5 Questions to Úlfur Hansson (composer)

Úlfur Hansson is an Icelandic composer and musician currently based in California. His latest work Interwoven, commissioned by conductor Ilan Volkov, premiered at Tectonics Festival Reykjavík with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra on April 16, 2015. The second portion of Interwoven is to be recorded by L’Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, a commission resulting from Úlfur’s win as a young composer at the 2013 International Rostrum of Composers with his piece So Very Strange.

What is the inspiration behind Interwoven?

For Interwoven, I chose to approach the writing as if I where creating an electronic piece. It became a very textural piece early on, as I decided to deal with each instrument of the orchestra as a single parameter of a larger whole, becoming part of a more complex sonority for each section – I was actually in a similar mindset writing the parts as when I am dealing with a complex synthesizer patch.

The whole piece consists of individual voices, which enabled me work with microtonal clusters. I think it sounds electronic at times – even broken – which is nice.

It was intriguing to me how differently I seemed to react to the textural possibilities of these microtonal intervals when applied to the strings as opposed to the woodwinds. The woodwinds sounded birdlike to me as the strings section became an ocean, and those elements became my main inspiration for putting the rest of the piece together. I still decided to keep the brass section in standard tuning, so that the listener could possibly relate to the more spectral/textural aspects of the strings and woodwinds with emotion.

Interwoven Icelandic Symphonic Orchestra World Premiere

Interwoven Icelandic Symphonic Orchestra World Premiere

You will be working with an entirely different orchestra for the second part of Interwoven. How does it relate to the first part, and what can we expect from it?

I’m almost finished with the second part, titled Arborescence. The Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France is an excellent orchestra and I feel incredibly lucky to get a chance to work with them! Arborescence continues to explore the textural potential of the orchestra, but as the title implies the progression is in the form of a tree like structure, branching out from the fabric like quality of Interwoven. 

How has it been like to pursue a career in the arts as a musician/composer in Iceland, and how does it compare to your experience so far in the US?

Iceland has this incredibly special music scene, it’s full of very inspiring people. I could easily get lost and live out my days as a musician in Reykjavík, but it is rather small. I have been living in the bay area for the past two years studying with Pauline Oliveros, Fred Frith, Roscoe Mitchell and Zeena Parkins at Mills College in Oakland California. Studying at Mills has proven to be invaluable to me as a composer, the electronic music program is really one of it’s kind – there is no place like it. I graduate in a week, and next fall I move with my family to New York. I guess that will be the time when I first get a sense of the real grind…

Ulfur Hansson-- Photo by Saga Sig

Úlfur Hansson– Photo by Saga Sig

In your opinion, what are some of the greatest challenges faced by young composers of today, and what can be done to overcome them?

I think it really depends on what your goals are as a composer, but I guess when it comes to creative output most people strive to simply be true to themselves. In my opinion, accepting failure as being a beautiful thing in itself is an important factor, as well as remaining curious.

What kinds of projects are you working on at the moment?

I have been working on a number of things, but most of my energy has been going into the development of a new type of musical instrument – it is an electromagnetic harp that is electronically actuated but still functions as a completely acoustical musical instrument. It is called the Segulharpa and hopefully it will be ready for production early next year.

I recently did a sound installation in collaboration with my sister for the Kunstwerke Institute in Berlin which turned out great, and am currently writing music for a beautiful short film called Vessel successfully funded on kickstarter.

Last but not least I am working on a brand new album, following up to my debut White Mountain which came out on Western Vinyl in 2013.