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Viktor Orri Árnason & Álfheiður Erla Guðmundsdóttir
Viktor Orri Árnason & Álfheiður Erla Guðmundsdóttir

Viktor Orri Árnason and Álfheiður Erla Guðmundsdóttir Present 'Poems'

Viktor Orri Árnason & Álfheiður Erla Guðmundsdóttir
© Olafur Baldvin

Poems is in many ways about the joys and struggles in life and how being present can help you through”
Viktor Orri Árnason

Two of Iceland’s leading artists explore human vulnerability,  giving voice to their country’s poets through intuitive musical creations

Árnason and Guðmundsdóttir create a luminous soundworld that shines new light on the spirit and wisdom of Icelandic poetry

Poems is set for release on 10 November 2023

Listen to the first single, “Rödd”, here

Following the recent release of Viktor Orri Árnason’s new recording of Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel, the Icelandic composer, conductor and producer now unveils his collaborative debut Deutsche Grammophon album Poems, conceived and co-written with soprano and visual artist Álfheiður Erla Guðmundsdóttir. The album’s ten exquisite tracks draw on the pair’s shared cultural heritage, setting poems by Icelandic poets past and present, as well as lyrics by Árnason and Guðmundsdóttir themselves. Poems will be released worldwide – on CD, on vinyl and digitally – on 10 November. A first taster track, “Rödd” (“Voice”), comes out on 29 September, together with a one-shot video which was filmed at Viktor’s studio in Reykjavík in July and presents a live rendition of the song featuring members of the Reykjavík Orkestra. This will be followed by “Ljóssins knörr” (“Light’s Ship”) on 20 October and Líkaminn er þaninn fiðlustrengur” (“The Body is a Wavering Violin String”) on 10 November, alongside the full album release.

With a recording of songs based on Icelandic poems already in mind, Árnason met Guðmundsdóttir on a separate project and was instantly struck by her ability to improvise. “What she did held me in awe,” he says. “I immediately asked her to join me on a journey of writing my next album. I also asked her if she knew any poems that she loved and felt we could make speak directly to an audience.”

Together they found inspiration in the work of Ólöf Sigurðardóttir frá Hlöðum (1857–1933), Hulda (1881–1946), Guðfinna Jónsdóttir frá Hömrum (1899–1946), Sigurður Pálsson (1948–2017) and Arndís Lóa Magnúsdóttir (b.1994). Drawn to poetry that speaks of vulnerability and solitude, change and renewal, the beauty of the natural world, and the power of words to express our dreams and innermost selves, they were also inspired to write their own poems, each contributing one new text to the album.

Recording Poems gave Guðmundsdóttir the opportunity to experiment with a different way of using her voice. Used to having to fill a concert hall or opera house with her sound, she was encouraged by Árnason to focus on a far more intimate form of expression. “I felt so vulnerable,” she admits. “I was supporting the voice less than I would in opera, so the sound was airy. I was definitely doing something different! As we worked together, I began to like the sound more and more.”

“The way we worked was so playful,” explains Árnason. “The spiritual connection was there in the music-making itself – spiritual in the modern sense of mindfulness, where we were just there, completely present in the moment. It was this wonderful musical journey of moving from one note to the next without thinking about where they were leading us. We began by focusing on finding female poets but Sigurður Pálsson jumped in there for some reason and we just loved his poems.”

“Like all good poetry, these lyrics can be interpreted in different ways,” he adds. The opening track, for example – a setting of Pálsson’s “Rödd” – could mean “noticing the inner self observing the voice that speaks within, an experience we all share and that is so central to being human”. It could equally apply to those who have struggled for recognition, such as the female Icelandic poets of the 19th and 20th centuries represented here, or their 21st-century counterpart Magnúsdóttir, whose disability means she has endured her own battles to be heard as an artist.

Her poem “Líkaminn er þaninn fiðlustrengur” comes from a collection exploring themes of isolation and self-expression. “The setting of my poem to music is something I never expected, especially since I myself have never read my own poetry aloud,” says Magnúsdóttir. “To see my text come alive through Álfheiður’s wonderful voice is simply amazing.”

Árnason adds piano accompaniment to Guðmundsdóttir’s hushed, floating vocals throughout, in the settings that emerged from their improvisations and which he describes as “abstract but also simple and approachable”. At times he plays violin and viola as well, with some tracks featuring additional strings (members of the Reykjavík Orkestra) and/or subtle electronic elements. This minimalist style helps create the tranquil atmosphere needed for the moments of conscious reflection the artists hope to inspire in their listeners.

“Perhaps we cannot imagine the struggle that someone like Guðfinna Jónsdóttir had in her early life,” says Árnason. “But I think my poem “Vera” [“Being”], which is about being in the moment, Álfheiður’s “Blikna” [“Wither”], which is so blissful, and Arndís’s “Líkaminn er þaninn fiðlustrengur”, which compares the human body to a musical instrument, speak in their way about our lives today.”

Árnason is doing two solo support slots on composer and pianist Hania Rani’s upcoming European tour, appearing at the NOSPR Concert Hall in Katowice (7 October) and the National Forum of Music in Wrocław (8 October). Guðmundsdóttir will then join him to perform music from Poems for three more dates of the tour, at Lausanne’s Les Docks (10 October), Paris’s Salle Pleyel (11 October) and Lucerne’s KKL (13 October).

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