When Is the Sound of Iceland Not the Sound of Iceland?

Steve Horowitz

String quartet Amina explains what -- and who -- they aren't.

The four female members of the Icelandic quartet Amina have opened for Sigur Rós on recent world tours and also have provided sophisticated string accompaniment for the experimental electronic band live and on recordings. But don't confuse the groups together. They have separate identities. This becomes clear when listening to AnimaminA, Amina's latest EP on The Worker's Institute label. Amina's debut EP was recorded in mid-2004 at a couple of places, including Sigur Rós's swimming pool studio, Sundlaugin near Reykjavik, Iceland and released in May of this year. Amina's sparse, acoustic, soothing sound has a distinct personality whose very individuality makes it hard to describe. The stringed music moves with subtle dynamic shifts in pitch, timbre and volume to create a wild and tranquil resonance, analogous to the noises made by babbling brooks, thunderstorms, and other such phenomena.

Knowing the band hails from the frozen north seduces the listener into thinking this must be the sound of the Icelandic landscape: barren, wind-blown, rugged terrain. An email interview with the band reveals this is not the case, or is it? Herman Melville once famously said his epic novel Moby Dick was just a whaling story, not some hideous allegory, to which D.H. Lawrence responded in print decades later and stated that Melville was wrong. Lawrence said, "Never trust the teller, trust the tale." Moby Dick clearly was an allegorical story. AnimaminA is clearly the sound of the Icelandic tundra. But here's what Amina has to say.

Two band members answer the first two questions after soundcheck, but before dinner in Vancouver. María Huld Markan primarily plays the violin and Sólrún Sumarlioadóttir takes on cello duties, but all of the band members play a variety of instruments. Hildur Ársælsdóttir, another violinist, joins in on the third question. Viola player Edda Rún Ólafsdóttir remains silent. From the fifth question on, answers are given from somewhere in Seattle.

PopMatters: Most people associate your music with Sigur Rós. What exactly is your relationship with the band? How is the music of Amina different from the music of Sigur Rós?

Amina: To answer the last part first -- our music is very different from Sigur Rós's, both in its structure and how it comes to being. Even though we've worked with the guys for many years, we have a very different approach to our work. People may associate us with the guys because we've worked with them for so long.

PM: Your music often resonates with the sound of nature: one hears birds, wind, water and such. Is this intentional? Are there particular landscapes that you wish to evoke -- how would one describe this picture in words, or is this not possible?

A: We are not trying to make landscape-music. It is sounds from all over we're interested in, be that something you hear around you in daily life, an instrument, all sources are of equal interest to us. We are aware of that many people think our music conjures visual images, but it's not something we consciously try to do.

PM: The natural sound you create also sounds quite sensual and seems the appropriate soundtrack for human touching of all kinds. Is this intentional? How do you view your listening audience?

A: Hmmm, that's a new one ... not intentional.

We know our audience is a broad spectrum of people of all ages, but it's hard to kind of get a definite view of what our audiences are like, and probably not really necessary for our music making.

PM: What instruments do you play? How do you create such unusual sounds with them?

A: So far we've played strings, table harps, glockenspiels, vibraphone, glassophone, metallophone, celeste, musical saw, bells, harmonium, skranjolin (a guitar-like thing we don't know the proper name for), synths, samples. The list threatens to get longer.

We look for sounds that we find interesting, but they're not really unusual we think.

PM: There seems to be an Asian influence on your music? Where does the inspiration for this come from? How do you view the relationship between Western music and other world music traditions?

A: If people hear some sorts of Asian sounds in our music, it is not intentional. We are trained in the classical Western music tradition and the way we work is built on that training a lot. Our influences come from all over the place, all the music we hear, what we do and what we see. We can't really pin it down to any specific cultural area -- that's something that is very hard to do today.

PM: Do your song titles actually mean anything? [The four cuts on AminaminA are "Skakka", "Hemipode", "Fjarskanistan", and "Bláskjár".] Who named the songs and why those titles? Do you ever wish you had given them different names?

A: Well, names are difficult for us. We don't associate our music with words and usually every new song we make is called "the new song" until we're forced to differentiate it from the others with a name. Most of them have a personal meaning to us, but we want people to make a meaning for themselves.

PM: What albums have been pivotal to your development?

A: No specific ones, we all listen to all sorts of music, but for us as a group we can't name any"

PM: I understand you are currently touring. Do you have any future plans? How do you see yourselves a year from today?

A: We're touring for a year, and making a full-length album that we hope to have ready for production by the end of January next year. After we finish touring with Sigur Rós (who we are supporting and playing with on their set) we hope to start playing our own gigs and make more music.





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