Hildur Guðnadóttir is from Iceland, a country I understand to be populated only by musicians. She is classically trained and highly accomplished, having composed scores for plays and films, winning the Icelandic Theater Award in 2011 for scoring King Lear. In addition to collaborating with an abundance of groups — Pan Sonic, Throbbing Gristle, múm — she was also a member of polyphonic psych-folk group Stórsveit Nix Noltes, whose record Orkideur Hawai won me over after a friend randomly picked it up from a record store years ago.
Saman is Hildur’s fourth solo record, and like her collaborations and past material, it’s modest but crafted with care. It’s a delicate record of balances and obfuscations, consisting of sparse instrumentals composed of arrangements for cello and voice, the pairing of which form the dyad that represents togetherness — thus, Saman, which is Icelandic for “together.” The album subsists wholly on Hildur’s clarity of form, an insular composing style that neglects context and choreographs an unwitnessed journey with myriad shifts in mood and setting throughout each piece. But it’s not really a sad or happy album. It’s more transportive, malleable, adaptable. Some songs possess a romantic simplicity with little to no adornment, like “Heima,” which meanders from melancholy to peaceful in a strummed swing; others are lacquered with reverb to create a flowing drone, like the angelic/psychedelic choir of “Fra.” It’s an album that rewards, rather than demands, your attention.
Hildur’s voice intertwines with her cello, almost to the point where there is no discernible difference between them. Her cello possesses a stirring tone, soft, with a mortal simplicity, which becomes dense and encompassing in shrewd intervals. It glows faintly, sometimes blossoming forth in volume in a bright streak or in a texture resembling a violin. Hildur’s voice, meanwhile, is flush with the gruffness of the cello’s lower octaves and is often dubbed over with whispers or washed with echo. At its densest points, this layering forms a wet bricolage of voices, some deep and trenchant, some silky and ethereal, all of it fused together. There is a sense of conversation alive within the album, with the different voices proffering interjections, disagreements, laments; the strike of a bow acting as a mournful sigh, the harmony of Hildur’s vowel coos as resigned sympathy. “Baer” is a particularly gorgeous, contemplative piece that droops and lurches forth in pitch with an odd, vacant limp, like a crestfallen character in a cartoon. Sometimes the voice and the cello form a blend so visceral and so synchronous it becomes pulverizing, like on “Birting,” a powerful piece that sounds like the Wikipedia entry for Pyrrhic victory scored to music.
Saman offers no answers, only gestures and outlines, cloying and pondering and seeking. It can all seem at once supplicant yet paradoxically fatalist, because song after song, Saman’s fickle oration never makes a bid for certainty, never fully resolves its problems or explains its occurrences. So the perception of meaning resides almost entirely in the listener. At the same time, it cribs from European folk, hymns, and classical music, and these introjections produce a sense of universal familiarity from whence multiple interpretations can be gleaned. It is here (and in the blunt metaphor of the album art) that another observation about the title can be made: in the balance between past (“imagined”) and present (“real”), solid and fluid, Saman refers to the signs we use to demarcate meaning and the ways we process the unknown. With the slightest strokes, Saman demonstrates how a new, stronger body of work can be rendered by slyly manipulating those demarcations, leaving some choices up to its audience, appealing to our innate desires for continuity and closure. It’s a work both familiar and foreign, showing us how new experiences are often guided by our projections and our memories.