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Bára Gísladóttir Bára Gísladóttir Bára Gísladóttir
Composer Prize Winner 2024

Bára Gísladóttir

Essay

Home bass.

by Tim Rutherford-Johnson

Close-up. The first time Bára Gísladóttir picked up a double bass was on a school exchange to New Zealand. She had learnt violin as a child but given it up some years earlier, her attention briefly captured by soccer instead of music. Nevertheless, the school’s orchestra needed a bass player, and with her background in string playing Gísladóttir was encouraged to have a go. It helped that her teenage stage fright could hide behind the instrument’s bulk. But more important, Gísladóttir felt an immediate affinity with its long, thick strings and cavernous soundbox. She found how slight changes in finger pressure or bow speed could suggest new, enticing worlds of sound: how there could be millions of universes in every point. As she learnt to control these worlds – to learn the tiny adjustments of her hands that would allow her to enter and pass between them at will – her bass came to feel not like a separate object but like an extension of her body. It has barely left her since.

Bára

When she began to write music a few years later, following studies at the Iceland Academy of the Arts in Reykjavik, the Conservatorio di Musica ‘Giuseppe Verdi’ in Milan, and the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, she came to handle moments of heightened emotion in her music like she handled the strings of her bass: as pinpricks of pressure that cut into the thread of life and cause it to reverberate.

Bára
Bára

So, in Suzuki Baleno (2016) she transformed a disquieting childhood glimpse into adulthood into an attenuated lullaby. In Music to accompany your sweet splatter dreams (2019), the thrill of careening down a mountainside in the back of a pick-up truck became a kaleidoscope of screams and breathless silences. In the self-explanatory Rage against reply guy (2021), the spikes of revulsion faced by every woman online collapse into waves of doom metal-inspired drone. Subtly squeezing and releasing, Gísladóttir discharges walls of noise and raw sound – worlds within worlds of memory and consequence – each with the potential to flood our immediate experience. ‘The bass has become a home for me’, she explains now. ‘And you see everything from your front door.’

Bára Gísladóttir
Bára Gísladóttir

Portrait. In Copenhagen, where she has lived since 2015, Gísladóttir pins sheets of manuscript paper around the walls of her study. Sitting in the middle, she doesn’t seek a birds-eye view of her music, but rather wants to surround herself with it, to become fully absorbed by it. Just as her arms wrap around her bass, so she invites her music to wrap itself around her; a coil within a coil.

Bára Gísladóttir

To listen to Gísladóttir’s music is to be similarly folded into a twisting organism, watching from the inside as it spreads, consumes, dances and reproduces. ‘It’s very important to me the idea of sound being treated as something alive’, Gísladóttir says from within her study. ‘The feeling of sound as sterile is extremely depressing to me; it’s so important to remember the life in everything, and not only in humans.’ In Animals of your pasture (2021), she imagines a flock of beasts viewed from different camera angles and at different speeds. But this is music that is visceral, not pastoral: as the flock runs, sleeps and sings, its vitality is reflected in the metallic crinkling of thimbles on harpsichord strings, the howls and drones of woodwind, and the chaos of electric guitar improvisation. Likewise, in SILVA (2022), an hour-long solo for bass and electronics, Gísladóttir imagines the secret underground life of trees: a world of techno raves and heavy metal parties deep in the subsoil. But while the image is humorous, layers of electronic processing (and the power of low frequencies to liquify and devour) take it beyond organism, beyond being. Reflected and distorted by its resonances and reverberations, her bass becomes less object than hyperobject: something so massive and diffuse it can no longer be perceived directly; like climate change, or the patriarchy.

Bára
Bára

Wide angle. Within her cocoon, Gísladóttir stretches out. In February 2020 she sat at the centre of the large and resonant Grundtvig’s church in Copenhagen. The occasion was the completion of her postgraduate studies and people were gathered for the premiere of her VÍDDIR (2019). Beside her were the three percussionists of NEKO3 and her regular duo partner, the renowned jazz bassist Skúli Sverisson. Around them sat the audience, in quiet anticipation, and around them a circle of nine flutes: a silver event horizon. From the scream with which it begins, to the long bass flute solo with which it ends, through deep pools of bass and the coal-like gleam and glitter of metallic percussion, the music of VÍDDIR passes across this circle from edge to centre and back, like soundwaves across a giant gong. Past the rim of flutes it exceeds the players’ control and is given up to the walls of the church, where it dissolves and is reflected back as subsonic rumble and static fuzz. The sound remnants of the big bang. From the edge of the universe, Gísladóttir looks back to embrace us. We are a long way from our front door.

Bára