From Iceland — From Chess Board To Sound Board

From Chess Board To Sound Board

Published September 7, 2012

From Chess Board To Sound Board
Rex Beckett

In September 1972, Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky were in Reykjavík for the World Chess Championship, pitted against each other in what would come to be known as the Match of the Century. Guðlaugur Kristinn Óttarsson, a.k.a GKÓ of the notable new-wave bands Þeyr and KUKL, was 18-years-old at the time. A long-time chess player and fan of Bobby Fischer, he came to Reykjavík to witness the final games of the historical match. This experience and his appreciation of chess later transcended into his musical body of works. In 2007 he arranged and played the music for the documentary ‘Me & Bobby Fischer.’ Subsequently, he developed an alphabetical scale for a chessboard upon which a game of chess could be played musically, namely to the 21 games played between Fischer & Spassky in the Match of the Century. To celebrate the fortieth anniversary, Guðlaugur held a concert at Laugardælakirkja on the outskirts of Selfoss this past Sunday and will be releasing a recording of the pieces before Christmas.
Tell me about the concept for the show and how you developed the music?

I always wanted to do something chess-related. Back in 2004, I wanted to make an alphabetic music scale [using the notes B & H, which are not on the Icelandic and North American scales, respectively], which would go on through the whole alphabet, A to Z, including Icelandic letters. So when I got the assignment to do the music for the Bobby Fischer movie, I remembered this. I had already done some homework some four years before. I took this scale and applied it to the chessboard; the notes A-H run along the x-axis, and the chords on the y-axis.
Is it essentially using the chess board as you would piano keys?
Yeah, in a way. So when you listen to the pieces, like “Round #3,” it’s just out-of-this-world because it’s never the same. There’s always some progression that’s going somewhere. You’re never going to the same place, unlike contemporary pop or rock music that is based on repeated segments. This is like a story, a novel. Every page you turn is different.
So each piece is named and based on the separate games that were played through the match. Is it my understanding too that each note follows the moves of the chess pieces?
Yes. Back in the day we called them ‘games,’ but now I call them rounds because it has a more musical quality. I have them all written in international standard chess script, so the opening moves in “Round #3” are Pawn goes to D4 and Knight goes to F6. Those are the pieces associated with the chords they produce on the board. And it goes on through the game for each move. Every time there is a kill or a check, I have to know the square where the move came from, and that produces variation. So when there’s a kill there’s a special flourish. Then I turned all the games into musical notation.
You had three musicians playing with you at the concert on September 2. Will you have more instruments on the recorded version?
I’m going to add in human voices. The queen will be a soprano, the king will be a deep baritone male and the bishop will be a choir. There will also be a slide trombone for the rook.
Have you been a chess fan for a long time?

Yes. I started playing when I was a young boy, maybe seven or eight. When the match took place in 1972 it was a big event. That summer I was working with my band in the East fjords, so I came rather late but I got to see the last few rounds. Also, since I was a young child, I was into science, space operations and trips to the moon.
Does your interest in space and science have something to do with the title of the concert, ‘Extragalactic And Transfinite Experience’?
Well, Bobby Fischer is not among us; he is dead. But where is he? We don’t know. He’s not hanging on a cloud. He’s somewhere very, very far away—extragalactic. And transfinite represents how we’re making contact with an extragalactic entity. Transfinite comes from a mathematician [Georg Cantor]. These are numbers that are uncountable, beyond and beyond infinity. It’s strange because the weather has been like this for two weeks, the rain and wind and cold, but yesterday [the day of the concert] it was sunny and beautiful! And as soon as the concert was over the clouds came and it rained. It’s the active universe.
So how did the concert go?

It was just unbelievable. It surpassed all my wildest expectations. You get extra energy and confidence from all the people in front of you during the show. At first, we didn’t know that the organ was upstairs. We thought it was downstairs where we could have all the musicians together. So I put all the musicians upstairs and I was the only one downstairs with my guitar and I did introductions before each piece to explain the round. Our bass player [Dean Ferrell] also suggested we wear aluminium hats because Bobby Fischer was very paranoid; he thought the KGB were trying to take signals from his brain.
Did you ever meet Bobby when he lived here? Were you friends?
Not really friends, but we met when I was working on this movie. I was going to interview him for it. He was like a 13th century eccentric. Very ancient. He couldn’t change his views on anything.

In addition to being self-proclaimed admirer of Bobby Fischer since childhood, Guðlaugur mentioned that he was a bodyguard to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. “When I was a young child, I was a big fan of America,” he said, “but I’m not anymore. If I went there today, they would put me in jail like that [snaps fingers]. I’m a bodyguard for WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange and I am a fan of Bobby Fischer, who was an outlaw.”
It turns out that the two have something in common. As Guðlaugur says, Assange and Fisher are similar in that they were both jailed and in danger of being transferred to USA to face a penalty from life imprisonment up to the death penalty.
And this is something that strikes a chord with Guðlaugur. “From an early age, I befriend the bullied and the less fortunate as a defender using wits rather than force,” Guðlaugur explains. “In the same way, I support Julian Assange as a person rather than supporting WikiLeaks as such and I equally support R. J. Fischer rather than supporting his “views” acquired during his 20-plus years as a hunted outlaw.”

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