From Iceland — The Alchemist Composer: Úlfur Hansson's Arborescence

The Alchemist Composer: Úlfur Hansson’s Arborescence

Published September 29, 2017

The Alchemist Composer: Úlfur Hansson’s Arborescence
Björn Halldórsson
Photo by
Elísabet Davíðsdóttir

When it comes to music, it seems like Úlfur Hansson has tried his hand at just about everything. He has toured with some of Iceland’s foremost musicians, built his own instruments, composed music for the Icelandic Symphonic Orchestra and Kronos Quartet, and taken home the 2013 Young Composer of the Year Award from the International Rostrum of Composers.

A lesser known aspect of his career might be his role in the Icelandic hardcore scene. “My roots are in hardcore and death metal,” he says, with a grin. “The hardcore scene in Iceland in the early 2000’s was constructive, educational and inspiring. I don’t really know what it’s like now, but I hope there’s something similar around for kids who are into extreme music.”

Different facets of music

Despite his two existing solo albums, Úlfur’s multifaceted approach is perhaps nowhere more evident than on his latest album, ‘Arborescence.’ It was produced by Randall Dunn of Sunn O))), and will come out on November 3 on the recently established figureight label.

“I wanted to tie together the different facets of music that interest me,” says Úlfur. “Electronic music, classical, metal, improvisation, and my voice. I felt the need to address all these elements, once and for all. I’ve been juggling a lot of different forms in the past ten years, and fusing them together in one album feels liberating and exciting.”

“I’m heavily invested in sound, not just music.”

Úlfur speaks highly of the family ambiance that dominates the figureight studio, which provides a collaborative atmosphere for artists, while allowing them to stand singularly behind their own music. “Being a part of a collective like figureight is doubly important when you’re a solo artist,” Úlfur says. “It’s a nourishing community, with the studio as a home base. It’s important to feel at home in the studio, so you can use it as an instrument rather than just a place to record.”

Some aspects of ‘Arborescence’ were in fact improvised in the studio, which Úlfur admits can be a high-pressure environment. “You need to make decisions right then and there,” he says. “Me and Randall would strive to find the balance between carefully orchestrated events and whatever the studio ghosts would have to offer. That sort of amalgamation is something we seem to do very well together.”

Alchemical composition

Another side of Úlfur’s explorations of sound has been his work as an instrument maker, which has received funding from RANNÍS (The Icelandic Centre for Research) and led to the creation of the Segulharpa (The Electromagnetic Harp)—an electro-acoustic harp that manipulates acoustic vibrations through complex analog circuitry.

“A lot of those things never passed the prototype phase, but they still make some amazing sounds.”

“That came from the other half of my brain,” says Úlfur. “The results of my experiments with the Segulharpa can be heard all over the [new] album. There are a bunch of other gadgets that are welded, wired and taped together until they look like piles of spaghetti. A lot of those things never passed the prototype phase, but they still make some amazing sounds. I’m heavily invested in sound, not just music. Creating and using my own sounds opens up an alchemical dimension to the writing process and offers me a much deeper connection with the music I make.”

Visit for more on Úlfur’s work.

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