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On Tour with Sigur Rós: Recent Viola Grad Shares Her Story

Allie Simpson serves as Assistant Principal Violist with the California Symphony when not on tour with Icelandic post-rock icons.

September 8, 2023 by Alex Heigl

"My disease is that I struggle to say no," violist Allie Simpson laughs. "It causes me physical pain that I can't be in two places at once." But it's a habit that most recently led her to participate in a tour with Icelandic post-rock icons Sigur Rós, playing in the orchestra the group retained for the August leg of their summer tour celebrating their newest album.

Simpson, who in the Bay Area serves as Assistant Principal Violist for the California Symphony and subs in the San Francisco Ballet orchestra, wound up on the tour by—you guessed it—saying "yes." 

"A band I played in had a 10-year reunion concert, so I flew to New York to do that just because I hadn't seen those people in forever and I wanted to hang out with them," she explains. "And while I was there, my friend who runs the band was conducting for a recording gig, and he was like, 'Oh, you wanna play on this?'  So I showed up and it turns out it was for the soundtrack to an A24 movie." 

Allie Simpson plays with Sigur Rós at the Beacon Theatre. (Credit: Sachyn Mital)

Allie Simpson plays with Sigur Rós at the Beacon Theatre. (Credit: Sachyn Mital)

Simpson struck up a conversation with the contractor for the gig, and, when she mentioned she was based in the Bay Area, he explained he was trying to hire out musicians for the Sigur Rós tour. While in New York again a few weeks later for the tour's stop at the famed Beacon Theatre, Simpson was able to play another show, this time in downtown Brooklyn at avant-garde venue Roulette with NYC's experimental saxophone legend, John Zorn. 

"I kind of overworked myself for enough years and took gigs for enough years that now I'm in a place where I feel the luxury of being able to say no to stuff," Simpson, who graduated in 2021 and studied with Dimitri Murrath, said, before adding, "but I still want to do everything."

The tour's arrangements were done in-house by the band, but the conductor for the jaunt was Robert Ames of the London Contemporary Orchestra. "He knew exactly how to get the sound," Simpson said: "We had a rehearsal the day before, a rehearsal the day of the first show, and then just soundchecks day-of for the rest of the shows." 

"Everybody was such a pro," she continued of the tour. "It was also really cool to see the rehearsal process of Sigur Rós. "It's not like they have everything figured out and they're just doing things by rote, they're trying things out and experimenting." (Though there was little improvisation owing to the ensemble's size, Simpson said at one point in the program, they were encouraged to "ad-lib whale sounds.")

One minor hiccup involved the band's famously detailed lighting and effects setup: In addition to fog, the lighting rig involved Edison bulbs that were timed to pulse with the music, but the musicians rebelled against incorporating that into their music-stand setup. "Originally, like our stand lights were also pulsing and we were like, we can't see the music if that happens," Simpson said. "One of the guys in the band said, 'We paid thousands of dollars for that.' I don't know if that was a joke or not. You can't tell; they're very straight-faced."

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