So, this is where it all ends
Icelandic composer and double bassist Bára Gísladóttir’s compositions and performances have all the surface trappings of 21st-century avant-garde music. We find an aversion to ‘traditional’ harmony and melody, a strong preference for extended techniques, and a focus on sound-exploration that pathologically avoids standard structures.
I have always felt that there is more to Gísladóttir’s writing than a succession of scratchy tam-tam noises and oboe multiphonics
But I have always felt that there is more to Gísladóttir’s writing than a succession of scratchy tam-tam noises and oboe multiphonics; something that can only be understood by uncovering the music through the person – through the composer/performer – rather than the other way around.
Bára Gísladóttir has been a frequent collaborator of mine since she moved to Copenhagen in 2015. I first saw her perform at Nordic Music Days of that year, held at the Lapidarium of Kings in Copenhagen. Her piece – Neind (2015), for double bass and piano, with Gísladóttir playing bass – made a strong impression on me, not only from the music but also from her distinctive stage presence.
She cut a melancholy figure, leaning over the bass like something from a Renaissance painting – an effect heightened by the sculptures surrounding her – making the instrument squeak and groan with an alarming amount of intensity. Where Marcela Lucatelli – who I interviewed for the first part of this three-part series – is all swagger and machismo, Gísladóttir is altogether more introverted, but no less captivating.
Gísladóttir is altogether more introverted, but no less captivating
After seeing her perform, I approached her and asked her to work together on something for the Pulsar festival at the Music Academy. Since then, she has played in several pieces of mine – for my debut concert from the academy last year, we sang a love duet together.
She brings the same focus to my performances that she does to her own, and by doing this interview I wish to unpick this quality, so I can exploit it in the future. At the same time, I hope that by talking to her I can shed some light on the nebulous concept of ‘composer/performer’ itself, to clarify my own practice to myself.
The apocalyptic bowling alley
So I ask her to go bowling, and she agrees. Fittingly for interviewing someone whose music has a touch of impending apocalypse about it, it turns out to be a suitably apocalyptic experience.
The bowling alley, inexplicably filled with teenagers on a Monday afternoon, is seemingly placed in an underground bunker. When we arrive, we are told off for being six minutes late by a proprietor who is apparently willingly unaware of the massive pile of discarded bowling shoes covering the floor behind us. We are then charged extra for renting these shoes.
‘Can we maybe leave soon? I kind of hate this?‘
The contrast between the subject and the location of the interview is deeply comic to me – something about being at Big Bowl Valby with a composer who recently had her orchestra piece played at the opening concert of the Darmstadt festival, with a soundtrack by Sean Paul.
We bowl a few frames, unable to talk about anything in depth over the loudness of the music and the teenagers (who, again, really should be at school). I am hilariously bad at bowling, overreaching myself by trying to put a little spin on the heaviest balls, which invariably find themselves in the gutter.
‘Can we maybe leave soon? I kind of hate this? And I’m not feeling so good,’ Gísladóttir suggests, before turning around and effortlessly bowling a strike.
All about that bass
We do leave soon after that, taking a bus back to the centre of town and commencing the interview proper with a walk through Assistens Cemetery.
Perhaps her performance style has roots in this kind of self-protection
We start with the basics. Gísladóttir started music at a young age, playing the violin as a child in Norway. ‘My teacher was super strict, old-school. I played for ten years, but I didn’t tell anyone I hated it. I just remember not sleeping every Sunday of my life before lessons.’
She switched to double bass, which felt more natural. I suggest to her that this is partially physical – much easier to hide behind a double bass than a violin (indeed, one of her performance pieces, Rooftops of Prague (2015), starts with Gísladóttir literally hiding behind a bass onstage).
Perhaps her performance style has roots in this kind of self-protection – the use of music as a shield from an attack, rather than escaping into a completely safe space.
‘At least in the beginning it was that way. When we were doing This Piece Will Improve Your Life [the love duet from my debut concert], I don’t think I could have done that had I not started on the bass, because in that we had nothing to hide behind onstage. But now I don’t think it’s a problem.’
Upfront and personal
Her pieces often deal with highly specific situations or experiences. For example, Suzuki Baleno (2016), ‘for when your dad arrives with a brand-new, shiny, dark-blue Suzuki Baleno that you know there’s no way he can afford and you’re eight’.
‘I’m not like this all day, but I am able to go into a hyper-focus’
Or Vape (2016), about the Tokyo sarin gas attacks in 1995. Or A Lil Requiem before Super Bowl (2018), ‘for when the Super Bowl is about to start, but really you just want to hang yourself’. Or Otoconia (2017), about a specific disease of the inner ear, and so on.
Some of these experiences are personal, some of them are not. But they are all extremely intense, uncomfortable, and (crucially) real. Gísladóttir seems ready and willing to dive into these situations and explore them in extreme detail.
This state of frozen time, of intense concentration, is readily available through performance. ‘I’m not like this all day, but I am able to go into a hyper-focus,’ she says. The combination of an extremely specific situation, accessed through performance (or composition), heightened and intensified – this seems to me to be Gísladóttir’s trademark.
One of the things that enrichens the experience is her matter-of-fact approach
But, again, there is more to it than an exploration of angsty subject matter. I put it to her that one of the things that enrichens the experience is her matter-of-fact approach to the subject – completely unsentimental, almost fully detached from the matter at hand, similar to the way people often experience traumatic situations as an out-of-body experience, watching oneself from above.
Drag queen Trixie Mattel describes comedy as the intersection of specificity and exaggeration. This remark could easily apply to Gísladóttir.
‘I think,’ I say to her, ‘that in all your stuff – performance and composition – there is a streak of jet-black humour.’
‘And then I like to do something improper, just to shake things up a little bit’
‘It’s necessary,’ she replies without pause. ‘It’s related to the composer/performer thing – you have to read the room all the time, to be able to adjust to the circumstances. I like to set myself into the situation – everything’s super static, everyone’s super well-dressed, only white people in the hall. And then I like to do something improper, just to shake things up a little bit. I want to be honest.’
This ‘something improper’ can be many different things, of course, but with Gísladóttir I feel that it’s her directness, her bluntness, her need to confront things. She knows exactly what she wants at all times and she is not shy about letting you know – our interview tapes are littered with statements like ‘don’t write about this’, ‘I want to talk about this’, ‘this is not interesting’.
The court jester is allowed to say things that no one else is allowed to say
This is why it is so crucial that the intense and dark situations that she is so skilled at exploring are honest – true to life and grounded in reality. It has to be true, or it would mean nothing.
For me, this is why humour is an essential part of what she does, in performance as well as composition – the court jester is allowed to say things that no one else is allowed to say. She has no problem with expressing her dissatisfaction with the world around her and the status quo.
One of her main dissatisfactions is the willingness of people to limit themselves, or to place themselves in certain categories – such as ‘classical musician’, ‘composer’, or ‘performer’. But things are changing.
‘There is no hope for life – we have ruined the planet. It’s going to be a slow, Alzheimer’s-style end’
‘I understand that people want to categorise their gender or sexuality, but the obsession of categorising everything seems problematic to me.
We’re in a place now where the world is opening up. But it’s opening up because we’re in a desperate situation. There is no hope for life – we have ruined the planet. It’s going to be a slow, Alzheimer’s-style end.’
‘But very interesting things can happen in these situations because it can create extreme empathy and compassion, especially in the creative scene. With music, “composer/performer” will not be a thing, like you won’t have to say you’re gay anymore.’
‘It can create extreme empathy and compassion, especially in the creative scene’
For Gísladóttir, ‘composer’ and ‘performer’ are just more unnecessary categories – there is nothing to unpack because these labels are completely artificial.
‘Everything is breaking apart. Sometimes I feel like nothing really matters, and it doesn’t – it’s just about how you’re going to survive it. And if you are willing to survive it.’
Throughout the interview I get the sense that I often get from my conversations with Gísladóttir – that she’s thinking, working, and performing on some kind of other plane.
It would be simple to understand if the game was more direct – I perform, you experience. But this is not the goal.
For Gísladóttir, ‘composer’ and ‘performer’ are just more unnecessary categories
‘I hate to think of my music as something specific,’ she explains. ‘I hate when I’m asked to categorize my music. I hate when people ask me what to listen for, what to understand, what they should take from it – because we are programmed to be these robot people. But things are breaking down and we have a huge opportunity in development in the arts.’
I’m not sure why, but this conversation puts me in a place to search for some kind of lightness in her message. I suggest that she sounds kind of hopeful – she’s using words like ‘opportunity’, ‘breaking barriers’, and ‘opening up’.
The suggestion is met with scorn. ‘No, no – I am just describing the situation. There is an opportunity within our current situation, but this opportunity is nothing compared to the bigger picture. It’s too late. That’s why it’s happening. It’s the desperate act of a dying person. But this is an important opportunity for us because it can really broaden our perspective’.
Into the abyss with eyes wide open
The breakdown of these barriers that Gísladóttir is so unhappy with has great potential for the arts, but for her this is just a symptom of an incurable sickness brought about by what she sees as a looming apocalypse.
‘We are lacking dimensions in our music, we are lacking dimensions in our existence’
This is perhaps the ultimate ‘something improper’ – pointing out that we’re all doomed and it’s too late to do anything about it.
Gísladóttir, it seems, goes into the game with her eyes open. She explores these hyper-intense situations, using music and performance in an attempt to dislodge herself and the audience from the flow of time. But she is under no illusions.
‘When you write a piece, it starts and it ends. I find this very depressing – we are lacking dimensions in our music, we are lacking dimensions in our existence. In performance I have felt very stuck because of this – trying to get a multi-dimensional musical material is like trying to create timelessness. It is bound to fail.’
This is not to say there is no hope and no way forward in her work – that there’s no point in even trying if it’s doomed to fail. ‘This is something that I used to be super occupied by – I felt that what I’m interested in is something that can’t exist. But now I don’t really care.’
‘I felt that what I’m interested in is something that can’t exist’
As she said before, the only question is if you are willing to mount these doomed attempts, and to see what form the ‘something extraordinary’ that is bound to happen will take.
‘This thing that there’s no hope, the approach is a bit immature if we do nothing at all. If you make a choice to live, then it’s not a drastic move to continue working. If you’re 70 years old, you may be more aware you are going to die, but it doesn’t mean you stop writing music.’
Better luck next time
The interview leaves my head spinning in some small way. Without me realising it, Bára Gísladóttir has made it very clear that I have gone in with a set of specific questions, looking for a set of specific answers. My attempt to unravel Gísladóttir and take on her worldview for my own purposes has comprehensively failed.
My attempt to unravel Gísladóttir and take on her worldview for my own purposes has comprehensively failed
Instead, I have come away with a strong sense that I was asking the wrong kind of questions, that the concept of ‘composer/performer’ I was so set on exploring has little to no point or relevance, and that there are far more important questions we are able to address only when we discard labels such as these.
If there is one takeaway message it’s this: the apocalypse is happening right now. There is no hope. The boxes we have put ourselves in, the institutions we have built, the rituals we perform – all are coming apart. But extremely interesting things can happen, so we should make the most of it. Just because every attempt is bound to fail, it does not mean we should not try.
And if (and when) we do fail, it’s not the end of the world. Except that it actually is.