Snorri Hallgrímsson is a composer, producer and multi-instrumentalist from Reykjavík, Iceland. His music blends together haunting strings, distorted beats, intimate pianos and the composer’s own ethereal voice. In conversation with Snorri we talk about his debut album ‘Orbit‘, the highlight of his musical career so far and much more.
Hi Snorri, how are you? Your debut album ‘Orbit’ came out on June 15th. To someone who has never heard your music before, how would you describe your sound?
Hi! I’m doing really well, thanks for asking!
I think most musicians struggle to describe their own music, and I really have a hard time with it, seeing my music is a blend of different genres. I think back to my film scoring classmates who had a running joke that went something like this:
“Snorri’s music: minor key, 40 bpm, too much reverb. Voilà.”
I can’t really argue with that, but maybe I can put a slightly more positive spin on it: Soft orchestral string swells on top of distorted beats. On top of that sits my voice with delicate minimalistic pianos ticking in the background. Played together at an excruciatingly slow tempo. It’s somewhere between Ryuichi Sakamoto and Depeche Mode, with a healthy dose of Icelandic melancholy.
We read that you started out as a classical guitarist and then later became interested in composing. When did this happen and how?
As a teenager I used to spend a lot of time with my guitar teacher on Bach arrangements. Of course none of his music is written for the guitar, so you always have to find your own way in doing arrangements and fingerings that are idiomatic for your interpretation. I always enjoyed that and it inspired me to apply the same methods to other music as well.
So it was a fairly gradual evolution. Having said that, I do remember going to see the film Babel when I was 17, and just having this moment in the theatre where I was listening to Gustavo Santaolalla’s and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score and thinking “this is what I want to do with my life”. Once I finished my guitar studies here in Iceland I knew that focusing on just one instrument would never be enough for me. Thanks to Bach and film music, I was dead set on composing.
What has been the highlight of your musical career so far?
I’ve been lucky enough to have had some amazing moments. If I had to pick one, it would have to be when a choral piece of mine was performed at Sir John Tavener’s memorial concert in Southwark Cathedral in London. Tavener is one of my absolute biggest inspirations, and the concert had originally been scheduled around the premiere of his latest choral work. I was so excited to meet him and witness him listening to his new work for the first time, and of course for him to listen to my music as well.
Then just a few days before the concert, he sadly passed away. The concert turned into a tribute to this icon of 20th century classical music. To have my piece performed there, with his family in attendance, is something I will never forget.
Do you find that your surroundings influence the music you write?
Yes and no. People always assume Icelandic music must be inspired by glaciers, volcanoes, etc. I’m sure that in some ways it can be true on a subconscious level, but it’s never something I actively keep in mind while writing. I am much more influenced by stories, feelings, and most importantly: other music. It might not sound romantic, but I write my best music when I simply decide to sit down and force myself to write, rather than waiting for some inspiration to take hold of me. And that can just as well happen in a small, sterile, windowless room – which is a fairly accurate description of my own studio space…
Is ‘Orbit’ a collection of pieces that were written recently or pieces written over several years?
I lived in Spain, and then Mexico, before moving back to Iceland in August 2016. Most of the songs on the album were written during the first winter after I moved back home. The lyrics on the album reflect that: they deal with re-adjusting to the dark Icelandic winter, as well as the bittersweet absence of the wonderful friends I made
whilst living abroad.
Do you have one piece that you are particularly proud of?
I am actually quite proud of the whole album! Coming from a classical background with no real studio experience, it was very challenging to record, produce and mix these very different elements mostly by myself.
But I do have a particular fondness for the minimalistic outro, Týnd er tunga þín. It’s a rework of a live recording of my own choral piece, and the only other element is a solo viola added on top of the choir. The first classical music I wrote was choral music, and one of the first things I did when I started fooling around with recording software was to manipulate my own choral recordings. So in a way this track represents my first steps in producing my own music. On a side note, it’s also in a major key. So naturally I’m proud of it as that rarely happens in my music – in fact it’s the only song on the album in a major key!
Now that Orbit is out, what are you next working towards? E.g. live shows, planning your next release?
I’m lucky to have a few different projects coming up. First up is scoring a documentary film, which I am very excited about. Writing to picture is something I love doing and hope to be able to do more of, alongside my own music.
Then I will use the rest of the summer to arrange ‘Orbit’ for live shows. It’s a challenge, as probably the biggest element on the album is the 25-piece string orchestra – which I obviously can’t travel with for live shows. So I’ll need to arrange a bulk of the album very differently. But that’s something I’m super excited about; reimagining, and rediscovering, these songs I’ve heard a thousand times before. I have a few shows lined up in the fall and I really can’t wait to perform the album for a live audience.
What do you find about your work that has meaning? And music in general?
I could easily write a long essay on this subject… Music is everything. It can drive you forward when you need a pick-me-up, it can make you cry when you need to let it out, it can give you release when you’re angry. It’s something you can portray your own emotions through, even as a listener of someone else’s music. But music also doesn’t have to be anything, it can just be. I’m a big believer in beauty for the sake of beauty, and with this album I hope I managed to create some. And ultimately the listener can feel whatever my music inspires them to feel.
Finally, do you have any advice to anyone who wants to compose music and doesn’t know where to start?
Listen to as much music as you possibly can. Allow yourself to be inspired. Think about what sounds, atmospheres and harmonies you like, and what elements would be interesting to combine in your style. And once you’ve started, don’t stop. No one will “discover” you after you wrote one song and put it up on Soundcloud! So keep working and be pro-active in finding ways to get your music out there.