Gunnar ÞórðarsonBorn: January 4th, 1945, Hólmavík (Iceland)
By that time, however, music had come into his life. How did it all start? Gunnar: “My interest in music began quite late, actually, only when I was thirteen or fourteen years old. My friends and I discovered the American radio station of the army base. They played all the latest music from America, allowing us to discover Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and many more. You have to realize that we were kind of privileged in this respect, because Icelandic radio hardly ever played anything else than classical music. The US base radio could only be received in Keflavík and its immediate surroundings, meaning that we were the only corner of Iceland with access to rock ‘n’ roll music. Before long, my friends and I decided it was time to give it a try ourselves. I became the drummer in the hobby band of one of my pals, Erlingur Björnsson. I was not really good at drums, though, and the next instrument I tried was the bass, which I played in another teenage band, Skuggum. At sixteen, I moved on to the guitar… from my mother’s side of the family, we had inherited an acoustic guitar – or rather, half a guitar, because the back was not there anymore and all what was left were the neck and the strings… On this thing, I started practicing. Because I wanted to learn the chords and basics of guitar playing, I went to Guðmundur Íngólfsson, whose band played in the main dance hall in Keflavík. After a while, he offered me a job as the guitarist in this band. We played the popular dance tunes of those days. However, in 1963, after about a year, Guðmundur himself decided to break up the band.”
Because Gunnar wanted to keep on playing, he decided to form a new group with the drummer of Íngolfsson’s band, Eggert Kristinsson (who was soon replaced by Engilbert Jensen), and three friends from Keflavík: Erlingur Björnsson, Einar Júlíusson, and Rúnar Júlíusson. Hljómar was born, Iceland’s first rock band. The group did its first gig in November 1963 in Keflavík. Gunnar: “We were all young and very inexperienced. None of us was able to read music. I wanted Rúnar on bass, but he had never touched a bass guitar before in his life. I wrote down a set of very elementary notations – no more than ‘F’ or ‘G’ – for him; for the first two performances of Hljómar, Rúnar turned his back to the audience, because he was reading what I had written down for him… having said that, we were all learning it by doing. It was not until the early 1970s that I took the trouble of learning how to read notes myself! Nonetheless, from the start of Hljómar, the others were relying on me for instructions. As a teenager, when listening to the army radio, I always wanted to find out for myself what the chords were of the American jazz standards they were playing. In that sense, I had consciously been working on bass lines and chords – and therefore it was kind of logical that, musically speaking, I became the band leader. Though we mostly did covers, drawing our inspiration from bands such as the Beatles and the Beach Boys, we also liked to experiment, writing material ourselves. My first piece was an instrumental called ’79 miles’. In a short amount of time, we managed to create a big repertoire of songs. We hit it off well as a group, investing a lot of time in practicing together.”
Before the year 1963 was over, Hljómar had had its first opportunity to present itself on nationwide radio. The big breakthrough for the band came in March 1964, at a concert in the Háuskólabíó Concert Hall in Reykjavík. “This was a festival where several local bands performed”, Gunnar recalls. “When we came on, the hall just erupted… People came crashing down to the stage and the police had to be called in to restore some sort of order. Because this was unheard of before in Iceland, we were on the front page of the main newspaper. This one concert gave us such an amount of exposure, that we were booked all over the country from then on. That summer, with our little bus, we toured the dance halls all over the country. We were without competition, being the only band that was trying to be sort of modern. The generation before us, mainly jazz musicians such as Ólafur Gaukur, despised the lack of sophistication of rock ‘n’ roll! So we had the market for ourselves. Right from the start, we were able to make a living from Hljómar. I gave up my job as a taxi driver before the end of 1963.”
Originally being a live band, Hljómar recorded its first single only in 1965. Subsequently, two studio albums were released, mostly with own material, to which Icelandic cover versions of international successes such as ‘California dreaming’ were added. Ólafur Gaukur wrote several song lyrics for Hljómar. Much of the group’s repertoire, most notably songs such as ‘Bláu augun þín’ and ‘Þú og ég’, has become part of the Icelandic collective memory. In 1966-’67, the group attempted an international breakthrough under the name Thor’s Hammer. Þórðarson: “Reynir Odsson, a film maker, did a short film about us. We wrote the lyrics for the songs in this film, ‘Umbarumbamba’, in English. As with our studio albums, we recorded the material in London. Our record company Falkinn got us on the English Parlophone label, which allowed us to publish in England, but the songs from ‘Umbarumbamba’ were never released in the UK. One year later, an American trumpet player living in Iceland got us a deal with Columbia Records. They picked two of our songs, which we recorded in English in their studios in New York. The single was released in the USA, but did not do well, unfortunately.”
In 1969, Hljómar disbanded and Þórðarson became a member of a new band, Trúbrot. Gunnar: “By that time, the magic of the early years of Hljómar was over. Rúnar and Erlingur were still living in Keflavík, while Engilbert Jensen and I had meanwhile moved to Reykjavík. Understandably, this meant there was less time for practicing. Moreover, some personal issues got in the way – mainly alcohol. There was another group here in Iceland, Flowers, which had an extremely good drummer and a terrific organ player. Being keen to play with them, Rúnar and I got together with these two guys to form a new band, which we coined Trúbrot. Over the four years of the band’s existence, we played in different formations. At a certain stage, Rúnar Júlíusson joined us as well.” Between 1969 and its demise in ’73, Trúbrot released no fewer than four albums with songs in Icelandic and English, including the hits ‘Starlight’ and ‘To be grateful’. “These were different times than with Hljómar”, says Þórðarson. “By this time, there was more competition of other pop and rock bands in Iceland. With Trúbrot, we mostly picked popular songs, which we arranged differently. For our albums, however, we wrote most of the material ourselves.”
Meanwhile, Gunnar Þórðarson had started doing session work for others, including Björgvin Haldórsson and the Rio Trio, a folk ensemble, with which he toured universities and the Icelandic communities in thirteen American states and Canada as a musician in 1973. It was the start of a lasting collaboration with the trio, with Þórðarson composing some of their material and producing all of their seventeen albums, of which the last was recorded in 2006. Meanwhile, in 1973, Þórðarson had formed a new Hljómar with Haldórsson as lead vocalist, but the project fizzled out after one album. Unavoidably, however, Gunnar gravitated towards composing, arranging, and producing rather than performing. How did this development from stage to studio come about? Þórðarson explains: “It was a gradual thing. I had long been fascinated by the techniques used in recording. I immersed myself in magazines such as the Melody Maker and the New Musical Express. Unlike Rúnar and others, who were performers at heart, thrilled to be at the front of the stage in touching distance from the crowd, my first ambition was always being a good musician in the technical sense. I had long found out that using my creativity in a studio was much more up my alley than playing the same songs all over again every night on stage. In the 1970s, I tried to make up for my lack of music education. First, I taught myself how to read notes. Soon after, I bought the standard works on arranging by Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff, Mahler, Henri Mancini, and Nelson Riddle, sucking every letter like a sponge.”
For one year (1975-’76), Þórðarson moved to London, where he recorded his first solo album as well as a successful children’s album, ‘Eníga meniga’ (with vocalist Olga Guðrún Árnadóttir), and a collection of famous Icelandic poems put to music, ‘Once upon a time’ (recorded with Tómas Magnús Tómasson and Björgvin Haldórsson). Gunnar about his stay in London: “Frustrated by the lack of proper studios in Iceland, I felt I had no other option but to move abroad. During that year, many Icelandic artists came over, because they wanted to record their work with me as their producer. It was one of the most fertile periods in my career, though I had to do things on the cheap, as the records I produced were only released on the Icelandic market and hence commissions were small. ‘Eníga meniga’ and especially ‘Once upon a time’ were instant successes… for the last-mentioned project, at the request of the publisher of a school book with Icelandic poems, I wrote music to this poetry. As everyone in Iceland knew the words, the songs were an open door, so to speak, and they became wildly popular. In 1977, I did a second album with poems, again sung by Björgvin Haldórsson, called ‘Út um græna grundu’.”
In 1976, right after the well-equipped Hljóðriti recording studio had opened its doors in Reykjavík, Gunnar Þórðarson – loaded with a wealth of experience following his baptism of fire as a studio producer in London – returned to Iceland, founding his own record label, Ýmir. In the remainder of the 1970s, amongst other projects, he released two best-selling albums with close harmony group Lummur, as well as his second solo album, for which he recorded part of the songs with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra. Gunnar: “I orchestrated part of them myself, while leaving some other songs to an arranger from Los Angeles. It was the first time I experimented with writing string arrangements. For me, as a bass player and guitarist, learning how to arrange for other instruments was not easy. Contrary to a pianist, a guitarist does not have the whole range of instruments to his disposal. Moreover, lacking the formal conservatory education, I was always apprehensive about making a mistake in these delicate markings that classical musicians abide by. If notations are not spot-on, they will look at it in disdain. Remember that these were the days before the computer made its entrance… every note had to be written down by hand. In spite of all these worries, I thought strings were too interesting to not at least give them a try, and slowly but gradually, I found my way in the idiom needed to write such orchestrations.”
In the 1980s and the early 1990s, Gunnar Þórðarson was Iceland’s most sought-after and successful songwriter and record producer: “Yes, as a producer, I was top dog. I could ask any artist and nobody would turn down an offer to work with me. The 1980s were certainly the busiest time in my career”. Gunnar composed over six hundred pop songs and worked as an arranger and producer with all the stars of the Icelandic pop and rock scene: Björgvin Haldórsson, Egil Ólafsson, Pálmi Gunnarsson, Eiríkur Hauksson, Shady Owens, Klíkan, and Ragnhildur Gísladóttir, to name just a few. Two solo albums with his compositions, interpreted by the cream of the island’s vocalists, were recorded, ‘Himinn og jörð’ (1981) and ‘Borgarbragur’ (1985), the latter of which contained ‘Gaggó-vest’, a huge hit success for Eiríkur Hauksson.
In 1986, Þórðarson released ‘Reykjavíkurflugur’, a double LP containing a live registration of a concert held on the occasion of two hundred years of Reykjavík and, moreover, his soundtrack to the movie ‘Reykjavík, Reykjavík’. Apart from this movie, Gunnar wrote the music to the original motion pictures ‘Ódal feðranna’ (1980) and ‘Agnes’ (1996) as well as to a host of TV films, jingles for radio and television, and hundreds of melodies used for advertisements. In the world of theatre, in 1985, Þórðarson composed his first musical comedy, called ‘Only a few seats left’. Later onwards, two more musicals were created by him, ‘Á köldum klaka’ (1991) and ‘Disa ljosálfur’ (2010). Gunnar was also commissioned to write ‘Bræðralag’, which, interpreted by Sigrún Hjálmtýsdóttir and Björgvin Haldórsson, was the official theme song to the 1995 Handball World Championships held in Iceland. In that same year, Þórðarson received an invitation to compose a requiem commemorating the fourteen victims of the avalanche which hit the fishing village of Suðavík in the West Fjords.
Besides his studio work, between 1982 and 2002, Gunnar Þórðarson had his own dance band, with which he performed in Reykjavík’s Broadway nightclub. Gunnar: “My band consisted of ten musicians, including myself on guitar and, in the 1980s, Jon Kjell Seljeseth on keyboards. We played in Broadway on Friday and Saturday evenings, doing shows around a certain theme, such as the Beatles, Queen, ABBA, soul, and salsa. The guy who owned the club quit in 2002, which automatically led to the end of my band. In retrospect, I did this work way too long, but it was quite lucrative.” As a performing artist, Þórðarson in later years collaborated on two special projects: in 1999, he was one of the founding members of the jazz-folk trio Guitar Islancio, publishing several CDs containing jazzed-up Icelandic folk melodies and performing in Europe and America; moreover, in 2003, Hljómar was reformed for a third time, recording two albums with new material and doing a handful of concerts. As a solo singer, Þórðarson has continued performing occasionally; in 2009, ‘Vetrarsól’, a registration of a concert he gave in the Reykjavík City Theatre, was released on CD.
On Þórðarson’s last solo album (1987), surprisingly, it turned out he had tried his hand at composing several classical pieces, one of which, ‘Nocturne’, was orchestrated by Szymon Kuran. How did the conversion of Iceland’s Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll to serious music come about? Gunnar explains: “At a point, I started having enough of pop music productions. In the pop business, new kids on the block emerged who started producing themselves. It was not that I was out of work, but the curious side of me was keen to explore a type of music that I had not paid much attention to up to that moment. I was very late in discovering and learning to appreciate classical music; when I was a boy, local Icelandic radio played virtually nothing else than just classical pieces and, back then, I thought these were utterly boring. In my forties, I consciously decided to venture into this unexplored territory. In London, I bought myself a whole case of sheet music: the complete works of Tchaikovsky, Mahler, and several others… yes, the really heavy stuff, such as symphonies and piano concertos. I wanted to learn how to write in that idiom. As I had never attended music school, it was bound to be difficult, but slowly, some pieces came out. Composing classical works has been my main passion ever since.”
As a classical composer, Þórðarson has two masses to his credit, ‘Heilög messa’ (2000) and ‘Brynjólfsmessa’ (2006), which were performed by the Chamber Orchestra of Hafnarfjörður & the Millennium Choir and by the Jón Leifs Chamber Orchestra & Choir of the Keflavík Church respectively. Some of his pieces were played by the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, while his forty-minute-piece ‘La prière’ (The prayer), based on a French poem, was staged in a church in Barr, Alsace (France). Where does Þórðarson’s fascination for religiously inspired music come from? “It is not because I am a religious person”, Gunnar states. “I like to think of myself as a melodist and, to me, a mass is one of the most attractive ways of combining a melody with the opportunities offered by a choir of singers. As for the ‘Brynjólfsmessa’, of which I am very proud, I used the credo of Brynjólfur Sveinsson, who was the bishop of Skálholt in the seventeenth century; it was nice to relate my music to the history of Iceland.”
In 2012, Gunnar Þórðarson finished his first opera, ‘Ragnheiður’, based on the tragic life story of Brynjólfur’s daughter; the piece was performed in the following year in the Skálholt Cathedral by an orchestra with a choir and six solo singers.
Gunnar Þórðarson in the Eurovision Song Contest
The Icelandic broadcaster organized a national final with ten songs to determine the entry to be submitted to the international final in Bergen, Norway. There was a ten-piece-band, including Jon Kjell Seljeseth on keyboards, accompanying all entries; the conductors, who, on the invitation of the RÚV, had each arranged half of the participating songs, were Gunnar Þórðarson and Þórir Baldursson. One of the competing songs was ‘Gefðu mér gaum’, composed by Þórðarson himself and interpreted by Eiríkur Hauksson, but the eventual winner was ‘Gleðibankinn’, composed by Magnús Eiríksson and performed by Pálmi Gunnarsson. Eiríksson and Gunnarsson had long known each other, both being members of the band Mannakorn. It had only been in a very late stage that the decision was taken to exclude the song from the new Mannakorn album and submit it for the Icelandic Eurovision selection programme.
Though ‘Gleðibankinn’ had been arranged and conducted by Þórir Baldursson in the pre-selection, composer Magnús Eiríksson requested Þórðarson to redo the song and record a studio version. Before beginning work on a new arrangement, Þórðarson took a somewhat radical decision: “Pálmi Gunnarsson is an excellent singer, but, character-wise, he could be quite difficult to handle at times. We did not want to rely just on him. Therefore, after having consulted the people responsible at RÚV, who totally agreed with me, we decided to form a group for the contest. Pálmi was of course one of the members, and I asked Eiríkur Hauksson and Helga Möller to get on board as well, thus forming a trio which we named Icy. Eiríkur was a guy who I had been working with for some years and his major breakthrough was in the year before the contest with ‘Gaggó-vest’, a song composed by me. Mostly because of his looks, he had the image of a rock artist, but, in fact, he was involved in all kinds of music genres – he understood well enough that, to stay in business in this small country, you had to be able to work in all kinds of styles. An Icelandic girl of German parents, Helga Möller was part of a disco duo which I had formed, Þu og Ég; it was quite successful for some time. With Helga and Eiríkur in the project, we felt we had a better chance of success.”
The next stop on the way to Bergen was London: with his keyboard player and right hand in studio work, Jon Kjell Seljeseth, and the three vocalists, Þórðarson flew to England’s capital to record the final version of ‘Gleðibankinn’. Seljeseth, later to be a Eurovision conductor on two occasions himself, has detailed memories of how part of the arrangement for the song was put together at the very last moment: “Gunni had already laid out the structure of the song, and the basic idea of how to orchestrate it. On the plane to England, the two of us exchanged ideas for the brass part of the orchestration. Naturally, I took care of the keyboards. After the first day of recording, Gunni asked me if I had any suggestions for the strings, but I was exhausted having worked on these keyboard tracks. This left the task of completing that part of the job up to Gunni, who was up until three or four o’clock in the morning writing the strings! With the cream of British musicians in our sessions, the record version of the song was excellent.” Þórðarson adds: “We were all pleased with the recording. Jon Kjell’s keyboard parts were excellent. The strings and brass made the song bigger than it had been in the initial version. Moreover, in the pre-selection, the song went more or less straight-ahead, whilst our studio arrangement clearly marked the different parts, making the track more varied and interesting to listen to. We had also had to abridge the song, because, in the preliminaries, it exceeded the time limit of three minutes.”
Though Gunnar Þórðarson was not a trained conductor, RÚV invited him to lead the orchestra for ‘Gleðibankinn’ in the festival. When, finally, the day on which the Icelandic delegation flew to Norway for the Eurovision Song Contest had arrived, he could not help but feeling uncomfortable: “The event in itself was big enough to feel nervous, but the way our participation had been played up in Icelandic media was unhealthy. People in Iceland were convinced that it was not even a question: we were going to win! We were going to show Europe how it is done. I could not understand how journalists and the general public here could be so confident. How can you expect to win the Eurovision Song Contest in your first participation? It weighed down on me as a heavy burden.”
In Bergen, the Icelandic delegation plunged into the world of Eurovision. Þórðarson: “This was all very new to us. I went to the rehearsals of most other countries, as I was curious to see how they tackled this. There was this pretty lady singing for Yugoslavia (Doris Dragović with ‘Željo moja’, BT); I thought her song was excellent. We met some very nice people. I got on well with the Irish conductor, Noel Kelehan. We had a drink in a bar together. Altogether, it struck me that the atmosphere amongst the different countries was so cordial. The contact was quite shallow, though… not much talk about music, mainly exchanging pleasantries. Otherwise, we mainly stuck to our own delegation, doing some nice excursions, including a boat trip in the fjords.”
Of course, Þórðarson had to rehearse the song with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra. “… and it was not easy”, Gunnar sighs. “With hindsight, I should have used a backing track with the rhythm elements, such as drums, bass, and keyboards. It was allowed to have a backing track, as long as there were musicians miming these instruments on stage. I knew this, but, naively, I thought it would be great to capitalize on the opportunity to work with a professional orchestra. Soon, however, I found out that the Norwegian musicians were not as good as their counterparts in the studio in London. Compared to them, this orchestra sounded so ordinary, plain, and average! They had the same notes in front of them as the guys in London, but they simply did not play it tightly enough. Was I nervous for the live show? Oh yes, but I am always nervous before going on stage! Technically speaking, there is not a lot you can do when conducting such an orchestra… you count them in and rely on the drummer in the middle part before coordinating the final notes of the song. Having said that, while I was slightly unhappy about the rehearsals, they were fantastic compared to the rendition the orchestra gave during the broadcast… the sound was awful, resulting in the all-important keyboard parts being virtually inaudible, and, to add insult to injury, the brass section messed up the trumpet snaps. All in all, it could hardly have been any worse.”
In the voting, ‘Gleðibankinn’ picked up nineteen points, finishing in a disappointing sixteenth spot. “After the show, we all felt depressed”, Þórðarson recalls. “I did, and so did Helga, Pálmi, and Eiríkur. We did not go to any after party, instead preferring to head straight back to the hotel. On the plane back home, we were even more down-hearted, as we were well aware what kind of a reception was awaiting us. This sixteenth place came as a shock to the people in Iceland. In the days after the contest, we were really talked down to the bottom by the local press. I was given a hard time because the orchestra had been terrible, particularly the brass parts, but the singers, too, were criticized for dancing about like idiots as well as for their costumes. On top of that, it was claimed RÚV’s organisation of the Eurovision project had been a shambles. The same journalists, who had predicted victory for us in the run-up to the contest, were now blaming each and everyone they could think of – mainly me! No, I did not feel responsible. I mean… I was never the one to say we would win… ‘Gleðibankinn’ was a nice, straightforward pop song, but by no means Magnús Eiríksson’s best composition. Though we could have done better with a stronger live performance, the expectations in Iceland had simply been unrealistic.”
In the following years, Gunnar Þórðarson composed several songs for the Icelandic pre-selection, such as ‘Norðurljós’ for Eyjólfur Kristjánsson (third in 1987), ‘Í tango’ for Edda Borg and Björgvin Haldórsson (fifth in 1988), and ‘Soley’ for Katla María and Björgvin Haldórsson (fourth in 1990); the last-mentioned song, with lyrics by Þórðarson’s wife Toby Herman, was a considerable success in the Icelandic charts. Gunnar concludes: “I also arranged and produced some songs by other songwriters which had been admitted into the competition, but none of these were winners. I would certainly have liked to have been given a second chance in the Eurovision Song Contest, but, apparently, it was not to be!”
Other artists on Gunnar Þórðarson
Eiríkur Hauksson was one of the main vocalists with whom Gunnar Þórðarson worked both on and off stage in the 1980s: “In 1985, Gunnar’s album ‘Borgarbragur’ became the turning point in my career. He handed me the opportunity to hand-pick my favourites from his rough demos and it took me no more than a day to point out ‘Gull’ and ‘Gaggó-vest’. Both songs went to the top of the charts; in the blink of an eye, I had become a household name in Iceland. To me, Gunnar is the gentle giant of the Icelandic music scene. He is my favourite Icelandic composer; this is by no means only related to the songs written by him which I recorded, but much rather to the fact that, both as a composer and a performer, he has been a major factor in the strong and positive development of the Icelandic music scene since forever. He is a living legend and I am sure his music will stand the test of time.” (2012)
Jón Ólafsson, pop musician and producer of a younger generation: “To me, Gunnar is a genius. The songs he composed for Hljómar when he was seventeen and eighteen are as good as the most outstanding early Beatles songs such as ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Michelle’. It is unbelievable that a young man could compose such timeless stuff. As a producer, while he is a perfectionist, he can enjoy the inborn spontaneity of musicians as well. Moreover, Gunni is a most pleasant guy.” (2012)