Classical Pass

March 23, 2007


When the Icelandic quartet Amiina performed at a sold-out Civic Opera House last May, it might have been the logical culmination of a career that started in the conservatory. But it was a circular path that brought the four women to that prestigious stage.

Maria Huld Markan Sigfusdottir, Hildur Arsaelsdottir, Edda Run Olafsdottir and Solrun Sumarlioadottir all started their careers by studying classic violin, cello and viola. "We were together in music school, and we started as a classical string quartet around 1997 or 1998," Sigfusdottir says. "We really liked playing together, so it evolved into playing and doing recording sessions with different groups here in Iceland. That's how we got to know the Sigur Ros boys."

Iceland's best-known musical exports after Bjork, the atmospheric rockers tapped the women to become their regular string quartet in 2000. (Sigfusdottir later married Sigur Ros keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson.) As they began to tour the world with the successful rock band, the life of a classical musician seemed less appealing.

"We always had this dream since we were in the music school that we could do something more with our musicality than just playing classical strings," Sigfusdottir says. "But we had been raised as classical musicians, and there wasn't a lot of encouragement to explore anything. When you're planning on being a professional violinist, you kind of have to do that for the whole day, every day, and there is not a lot of space mentally or time-wise for anything else."

Eventually the women dropped their classical studies and scattered; Sigfusdottir stayed in Iceland, but the others relocated to Holland, Denmark and the U.K. They reconvened whenever it was time to tour or rehearse with Sigur Ros. "Then, in 2004, we decided that it was time that we should step out on our own. We had two weeks where we had nothing else to do, and there were a lot of instruments lying around in our friends' houses, so we borrowed all of them, put them in a car, drove into the countryside, sat down and decided to see what could come out of it all.

"We didn't have any background in starting a rock band -- you know, 'Oh, I want to play guitar' or 'I want to play drums' -- and we didn't want to have it that way. We just had a sheet of paper and some instruments, and the first EP was the outcome. It was really natural and free-flowing."

Pretty, hypnotic and marking a unique sound somewhere between Philip Glass or Steve Reich and Sigur Ros or the English shoegazer bands, the "AnimaminA" EP was released in 2005. (The title was a reworking of the band's name, which came from the Latin word "anima" -- "of air; having a spirit or living" -- which itself was altered via a unique spelling.) Another EP, "Seoul," followed last year, and a full album, "Kurr," is due later this spring.

"Since our first EP, our approach has changed a bit just with experience," Sigfusdottir says. "Now, we know much more about how we write music, and we kind of have placed ourselves within the group structure, so there are different forms of songs and even more instruments."

The most striking thing about these recordings is the musicians generally avoid the instruments they studied for half their lives in favor of "found sounds" created with a sampler, laptop, tuned wineglasses and singing saw, along with slightly more traditional axes such as vibraphone, glockenspiel, cuatro, harmonium and harpsichord.

"We like making sounds with many different kinds of things, because everything for us comes from creating an atmosphere, and that comes from these unique sounds rather than us deciding on a chord progression," Sigfusdottir says. "We get inspired by the world of sound. That is also why we all switch instruments, and no one has their 'regular' instrument. We're four different people, and we have slightly different approaches on how we make music, so we can get a variety of music from these different instruments."

Hauling all that gear aside, the members of Amiina have never looked back since leaving classical music. "Sigur Ros didn't become so big overnight: They have been around 12 years, and they didn't start touring until 1999. We're just starting to tour on our own now, and if we go in the same direction, we still have time to put in. We might be middle-aged by the time we reach that [level of success]!"

The picture of an Icelandic soccer mom playing singing saw in a rock club is a strange one indeed, and the musician agrees, laughing. "We'll see where it all goes," she says. "Right now, we are just really happy that we can live from making music and have this as our main job for a while."



If there's one overriding problem in popular music today, it's that there isn't enough singing saw.

"The application of a hand saw as a musical instrument," is how one online encyclopedia defines it. "The sound created is an ethereal tone, very similar to the theremin or a clear woman's voice." Why not just use one of those? Well, for one thing, it's much cooler to watch somebody incongruously bowing something that could make a hole in the stage below them, if not slice off one of their fingers.

Any old saw in the garage will make some kind of noise, but professional sawyers (yes, that's a real word) prefer specially made models; offers a complete kit of saw, bow, rosin and carrying case, for $104.55 (2-by-4s not included). "Learning to play the saw will take you less than a week," the site notes. "There is no steep learning curve, no technical exercises to repeat over and over... Just complete and total musical saw FUN!"

Because my editor objects to mentioning the legendary Neutral Milk Hotel in this column more than once a year, I'll note that along with Amiina, my favorite rock applications of the singing saw have come from Mercury Rev, the Black Heart Procession and Sarah McLachlan (who used it on 1997's "Surfacing"). But is also selling a CD titled "Virtuoso Saw" by expert sawyer David Weiss backed by members of the L.A. Philharmonic, and I have to admit I'm intrigued.


 9 tonight
 Lakeshore Theater, 3175 N. Broadway
 Tickets, $15
 (773) 472-3492