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The Icelandic group Sigur Rós is at the forefront of invention in today’s international pop and rock (or, as some put it, “post-rock”) scenes. Led by the ethereal vocals and hauntingly bowed guitar of Jón Thor (“Jónsi”) Birgisson, the group leaves traditional song forms on some lower, less magical plane, slipping instead into ever-shifting environments of sound – sometimes coolly beautiful, more than occasionally unsettling, and always inspired.
As CMJ New Music Report described the band’s compelling aesthetic: “Sigur Rós deploys its somber lullabies with symphonic grandeur, stretching out its arching melodies, building tonal and emotional colors around them, and eventually conceding to a perfectly timed fade to black. It doesn’t get much more sublime than this.”
It also doesn’t get much more enigmatic. Beyond the difficulties for non-Icelandic speakers in understanding some of Jónsi’s lyrics – along with the band’s reluctance to provide authorized translations – there is the fact that Jónsi sings the remainder of his songs in a self-invented language he calls Hopelandish. Adding to Sigur Rós’ departure from linguistic conventions, the group’s 1999 breakthrough album, Ágætis Byrjun, features very little writing and, in place of the usual liner notes, a booklet of cryptic drawings that (possibly) illustrate some of the songs’ narrative themes. In an even further emphasis on music over semantics, the group’s follow-up 2002 disc appeared with no song titles; no text but “Sigur-Ros.com” in the CD booklet; and just the band name and a cut-out in the shape of ( ) on the disc’s semi-opaque slipcover, revealing a murky black-and-white photograph beneath.
Fortunately the critical and popular response to Sigur Rós has been anything but enigmatic. In addition to its early fans around the world – including fellow musicians such as David Bowie, Beck, the band Radiohead, and, of course, Kronos – the group reached new audiences through the inclusion of one of its songs, “Svefn-g-englar” (Dreams of Angels), on the soundtrack for the film Vanilla Sky. In 2001, Sigur Rós earned still more recognition in this country as the winner of the Shortlist Prize for new music.
In light of Sigur Rós’ own wide-ranging music, it is no surprise to discover that the group’s members are enthusiastic fans of the Kronos Quartet. After hearing Ágætis Byrjun and seeing the group in concert, David Harrington of Kronos and arranger Stephen Prutsman met the members of Sigur Rós and were invited to visit their studio outside of Reykjavík. The two ensembles rehearsed together in Iceland.
In its original, sung version, “Flugufrelsarinn” relates a parable of salvation and sacrifice, in which an unnamed narrator tries to rescue helpless flies in a lake from the jaws of the approaching salmon. In Stephen Prutsman’s arrangement for Kronos, the work takes on a new delicacy while losing none of its essential mystery.
Born in Los Angeles in 1960, Stephen Prutsman began playing the piano by ear before moving on to more formal music studies. In his early teens he was the keyboard player for several rock groups, including Cerberus and Vysion. In the early ’90s he was a medal winner at the Tchaikovsky and Queen Elisabeth piano competitions, which led to performances in prestigious music centers and with leading orchestras in the U.S. and Europe. In 2004, Prutsman was appointed to a three-year term to the position of Artistic Partner with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, where he acted as composer, arranger, conductor, program host, and pianist. Prutsman’s long collaboration with Kronos has resulted in over 40 arrangements of distinctive and varying musical languages.
Stephen Prutsman's arrangement of “Flugufrelsarinn” was commissioned for the Kronos Quartet by the Reykjavik Arts Festival. Kronos’ recording of “Flugufrelsarinn” is available exclusively as a download through the iTunes Store.
Program note by Matthew Campbell.