Whether or not he wants to admit it, Icelandic sound experimentalist Runar Magnusson is part of an elite club. He’s a new generation of sound artist. He’s a conceptual prodigy adept at virtually every single aspect of the business and creation of his work from front to back. His aesthetic is unyielding from the way he promotes his work to the way he creates it.
And yet, the Copenhagen-based artist operates with the type of humility and poise that allows him to maintain strong collaborations and continue to create strong work. He is part of the SameSameButDifferent generative music software project development team. The application uses the programming language SuperCollider to create computational music (“soundscapes,” as Magnusson puts it) out of field recordings gathered in Iceland. He also partners with Petur Eyvindsson (DJ Musician , Evil Madness) to form Vindva Mei – a more readily accessible music project that Magnusson describes as unpredictable.
NeoAztlan interviews Magnusson about his work and the types of clubs he belongs to.
Steve Peralta: Tell us about your background.
Runar Magnusson: I was born in a town called Akureyri in northern Iceland. It’s a beautiful, typical small town, but it’s relatively big for Iceland with about fifteen thousand people. Nothing happens and everybody tries hard not to stick out in some way. It’s not good to be different you know.
I’m a twin and my brother and I had problems with authority at an early age. We never got into serious trouble though. We did well. I guess I had a pretty healthy childhood with a lot of sport and carefree play.
In my early teens, I started listening to the music my older brother and sister were listening to. Mostly Pink Floyd, King Crimson and David Bowie. Soon, I discovered that there was other kinds of music out there then the stuff you hear on the radio.
I became part of a small group of young people that were not satisfied with the small town herd. We discovered a lot of music which was not easy at the time. All my money went to buying records. It was a lot of work but fun reading magazines, mail order catalogues and ordering stuff from Reykjavik where the only proper (record) shop was. I called them almost every week. They knew us by name and what we liked so they were good at pointing out new stuff.
We were also performers – plays, books and all kinds of things. Many people from this group are working artists today. I focused more on sound but was not really interested in playing an instrument or working in a band in the traditional way. I liked playing with sound textures.
This period also introduced more serious problems. There was heavy drinking and police and hospitals.
When I was eighteen I moved to Reykjavik and bought a four-track recorder and some guitar pedals and started experimenting with layers of noise.
When I was twenty, I quit drinking and drugs so I could focus on where I wanted to go with the music. I guess music and sound works as a drug for me today.
SP: You bring up an interesting point when you say “it’s not good to be different.” What are your thoughts on cultures or cults of conformity?
RM: They are everywhere I guess. Every layer of society or different groups or subcultures have their own rules you should follow if you want to be a good, acceptable member of the club. If you don’t behave, dress and think like you are supposed to in your club, there are going to be objections – more violent in some clubs or societies than others. This can be a fun thing to play with.
SP: What club do you belong to?
RM: I have been on the fringes of different clubs but I’m not that good at following the rules. When I was younger it was the “drunk rebel shithead” or the “crazy artist” (club) but I moved away from labels and uniforms from pretty young which maybe became my club. I am not interested in having to be a certain way to fit in somewhere.
SP: Is there such a thing as being “too different?”
RM: How is that to be judged?
SP: Perhaps this is where psychiatry comes in. Someone who is too different might get a label such as “schizophrenic” and be separated from the larger, more acceptable club and put into a building full of people who are part of their club – the only difference being that they are not determining which club they belong to on their own.
RM: Yeah this was something I had in mind. The border of acceptance might be if you’re posing a danger to yourself or others, but there’s a difference between being ill and just having a different mindset. Sometimes those differences are (blurred).
SP: I guess my question might have been: Does your work evolve? If so, do you worry that your work might evolve to a point where it’s not accepted by your peers? What happens then?
RM: My work does evolve, but I don’t worry about acceptance. I have never done that. If I did, I would probably do something else.
SP: You mentioned that your pieces are about the journey, but are they also about the wait?
RM: Well, that becomes more of a situation like being hooked and waiting for the next fix. I hope not. But then again, if the wait is longer and longer and people become aware of their surroundings and enjoy the wait, then the wait is valuable.
Maybe what I want is for people to consume less music. I don’t think people are listening anyway most of the time. They use media as background noise. They need to be fed some kind of distraction so they are not in silence by themselves.
SP: I use media as background noise sometimes. Silence can be uncomfortable especially when there are other people in the room, I think.
RM: There is nothing wrong with using media as background noise. What is wrong is when you have to have it on all the time – when you’re not able to deal with silence and your own company.
SP: I know what you mean. When I work, I can’t get anything done if there is music or noise because I can’t concentrate. Your work would definitely be a distraction for me. Is that what you want to do? Would you be offended if someone used your work as background noise?
RM: Well, I like the idea that when people listen to my stuff they sometimes forget they are listening to music and feel they are hearing something else as if there is something happening somewhere else – outside or next door or something.
I think people could use it as background noise, but I think they would probably prefer something else.
I wouldn’t be offended.
SP: Talk a little about your creative process. Do you compose your work? Do you do concerts? I’m wondering how you would replicate your work to a concert audience.
RM: It was a big revelation for me when I discovered that I could listen to my surroundings as music. It was 1996… I was standing in the rain waiting for someone. I was leaning against a wall and above me on the wall was an electric advertisement billboard that changed picture. I was really enjoying standing there listening to the the rain mixing with the electric hum of the billboard and the slow rhythmic sound when the image changed. I was so delighted by this that when my date arrived, I forced her to stand there in the rain listening. I’m not sure she enjoyed it as much as I did…
The use of field recordings started seriously around 1998 when I got my minidisk recorder and binaural microphones. I recorded everything around me and that has been used a lot in my music. I guess it was in 2000 that I had developed some kind of language that I felt was my own and have been taking with me in different directions.
I do play concerts, but, as my work is so studio-based and I am pretty much a control freak, it’s more like live and improvised mixing. I am not much for open-ended improvisations. It might end up good, but a lot of the time it’s just boring. I like knowing what is going to happen. I want it to be good – not “maybe good.” I used to make new material for every concert but I haven’t had time for that lately. I do alterations and different kinds of mixes.
In 1994, I started a project called Vindva Mei with Petur Eyvindsson (DJ Musician , Evil Madness). We worked (together) before, but Vindva Mei has been an ongoing collaboration. The work we did together the first years shaped me a lot.
Vindva Mei is actually two solo units. With Vindva Mei, we don’t know what the other is going to bring into the mix. We surprise each other, but, because we know each other so well, it always turns out well even though our styles are quite different. Petur is more melodic and rhythmical – more accessible.
I did a lot of concerts as Vindva Mei before I started to play using my own name. That started as a misunderstanding. The promoters announced my name instead of “Vindva Mei” so it ended up being: “Runar Magnusson, member of Vindva Mei playing blah blah…”
SP: Your work suggests a continuum with diversions occasionally into subspaces, but it is all some sort of journey into the center of something – a center that you’re perfectly happy to never reach, it seems.
RM: In a way I do look at it as a journey that takes a listener who has an open mind for travel on a trip. There doesn’t have to be a destination. The goal is the journey. I like to give my work good time to evolve and give itself life. It’s a practice in patience for the listener. Many people are always waiting for something to happen and aren’t capable of enjoying the moment.
SP: How long has it taken you to develop your aesthetic?
RM: It has probably taken about ten years.
SP: I see a lot of photographs that have been modified to have a photo of your face on them. When and why did you start doing that?
RM: It started when I asked a fellow MySpacer, “Melissa Roberts”: http://www.myspace.com/thisismelissaroberts, whose work I like, to remix my picture. She sent some very nice pictures and that started a snowball effect. I send the pictures out as comments to people and sometimes I make pictures and send back as an answer and this has resulted in hundreds of pictures. I will have to do an exhibition at some point.
SP: Talk a little more about “SameSameButDifferent,” the generative music software project you work on with Thor Magnusson.
RM: It’s a great project. We started this collaboration in 2003 and we’re working on releasing SSBD v.02 on CD.
It’s software written in (SuperCollider, a programming language for real time audio synthesis,) that generates soundscapes from field recordings from Iceland. SSBD v.03 will be based on synthesized noises. You can check MySpace and YouTube where you can see and hear examples of the output of the system.
It’s not interactive software. It is meant to be listened to. The user can save his favorite tracks to be played again or shared with other users. The user can also make sound files to burn a CD or take his favorite tracks on the road.
We have been presenting this at festivals and concerts the past few months and we’re looking for a label to release it. It’s challenging to find someone willing to release it as software.
SP: The Icelandic Airwaves festival is coming. You mentioned you’re doing a project for it.
RM: I had been working on a three-day program for them – an alternative to the rock/pop thing – and they were very interested in it, but the venue failed. (The program) seems to be shut down, unfortunately.
SP: Talk about the Icelandic art community.
RM: Well, I guess it’s one of those clubs we talked about. I have been living (in Denmark) for so many years so I can’t tell you that much about it. They are all very fresh and fun and/or cute. Evil Madness is the best thing to come out of Iceland in a long time. Very sweet and sour. Vangelis meets Argento.
SP: Talk about your current and future projects.
RM: There are few ideas around for future SSBD versions such as spoken word and child play.
I’m mixing a “surround” piece I have been playing at concerts the last couple of months and working a lot with the same sounds from Iceland that SSBD v.02 uses.
Vindva Mei is starting a two-week long recording session for future releases. We’re quite schizophrenic. We never know if we’re going to end up with a disco track or hellish drones.I just started a project with Helgi Thorsson (Stilluppsteypa, Evil Madness) called Alien UFO. We have a three-inch CD ready for a label in Hong Kong. It should be out in a couple of months. Hopefully we can finish a full-length CD this year.
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