incredible generosity in their music—every sound, from the focal melody to the smallest chime, is given equal weight and importance. “We’ve always worked as though everyone had one fourth of a cake and then we put it together as a whole,” Maria says.
It is, of course, a difficult balance to maintain, especially now that Amiina is a sextet, having gained drummer Magnús Tryggvason Eliassen and electronic musician Kippi Kaninus in 2009. But the group has certainly benefitted from this “broader sonic palette,” not least during their live performances. “When you are performing, it is really nice to have power and volume on stage. When the four of us were touring together we sometimes felt exhausted,” María says. “We had been playing all these delicate things, we felt out of breath from all the tiptoeing. So we really like the other side to turn the volume up.”
Amiina’s compositions and arrangements develop collaboratively, often with members splitting up into pairs or small groups to work on song ideas together before presenting them to the rest of the band. “Usually we don’t really talk about what we are going to do. We just do it,” María says, “and we are always amazed, the outcome is always independent from us.”
Reacting in the now
There are a few new singles on ‘The Lighthouse Project,’ but overall, the album is an opportunity for Amiina to revisit familiar songs from their debut album ‘Kurr.’ When asked why the band has chosen to revisit these songs and this project now, María reflects that the three years that have passed since the original lighthouse tour have given everyone involved the necessary perspective to get the most out of the material. “When we started listening to the recordings, we decided that this was too good to leave behind,” she says, sometimes you have to have some distance to see where the good parts and the not so good parts are.”
The band made several live recordings of each song on the album, with all of the members recording their instrumentation in the same take instead of separately, as is often the case with studio albums. This live approach makes it more musical, María says. “You have to react in the now to what’s happening.” The goal, of course, was to retain the intimacy of the original performances, to give the listener the feeling that they were hearing the set “in someone’s living room.”
Amiina is excited about releasing ‘The Lighthouse Project,’ their first album in three years, but they aren’t by any means slowing down with their other projects. The band will be spending the next year or so working on their next studio album, and will also be performing at All Tomorrow’s Parties, a music festival held at the former NATO base in Keflavík in June. They have been working on classical recordings with an American company, which is designing an app dedicated to the music of the composer Bach. Amiina has also been invited to the Cork Opera House in Ireland to collaborate with sixth grade students on musical interpretations of Amiina’s music using the Indonesian gamelan. This project has cleverly been dubbed “Gamiina.” Moreover, each member of Amiina has their own family life and independent projects—some musical, some not—which they cultivate outside of their work as a band.
“That’s kind of our world now,” María says. It is a difficult balance, but Amiina is just one element of all of our lives. It doesn’t need to be the main thing; it doesn’t need to dominate us. It’s something that is always there and we can come in and out of. We don’t have any expectations of Amiina growing bigger and more famous. We don’t need that, and the music doesn’t ask for it. It’s just rolling there, steadily.”
In 2009, the founding members of the eclectic, multi-instrumental band Amiina were invited to play a concert in a lighthouse on the Reykjanes peninsula for an unsuspecting audience, mostly parents and children who were there for a family festival over the weekend. “It was a funny moment for us,” violinist María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir says. “We knew that the people there knew nothing about us and were probably really surprised to see us banging saws and playing glasses.”