From Iceland — Listen Carefully: Bára Gísladóttir & Skúli Sverrisson's Collaborative Bass Odyssey

Listen Carefully: Bára Gísladóttir & Skúli Sverrisson’s Collaborative Bass Odyssey

Published April 12, 2019

Listen Carefully: Bára Gísladóttir & Skúli Sverrisson’s Collaborative Bass Odyssey
Photo by
Rut Sigurðardóttir & Juliette Rowland

Amidst the noise and heat of KEX Hostel in the middle of a bustling Airwaves afternoon, Bára Gísaladóttir and Skúli Sverrisson and took their seats for their first ever concert together. After a brief introduction from KEXPs’ Kevin Cole, they started to play, each barely glancing at the other. As the sound filled the room, the air seemed to freeze. Skúli’s face was still and concentrated; his fingers flickered lightly over his six-stringed bass, issuing forth a surprising noise like a faraway orchestra echoing through a large, watery space. Moments later, Bára started gently bowing her double bass, staring into the distance as she alternately muted, held, pressed and released the strings, creating a quite startling sound—a dusty, distressed, incomplete note, as if the strings were moaning. The background conversation in the room melted away and the audience leaned in closer, suddenly transfixed by what was unfolding.

“That’s great to hear,” says Bára, later, her expressive eyes open wide. “It was our first ever concert together and it was a hard show to play. It was loud when we arrived, and people were in the Airwaves mood, drinking and chilling just metres from the stage. We had to be a bit aggressive to be heard—it was very scary. But I was very surprised when I heard it. I don’t understand how they isolated the sound—they managed to keep the very fine essence of the detail. It didn’t become narrow in quality.”

Instant connection

These two musicians should, in theory, contrast sharply. Skúli is a famed master collaborator with a gently immersive and atmospheric signature sound. Bára is rougher with her instrument, alternately plucking, grabbing, and dragging the bow over the strings in a style that’s in turn delicate, violent, and willfully amusical. But when the two play together, their distinctive approaches overlap, melding and growing into something greater than the sum of its parts, and joining organically and seamlessly into a mesmerising whole.

They first came into contact when Bára, during her academic studies in Milan, became frustrated with the lack of a performance element in her course. In search of an outlet, she enquired about holding a concert at the downtown Reykjavík venue Mengi, of which Skúli is one of the founders. 

He was immediately captivated by Bára’s music. “There’s an incredible discipline and precision in her work,” he says. “And, at the other end, a sense of complete freedom—a leap of faith, somehow. And finding that balance is quite rare.”

Skúli followed Bára’s progress as she went about her studies, releasing a series of solo records and performing in various ensembles along the way. “We started talking about doing something together,” he says, “and ended up finally coming to the studio in Iðnó. We just set up the microphones and started playing.”

Shimmering moment

The two realised immediately that they were onto something special. “It was a really good feeling,” says Bára. “It was the feeling of something being right. I think our approach is quite similar, especially in the way of listening. It’s a common thread in our work—extreme listening, and the music comes from that. It starts in the ears, before anywhere else.”

“It might sound dramatic, but it was one of the few moments in life where you really feel something magical happening.”

The two didn’t spend much time discussing what they would do in advance. “We both believe in the process of making music, I think,” says Skúli. “How a sound is a sound, and it doesn’t have to be within the framework of a composition. Just playing together already had a context. And the beauty of this kind of collaboration is the cycle of getting to know the person through the music, and then getting to know the music through the person.”

For Bára, that first session proved to be profound and formative. “It might sound dramatic, but it was one of the few moments in life where you really feel something magical happening,” she smiles. “It was just a shimmering moment. I had no idea how we would work. It’s hard to explain with words. A whole new world opened up to me.”

Origin stories

The two musicians have arrived at the collaboration via very different paths. Skúli is a veteran musician with a long history of collaboration. His father was an amateur musician, giving him an early interest in records and musical instruments. 

“I became interested in the music he was playing in the house,” he recalls. “I sang in choirs as a kid, and then in the 80s I was in bands. I picked up the bass because my father had one. There was no more to the decision than that.”

“There was a manifesto of ‘It doesn’t matter what you know, but what you do.’”

He found calm and solace in music from the start. “I really enjoyed the solitary aspect of practicing an instrument,” he says. “At that time in Iceland, the music scene was quite small. As soon as I was able to play, I fairly quickly became a professional musician—which is fairly bizarre, looking back. I didn’t know much.”

Soon enough, the young bassist’s talents were in demand. He played on 30 different records, and performed live jazz four nights a week with pianist Guðmundur Ingólfsson. He also mingled with the vibrant and burgeoning DIY scene. “I was fascinated by Þeyr, and the beginning of things that are still going on, like Bad Taste Records and The Sugarcubes, which became Björk, Sigur Rós and múm—the foundation of creative Icelandic music. There was a manifesto of ‘It doesn’t matter what you know, but what you do,’ and a lot of crossover with artists and writers. It was far from the world of the symphony—it was the idea that anyone can make music.” 

Community is everything

Skúli’s true love, however, was the wave of free jazz coming from the US. Musicians like Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Albert Ayler. He enrolled at the home of free jazz, at the time—Berklee College of Music. There he was exposed to a milieu of like-minded musicians who helped set the foundations of his outlook. 

“I realised quickly that, in music and music-related activity, community is everything,” he says. “It’s having a conversation with other musicians and figuring out what to do through that conversation. Everybody is trying to understand something that nobody really understands. It’s not just that you write something, and have someone play it—it’s the product of a community. And collaboration is a form of listening—it’s a conversation where that comes to the foreground.”

The wide world

Like many of his contemporaries, Skúli migrated to New York City as a postgrad. He became involved in the formative stages of Blonde Redhead, which in turn led to a connection with John Lurie. “He introduced me to a lot of people in New York,” says Skúli. “It was an important meeting.”

“How do you get to that point where you play one note and everybody knows it’s you?”

To stay in the US, Skúli realised he’d need a dayjob. A fortuitous series of events led to a place in the band of guitarist Allan Holdsworth—a legendary figure in the jazz fusion scene of the time. “It was a solution for me in many ways,” Skúli explains, “to be able to stay in the country and to learn from a master musician.” 

He went for an audition in LA, and a week later he was on the road, touring all over the world. The collaboration proved to be an invaluable learning experience. “I was very interested in how people develop a unique voice,” he says. “Very few people can do that, but Allan did. I wanted to learn about the process—how do you get to that point where you play one note and everybody knows it’s you?”

Needing an address

After several years of touring, Skúli started to transition back into working with various colleagues he’d met along the way. His interest in cross-disciplinary, artistic, genre-bending music led him to collaborate with people like Anthony Burr, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Laurie Anderson. “Working with Laurie was an amazing opportunity that involved all of those aspects—music, spoken word, film, theatre, and communicating in a creative way, on a high level,” says Skúli. “The projects were on a big scale, but the work itself was very playful and creative.”

“I became interested in why music was always evolving in the city.”

He also started thinking about venues as spaces for collaboration. “I became interested in why music was always evolving in the city, and realised that, at any particular moment, there were a couple of small spaces where all the creativity happened, with music every night, different disciplines, different audiences, and social interactions. I started to realise that, for me, this is the most important part of music evolving in an urban environment.”

After planting some seeds in Iceland with his ‘Sería’ album—which was performed as an ensemble that included Jóhann Jóhannsson, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Hilmar Jensson, and Skúli’s future partner Ólöf Arnalds, opening doors for future collaborations—he finally moved back to Iceland after 25 years away. 

“I realised that in Iceland there were not that many places for spontaneous performances,” says Skúli. He and Ólöf started looking around for a space. “We met Bjarni Gaukur, who was just returned to Iceland and was interested in starting something with music culture. And that became Mengi, which has been a big part of my life in Iceland.” He smiles, self-effacing as always. “The scene was already happening. It just needed an address.”

Unified sound

Fittingly, Bára and Skúli’s album will come out via the Mengi label. The two have performed together several times at the Mengi space, improvising and developing their music before rapt and respectful audiences. “People were surprised about our collaboration at first, but we weren’t,” says Bára. “Skúli would like to do more dynamic stuff on his instrument than is possible—and now we can do that together. Even though both of our instruments are basses, they are very different. The double bass is more physical—you need to be physical to get the stuff out of it that you need to.”

Bára finds collaboration and group performance to be beneficial to life as a musician. “I like working with other people generally,” she says. “If you’re composing alone, it can be quite a lonely thing. And I like that—but it’s easy to get lost in it. It keeps you healthy to perform, in some sense. You can very easily get lost in something egocentric if you are always alone. It can make you unwilling to compromise or take in other influences.”

Digging deeper

The collaboration with Skúli strikes a rare note of instinctive mutual understanding. “We have a lot in common,” says Bára. “Our ideas in general—in music, and in life—are quite the same. This is a unified sound work that we have made together. To do that, you need to have something of the same origin, maybe. Most of the time you’re working with very different perspectives, which is also amazing. But this is a little more rare.”

“We both have a tendency to dig deeper into what’s happening. It’s like a tunnel, and you’re seeing how far you can get with a sound.”

“It’s really all about the tendency to dig into something,” she finishes. “We both seem to have that tendency to dig deeper into what’s happening. It’s like a tunnel and you’re seeing how far you can get with a sound. It’s a lot about how deep you dare to dig… and then, finding the right solution to get out of these places. It can be boring when everything is solved in a shimmering way and you can see the sunlight again. So we try to find different directions to find our way down, and up again.”

The energy behind

When asked to describe Bára’s sound, Skúli hesitates, seeking the right words. “There are many ways to describe music, like ‘beautiful’ or ‘aggressive’—but to me the most beautiful thing in music is when you hear individuality,” he says, slowly. “On the surface, music might appear to be dark, or strange, but at the same time it’s incredibly beautiful; there’s some kind of attitude behind it that’s beautiful. I like that idea of music, to ask: ‘What is the energy behind it?’”

Skúli namechecks Italian composer Scelsi and Romanian composer Dumitrescu as reference points for Bára’s work. “They focus on texture and the sound of the instrument, instead of being stuck inside of tonality and scales—almost like putting a microscope on a note, and inside you see harmonies and melodies,” he explains. “When Bára plays one note, there are harmonies and melodies inside that note. She’s a master of that. And to me that’s incredibly moving.”

Skies and heavens

The album is, when we speak, in the final stages of mixing and mastering. A long-form quadruple album, it was culled from over four hours of improvised sessions. The working title is ‘Caeli,’ the Latin word for “skies” or “heavens.” 

“I felt like this music was related to something ritual, or religious,” says Bára. “I’m not religious—or, maybe we all are in a way, but I don’t believe in one religion. This magic I experienced—something I hadn’t witnessed before—becomes religious, or spiritual. The song titles are in English, Latin, Icelandic, and Italian, and a lot of them are related to the heavens.”

A dangerous activity

But with musicians so ready to adapt, listen, and improvise, the title may well change before the album’s release. 

“I fell in love with the idea of music as a dangerous activity, where you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

“When I was in New York, I fell in love with the idea of music as a dangerous activity, where you don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Skúli. “That’s what I found in improvised music. Then I’d go to a heavily produced show, with a climax in the right place and the light came up—but it had no impact. I didn’t feel like I was there, and I didn’t feel the performers were there—because the structure had taken over. There was no witnessing something happening in the moment. And that’s the ultimate beauty of live music.”

“I think we both like to work in music without borders, free of genre,” finishes Bára. “That’s why I like the idea of the skies. It’s like an unlimited area… and you don’t know where it ends.”

Check out Bára’s website here, follow her Soundcloud, see Skúli’s Discogs page here, and look out for the album soon on Mengi Records.

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