Name: Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir
Occupation: Composer, violinist, curator, field recorder
Recent release: Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir's strengur is out via Carrier.
Recommendations: Maja S. K. Ratkje’s moving Vannstand, where children respond musically to their relationship to water and the sea.
The work of The Landscape Quartet, be it together or that of the individual members, for example the ‘Devil’s Water’ improvisations by Hogg and Östersjö available on vimeo.
If you enjoyed these thoughts by Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir and would like to find out more, visit her official website. She is also on Instagram, and twitter. For a closer look at her current album, strengur, see our earlier feature.
For a conversation with the mixing engineer and a collaborator on strengur, read our Valgeir Sigurðsson interview.
When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I entered these roles at different stages of my life.
The production, or curation side of things began when I started an ensemble after studying violin and later baroque violin at university. Composition came about as I learned digital editing through my work as a radio producer. My first attempts were under heavy ‘hörspiel’ influence but then I started to creatively experiment in the studio with improvisation and performance scores, added the act of field recordings to my toolbox, and entered the field of ecological sound art. Fast forward, and I now find that all these roles work dynamically together.
Scrolling back to the start of it all, music in my youth moved me endlessly and I loved my chosen instrument, the violin. I had a clever mom who put creativity first and enrolled me into art school to counteract the disciplined training of the classical world.
The seed or interest in collaboration and production was perhaps planted by accompanying my dad to his work at the opera, where it became clear that ‘musicking’ was the result of a large ecosystem.
When I listen to music, I see shapes, objects and colours. What happens in your body when you're listening and how does it influence your approach to creativity?
I really like your description as it points directly towards listening as an activity that is multimodal.
On my end, thanks to the violin, I have been listening from a young age through touch i.e., a specialised listening that encompasses the kinaesthetic, perceptive and affective system. As I later took this outside of the institutional realm, towards the field of ecological sound art, guitar player Stefan Östersjö and I came to describe it as “fleshy listening.”
My performative listening alters the way I perceive the world, but through it I also touch the world which demands me to consider its ethics. Fleshy listening refers therefore to the many entangled relations that are inherent to such mediations.
How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?
Being a member and curator of ensemble Nordic Affect was a crucial step. It has been a journey of growth to work together for what is now 17 years. It has included a row of collaborative projects with sound producers, visual artists and composers, all the while making it a point to address diversity in music making.
Parallel to this, in my thirties, I worked as a radio producer in Iceland for 7 years. It prompted me to further formulate music in relation to the social, but as mentioned the work gave me some digital editing chops that sent me on the path to composition. But, as I had worked as a freelance musician for many years, I found myself at a crossroads. I knew that there was so much more to be explored, be it in terms of technology, space or collaborations. However, the infrastructure in place was then and still is lacking.
As fate would have it, I learned about the field of artistic research, or practice-led research in music. And so, in 2015 I applied for and got a position at Lund University in Sweden. It completely transformed my creative life as it opened the doors up to a rich environment devoted to experimentation in music, and facilities that are there to support the many collaborative projects of the researchers that stretch wide and far within the field of music.
So, not a breakthrough, but a long process through which I feel I have finally arrived at where I want to be in terms of my work in the field of music and sound art.
Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.
I guess I have a social streak and a curious mind.
Mix that with some social factors, such as being raised by feminists, and later the influence of my stepdad, who was a contemporary dancer that encouraged me to cultivate my creative voice, and you may start seeing some patterns that influence my work.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?
I have an ecological outlook on music making. I am not referring to any ‘representational’ view but rather ecology in the Gibsonian sense, or the fact that a person exists in an environment, which may shape one’s intentions and vice versa. This transfers us beyond the dichotomy between human and nature, and begs us to reconsider that agency only belongs to humans.
As a performer, curator and composer, one engages for example with a vast row of technologies that offer, through their intentionality, some interesting possibilities and even resistances. Of course, these are tools that are imbued with utilitarian history, and any artistic process also activates an immediate engagement with cultural affordances.
But all in all, I am at the moment taken with how the ‘curatorial,’ which resides between the agency of performer and composer, manifests.
How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?
I see myself as being part of a long and continuing tradition of experimentation in music, although I am acutely aware that this very same experimentation has at some points served as a tool of discrimination.
If work in music is formulated from a listening perspective, then Michel Chion offered to look at it through the terms musical and musicianly, where the former refers back to tradition and the latter tries to seek new interesting phenomena. According to him, a child playing a grass reed is more musicianly than a person playing a Stradivarius as the latter through their listening constantly refers back to tradition.
Of course, one is constantly oscillating between these poles, but my interest and work lands more in the domain of musicianly. It explains why I am not invested in notions of ‘perfection’, a culturally loaded word that within Western art music often intersects with the concept of Werktreue. And as explained earlier, my music making takes place through many mediations which perhaps explains why I am not engaging in solipsistic notions of originality.
Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?
There is a technology that has shaped me and continues to this day to affect my work and preferences, namely my David Hopf violin.
It was built around the 1780s and it is in a baroque setup, offering less tension and thus less volume. Its bow was created for a rhetorical approach to sound, and its gut strings lead to a grainy sound. My many years of playing it has influenced much of my aesthetic preference in relation to sound. This manifests for example through how I approach field recording, through a DIY practice that enhances miniscule sounds.
But I have also applied the same recording approach to record my violin, in order to convey some of the sounds that I hold dear, but are perhaps only audible to myself.
So it is perhaps not a strategy, but rather an embodied and performative approach to music making, shaped by a technology, which in return affects how I approach other technologies, be it in terms of score construction, work with DAW and attunement to space.