Grandma Lo-Fi: The Basement Tapes Of Sigríður Níelsdóttir

Grandma Lo-Fi: The Basement Tapes Of Sigríður Níelsdóttir


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

She was 70 years old when it all began.

Iceland has fascinatingly eclectic musical traditions, influenced by the wider world yet retaining a distinct character rooted in centuries of isolation. Its thin but nutritious soil was the perfect place for a wild seed like Sigríður Níelsdóttir to flourish. in her music we hear the voice of the land - not just metaphorically but literally, as she takes the sounds around her and translates them into music.

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Sigríður was one of three children born into a family that faced many hardships. Her early life is depicted here through black and white photographs and her own recollections, but we never et the sense of distance that is usual in such tales - everything is in the moment, the fire that burned within her then still raging. Leaving behind her native Denmark, she moved to Iceland, married, had children, settled in a little house where she would rise at 4:30 every morning to pray. She lived for a time in South America. Everywhere, she seemed to absorb ideas, and to absorb sound. When the moment came and all this knowledge started silling out of her, the flood was impossible to hold back. In her kitchen, she set up a simple recording studio, a keyboard, a set of tapes. "It's cheating really," she says of even the most primitive editing material at her disposal; but then there's a little wink, a knowing smile. Cheating or not, it's the music tha matters.

Within the seven years after her musical career began, Sigríður recorded 59 CDs and became an Icelandic legend, massively infuential. Artists like Björk and Sigur Rós have waxed lyrical about her influence. Here, assorted admirers tell her tale in semi-musical form, like a poetic edda, from within a fantastic landscape created by the collages for which she later won fame. Lovingly animated, these scenes spill out into the more mundane interview sections, scattering bright flowers and little butterflies in the most unexpected places like the sounds Sigríður captured. As with her music, the impression is of something anarchic yet naturally ordered - there are patterns to be found, and joy within them.

Sigríður is the kind of spontaneous interviewee documentarians dream of. She shows us how to create sounds. Scrunched up aluminium foil becomes a crackling fire. For the sound of a trickling brook, she decants water from one bowl to another in her kitchen sink. She delights in the automatic drum beats on her synthesiser. For her, the journey from observed sound to music is seamless, fluid, and translated here so that babies and animals with no musical experience can follow and understand it. My rabbit, who watches a lot of films, has never loved one so much, and danced to this for almost an hour. In this intimate understanding, though Sigríður dismiss it as the naive consequence of a lack of education, a kind of genius emerges, a route to re-envisioning what sophistication has distanced us from. Sigríður's deceptively simple music is something truly original.

Behind the music, there's the person. The joy Sigríður feels in the creative process is infectious. Her sense of wonder illuminates everything and makes this documentary a delight from start to finish. Few films manage to be so enlightening, so moving and so enjoyable. This is really something special.

Reviewed on: 15 Feb 2013
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The true story of the elderly woman who, by chance, started making experimental music with ordinary household objects, and became a cult star.

Director: Ingibjörg Birgisdóttir, Orri Jónsson, Kristin Björk Kristjánsdóttir

Starring: Sigrídur Níelsdóttir

Year: 2011

Runtime: 62 minutes

Country: Denmark, Iceland

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