Ambátt, an Icelandic duo act of immersive, ‘multidimensional’ electronic music

TEHRAN, Jul. 02 (MNA) – On June 23, Tehran hosted a performance by Icelandic duo act Ambátt, which combines electronic music with instruments. The musicians Pan Thorarensen and Thorkell Atlason define their project as a pursuit of immersive, multidimensional and freeform music.

Ambátt is an Icelandic collaborative duo act formed by Pan Thorarensen and Thorkell Atlason in 2014. The two musicians and composers work so well in tandem, so seamlessly, that they even complete each other’s sentences during an interview done right after their one-hour live show at Hafez Black Box in downtown Tehran, on a hot summer day on June 23.

The performance was part of the 4th Tehran International Contemporary Music Festival. A very young festival, no doubt, but with great potential and aspirations, still experimenting, still learning, improving, expanding. The festival this year invited musicians from Poland, Iceland, Sweden, and Belgium to accompany the Iranian artists in their pursuit of wooing the ever-esurient ears of music lovers during a five-day program of contemporary music.

Ambátt defines itself as a multidimensional, immersive music act with a special focus on freeform, experimentation and improvisation. The duo act’s emphasis on the liberating and adventurous sense and sound of music was so strong that their show in Tehran was in fact an improvisation.

The following is my interview with the two talented, yet humbled, musicians, Pan Thorarensen and Thorkell Atlason:

So, Ambátt. Icelandic for ‘handmaid’?

Thorkell: In a sense, yes. It’s a very old word, almost forgotten in our language. But we liked the sound of it --- ambátt, ambience. Our kind of music.

Tell me about this duo act you’ve got going. How did you two come together? What were your music backgrounds?

Thorkell: We both come from a very different music background. Pan is active in the electronic scene in Reykjavik, while I come from a more classical background. I’m a guitarist and a classical composer. One day, Pan asked me to play some guitar –

Pan: Yeah, and he pulled some tricks!

Thorkell: And we realized that we are in the same group.

Pan: We are also in an electronic trio, called Stereo Hypnosis, which we founded with my father Óskar in 2006. It was in 2014, I think, that we started the Ambátt project.

What were your visions for Ambátt, and how do you define your music?

Pan: We tried to make something different.

Thorkell: We tried to combine electronic music with instruments. We collaborated with trumpet players and drummers on our album. Now it’s just the two of us though, and we try to make ambient music with guitar and field recordings – recording the sounds of nature and combining them with our own music. Our vision for Ambátt was to create multidimensional music. Something to immerse yourself into and forget the world around you. But then again, we are always open to whatever comes to hand.

Performing this kind of music on stage, working ceaselessly with computers, software, samplers and instruments, it all looks more complex to me than an instrument-only performance. How do you manage to keep your concentration on stage?

Thorkell: It’s all about experience and practice. We’ve done it enough times that it all just comes to us when we get on the stage. We even write some of the software ourselves. We’ve been performing live during the past three years, done a lot of travelling, playing concerts in Europe. And now here we are in Tehran.

What was about music that pulled you in? That steered you away from pursuing other artistic vocations?

Pan: That’s kind of difficult to answer!

Thorkell: Well, we both were exposed to music at a very early stage in our lives. There are a lot of music schools in Reykjavik. Pan also got very much influenced by his father, who’s a musician and collaborated with us on Stereo Hypnosis.

What does music mean to you now?

Pan: It gives me energy and always manages to make me feel good.

Thorkell: It’s something that is always developing and we try to develop with it. We try to get better, to improve with every piece we create. It’s comforting.

What’s the appeal of electronic music to you?

Pan: I guess our musical backgrounds had a big impact on shaping and guiding our focus onto electronic music.

Thorkell: Also, making sounds with classical instruments, like violin – people have been doing that for hundreds of years. Electronic music, by contrast, is new. It’s like an open palette for sounds and you can make your own kind of sounds.

Pan: There is this misconception among people that electronic music is techno music. But there are many styles to work with, techno is just one of them.

And every musician that experiments with the genre adds something of their own styles to this palette…

Pan: Yeah, the styles are endless!

Your debut collaborative album, and the only one to date, ‘Flugufen’, was nominated ‘Electronic Album of the Year’ at Icelandic Music Awards 2017. The album experiments with different music styles. How did it come to be?

Thorkell: That’s like another side of Ambátt, to experiment with different styles, to work with beats and vocals, and other instruments. We worked on another album before ‘Flugufen’, and our debut is in fact a continuation and expansion of the ideas we worked on in the previous album. We brought our different musical influences and combined them together for this album. We then invited other musicians to come play for our album. We had a trumpet player from Berlin, Sebastian Studnitzky, and other musicians as well, to play the drums or do the vocals on different tracks. Some of the tracks are freeform, in a sense, improvised.

Pan: We are working on a new album now, which will be released later this year. We’ve been recording it in Berlin and Reykjavik.

Thorkell: You could say that it’s a continuation of ‘Flugufen’. We are getting other people to come and play.

Pan: Our albums are much different from our live shows, though. Here, we are more experimental.

Thorkell: For live shows, we have the idea, but we improvise a lot. We never really know what exactly will happen. We just like to start playing. Sometimes we do it without an audience.

We actually had another Icelandic musician in Tehran, a few years ago; Olafur Arnalds. I remember I asked him about the Icelandic music scene, and if it was true that the general sound of Icelandic music was dominated by dark, melancholic and brooding melodies. He said nothing could be further from the truth. How do you define Iceland’s contemporary music scene?

Pan: Well, I think musicians like us are actually pretty underground. Iceland is a small country with a small population and sometimes half of the population is listening to the same artist.

Thorkell: Some say [the somber mood] has something to do with the nature in Iceland. Of course, we can’t say whether it’s true or not, because we’re living there and just playing our music.

Pan: Sometimes when we’re playing, we have people tell us, ‘ah, that’s a very Nordic sound!’

And you’re probably like, ‘what even is a Nordic sound?’

Thorkell: Yeah, we’re just playing our music.

Pan, you are credited with founding and organizing an electronic music festival in Iceland, called "Extreme Chill,". Tell me more about it.

Pan: The festival has been around for ten years. In fact, we’ll be having its tenth anniversary this September. It’s the longest-running electronic festival in Iceland.

Thorkell: It’s a small festival, and we don’t really like to expand it. Just keeping it close.

Pan: We want to keep it special. Kind of eclectic, with a cozy, family feeling to it.

How did the idea to found the festival come to you?

Pan: We were recording our album in 2009 in the Westfjords, in northwestern Iceland. And we played our released concert there in this town. The location was so beautiful that a year after we decided to organize a small festival there. We had the festival there for four years, and then moved to Berlin in Germany for its fifth anniversary. Then we moved back to Iceland, and we’ve been organizing the event in Reykjavik for three years now. I think having it in the capital is better, because we can have a bigger crowd, and more venues to play in.

Has there ever been any Iranian musicians at the event?

Pan: No.

Well, you totally should invite some. Our electronic music scene is pretty good.

Pan: Yeah, I wasn’t being exactly truthful on that. As a matter of fact, this September we’ll have Idin (Samimi Mofakham) and Martyna (Kosecka) from the Iranian-Polish ‘SpectroDuo’ ensemble at Extreme Chill. They’re going to play for us.  

[Ambátt also performed a duet with SpectroDuo on June 24 at Tehran Contemporary Music Festival. The Iranian-Polish ensemble has a focus on electronic and electroacoustic experimental live shows, sometimes structured in complex forms, and other times performed on free improvisation.]

You both have performed extensively in Europe and America. How different or similar did you find the experience of performing for an Iranian audience?

Pan: I found that people here are more focused on the performance than in most other places.

Thorkell: Sometimes, when we’re playing, there are people speaking in the background –

Pan: But here you can say that people are actually listening to the music, they’re really focused.

Thorkell: The experience was the same in Poland, the Baltic countries –

Pan: Yeah, like in Estonia; people there were really listening to our music. We had the same feeling here. It’s a good crowd.

I gather, this is your first time at Tehran Contemporary Music Festival? How were you introduced to it?

Pan: Well, it was through SpectroDuo. They’re playing in our festival, we’re playing in theirs. It’s like an artists’ exchange sort of thing.

Thorkell: And it was a long process, too, making this trip. We’ve been thinking about organizing this trip since October.

So, what do you think of it?

Pan: It’s amazing. But there are too many cars.

Thorkell: Yeah, the traffic is insane.

So, apart from insane traffic and the scorching heat of the summer, how have you been finding the experience of being in Tehran for the first time?

Thorkell: It’s been great. Everything’s so new for us.

Pan: It’s very different.

Thorkell: We’ve never been to the Middle East, you could say. But while the scenery is definitely different, the people here are the same as anywhere else. They’re nice and helpful. We had a lot of people helping us to make this trip happen.

Pan: And we’re used to the hot weather, because we’ve been traveling a lot.

Thorkell: But if it gets too much, we can always remain indoors and take advantage of the air conditioners!

Interview by: Marjohn Sheikhi

News Code 147117

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