Meet the Artist: Bergrún Snæbjörnsdóttir
On Thursday, July 25, in a free performance at the David Rubenstein Atrium, the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) will present recent compositions by three pioneering composers. With work by Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Ashley Fure, and Bergrún Snæbjörnsdóttir and conducted by Vimbayi Kaziboni, the evening is part of the OpenICE initative and is presented in collaboration with Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival.
In advance of the performance, LCPA's performance marketing coordinator Halla Tryggvadottir caught up with fellow Icelander Snæbjörnsdóttir to talk about her connection to the International Contemporary Ensemble, her artistic approach, and how the history and culture of Iceland informs and inspires her work.
Halla Tryggvadottir: Could you share with us the story behind your piece on the program?
Bergrún Snæbjörnsdóttir: At the time I started composing Esoteric Mass, I recall contending with concepts of collapsing utopian constructs. Something to do with reaching 99.99% and then a shifting of the surface you are dealing with, changing gears in the face of not attaining that 100%. The piece took on many meanings for me as I worked through it, but I remember these thoughts at the beginning. I had been working with animated notation before I wrote this piece, and was interested in using a fixed component like that as a perceived core driving element for these live performers.
HT: How did your collaboration with the International Contemporary Ensemble come about, and has your path crossed before with Anna Thorvaldsdottir, the other Icelandic composer on the program?
BS: I met Ross Karre (artistic director and percussionist of the International Contemporary Ensemble) through the Nordic Music Days festival in 2016 where he saw my piece Drive Theory being performed, and we started a dialogue from there. Our first collaboration was in 2017 when he and the International Contemporary Ensemble invited me to New York to perform my piece Areolae Undant, and I was really blown away by the ensemble.
Anna [Thorvaldsdottir] is absolutely amazing, and it's been very inspiring to keep track of her through the years. The first time I met her was as a horn player, premiering a chamber piece of hers in 2011 at the inauguration of Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavík. Then last year she commissioned a piece by me on behalf of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, which premiered last March in the same concert hall, a kind of circle coming full.
HT: Hailing from Iceland, do you draw inspiration from the country's nature and culture, and, if so, how does it play a role in your works?
BS: It is safe to say I draw a lot of inspiration from the culture of Iceland. The nature will inevitably seep into your psyche from an early age, maybe especially if you grew up in the countryside as I did, and the elemental qualities of nature occupy my thoughts a lot. But of course it has also been the people and their ways that have influenced me as well. Not only is the country not very forgiving land to try to live off, Iceland was practically a third-world country up until something like 100 years ago, and if you look carefully, you'll notice the generational effects of this still echo through to today. Dramatic survival in a dramatic landscape has really shaped the people who live there and the art they create.
"I would say my music is foremost experimental in nature rather than classical."
HT: Many connect Icelandic music to Björk, but fewer know much about the country's classical music scene. What is the landscape there like for composers today?
BS: I'm not sure I call myself a classical music composer; it feels more like this is where I have landed on the large scale of things. I would say my music is foremost experimental in nature rather than classical. But I think the landscape for any kind of new music composer in Iceland is an inviting one. There are so many who are active and prolific that we even have a thriving annual festival (Dark Music Days) that continues to give something surprising every year. The new music/classical music scene is very entwined with other kinds of music and art. I would be hard pressed to name a composer who has not dabbled in an alternative outlet. Everyone in the scene knows each other, and it feels like people really root for each other.
HT: You do a lot of work internationally. How do you balance your travel schedule with time spent on new compositions?
BS: I enjoy having larger chunks of time where I can focus on what is brewing in my head, without the distractions of traveling and what comes with it. I tend not to get much done if I don't have a space in solitude and a routine around it. But I enjoy the upheaval of then leaving for work and how it shakes up that careful equilibrium, observing what happens to the process when everything settles back down in different structures.
Halla Tryggvadottir is the Performance Marketing Coordinator at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. She is also co-founder, producer, and director at GERVI Productions.