Kjartan Sveinsson is a composer, musician and performer. He first came to prominence as a member of Sigur Rós, the Icelandic band – sometimes characterized as ‘post-rock’ – of which he was a member from 1997 to 2012, releasing five studio albums, a film and a host of side projects, selling several million records around the world in the process.
Sveinsson played keyboards and guitar in Sigur Rós, as well as being responsible for the band’s frequent arrangements for strings, brass, choir and orchestra. In 2002 he was involved in the creation of the still unreleased 70-minute work Odin’s Raven Magic, in which a disputed chapter of the Icelandic Edda* was set to an apocalyptic score for orchestra and choir. The work was performed several times in concert halls around Europe, including a production at London’s Barbican theatre, which featured the London Sinfonietta and Kjartan’s first collaboration with the Sixteen Choir.
In 2003 Sveinsson and the band – alongside Radiohead – composed music for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s production Split Sides, in which choreography, set design, costume changes and music were all decided on a random throw of dice. The band performed this live in New York, Paris and Seoul.
Sveinsson and Sigur Rós toured the world many times over during the 00’s, playing at many prestigious events and venues, including New York’s Carnegie Hall and MOMA, LA’s Hollywood Bowl, the Budokan in Tokyo and headline stages at Glastonbury and Roskilde festivals, and many, many more.
In 2008 he played his final show with Sigur Rós in the band’s hometown of Reykjavík, although he continued to write and record with the band until 2012’s Valtari album.
Since leaving Sigur Rós, Sveinsson has broadened his horizons to score movies and expansive collaborations with foremost Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson, while also continuing to write his own new orchestral and choral works. With Kjartansson he has been closely involved in the creation of many new works that have been exhibited in galleries and major institutions internationally.
The pair’s first collaboration was 2011’s Take Me Here by the Dishwasher, for which Sveinsson wrote a cod-folk song that was performed by a band of troubadours in the gallery for six hours a day for seven weeks straight, while a film of Kjartansson mother and father acting in an 80’s soft-porn movie played on a huge screen.
The following year, 2012, he was a performer in multi-screen installation, The Visitors, in which nine musicians, sited in different rooms of Rokeby, a crumbling upstate New York mansion, separately contribute to a mesmerizing and repetitive soundtrack over the course of an hour. In 2013 he wrote another endurance piece for Kjartansson at the Venice Biennale. For four hours a day, six brass players toured the city’s canals in a ‘viking longboat’ playing Sveinsson’s composition for S.S. Hangover.
Then in 2014 Sveinsson and Kjartansson collaborated on Der Klang Der Offenbarung Des Göttlichen, an opera in four movements for Berlin’s Volksbühne Theatre. Translated as “The Explosive Sonics of Divinity”, the piece combined Kjartansson theatrical set designs for an empty theatre, with Sveinsson’s sweeping and romantic orchestral score. Der Klang is the first of Sveinsson’s post-Sigur Rós work to be released, with a double vinyl 10-inch on Bel-Air Glamour records.
Other collaborations with Kjartansson include The Palace of Summerland, a 4 screens film installation with improvised score, and Krieg, a second opera, also premiered at Volksbühne earlier this year.
Sveinsson has also extensively worked with Icelandic film director Rúnar Rúnarsson, scoring the Oscar-nominated short The Last Farm and Volcano and Sparrows.
In terms of his own work, Credo was premiered at the Lincoln Center’s White Light festival in 2010, performed by the Latvian Choir and Wordless Music Orchestra at St Paul the Apostle church on New York’s Upper East Side. The same night also saw a performance of You Can Cage A Swallow, But You Can’t Swallow a Cage, which set the poetry of Anne Carson to a vocal arrangement for the Hilliard Ensemble.
Sveinsson lives and works in Reykjavík, where he continues to write music, produce other artists, including Ólöf Arnalds and Kristín Anna, and own and operate Sigur Rós’s former Sundlaugin studio.