HUGAR is the exploratory Icelandic music project of Bergur Þórisson and Pétur Jónsson, a pair of talented musicians hailing from Seltjarnarnes, which rejoices in the fact it’s the smallest town in the nation. Their collective name: it translates from the Icelandic, quite simply, as “Minds”.
They’ve had a quietly stellar upward career curve, working at their own pace; they released a debut digitally in 2014. Self-titled, it featured no lesser a musician than Ólafur Arnalds on drums. It created a critical stir; democratically and perhaps taking something of a gamble, it was released free of charge. Fifty-two million streams and rising; I mean, you have to call that a success.
The gamble paid off. A lovely set of post-rock/post-classical led to Sony Music Masterworks opening their chequebooks; a full-release second album, Varða, followed in 2017.
(A lexical note here for those of you left waylaid by the ‘ð’ letter form: it’s called a thorn, it’s pronounced as a hard ‘th-‘, and yes, believe it or not, it was once in English usage.)
This being Iceland, a country with incredible musical talent, but with a population roughly comparable to that of Bradford, collaborations followed with the island’s great and the good: Ólafur, of course; Björk, necessarily; Sigur Rós, twould be rude not to; the terribly missed Jóhann Jóhannsson.
Now, and seemingly working to a triennial cycle, Hugar are set to release their third album and their first soundtrack: they were asked to provide the music to a fascinating documentary about the husband and wife documentary shorts film-makers Woody and Steina Vasulka, The Vasulka Effect.
Steina (née Bjarnadottir), was born in Reykavik; her husband-to-be, Woody, hailed from Prague. She had trained as a classical violinist; he as a engineer who had moved into television production.
They are perhaps best known for founding the New York City art space The Kitchen in 1971 – notably summed up as the place where “the non-CBGBs part of the ‘70s happened” – and filming Jimi Hendrix in concert at the Fillmore East at the precise moment the Sixties turned to the Seventies: New Year’s Eve, ’69 and New Year’s Day, ’70.
Most of their work explores the shortform and the boundaries between art film and documentary; the National Gallery of Iceland opened its Vasulka Chamber in 2014. They’ve been called “the grandparents of the YouTube generation.” After a period during which their critical star was in the wane, their influence on the visual short-form of now is being recognised once more.
We’ve embedded the short trailer for the film below; necessarily, it contains Hugar’s beautifully Nordic soundscapery.
Their score moves away from the crests and surges of Varða to a complementary and appreciative delicacy, exploring the nuances of sonics coupled with an exploration of the life as lived by two lovers and two artists, in retrospect (sadly, Woody died just before Christmas last year). Bergur and Pétur gently pare back their aural palette to allow space and subtlety to come through.
In fact, the work on the original score outgrew the original brief, resulting in the 20 songs collected here, as they explain: “After doing the score for the film, we continued to be inspired by their story, warmth, art and groundbreaking technology, so we kept working on the music.”
So, as with all soundtracks and perhaps more so, Music For The Motion Picture The Vasulka Effect has to work in a dual medium; as visual accompaniment as well as an album in its own right. It’s not always easy to achieve. And does it achieve the latter?
Yes. Yes, it does. It is delicate, it is nuanced; I’d go as far as to say that for me, it’s a graceful and monochrome vision. Many of the pieces are based around simple, graceful piano figures with a mournful, Nordic introspection, thus within the lee of compatriot Ólafur and the Erased Tapes stable – tracks such as “All Active”, “Faded Reflection” and “Reykavik”; beautiful, of course. Many are also short fragments, with about half the album’s 20 pieces clocking in under or at about the two-minute mark.
Opener “A New Renaissance” sets the tonic with brass-effect synth swells and a punctuating radar-chime, as used so beautifully on Sigur Ros’s “Svefn-g-englar”. “The Past” builds in elements of sustained drone, and takes on the halcyon melodicism of Global Communications at their 76:14 peak. Which is obviously something we can all approve of.
“SoHo”, named for the artistic suburb of New York, has elements of the Heckers and Basinskis in the cracking and granularity of its decay and the delight in its high sustain; all 78 seconds of fleeting exhilaration. You’ll find that almost holy, pristine imperfection at work as well in the breathless drone of “Did We Find This Place?”. Two short highlights both. “Warhol” brings bells and a real sweetness to the formulae; “Dali” has an especial, almost music-box glimmer.
“Blue Dome” works further out, playing with the atonality and teetering near-rhythmic collapse of glitchtronica. “Enigma” brings a more symphonic, stark beauty. As yet having not seen the full documentary, I hope this piece underpins some footage of New York teetering in all its Seventies’ glory; or maybe footage from The Cod Wars, the fishing standoff between the UK and Iceland in 1974, which the couple made a film about.
How is it, then? The only thing which might catch you slightly on the hop is the brevity of many of the pieces in a musical area that tends towards the longform. But it’s an undeniably extremely pretty work, which roams from inside the pocket of melodic neo-classical out through ambient electronica and even taking in loop decay and glitch styles. You’ll find an awful lot to reward you in, and hopefully even seduce you with, this album.
Hugar’s Music For The Motion Picture The Vasulka Effect will be released in digital form by Sony Masterworks on October 2nd, with a limited gold vinyl pressing following in November. The vinyl pressing is available to pre-order here.