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Revisiting ‘Riceboy Sleeps,’ Jónsi & Alex’s ambient classic that took root in Boston

Jónsi & Alex perform "Riceboy Sleeps."
Jónsi & Alex perform "Riceboy Sleeps."Lilja Birgisdottir

Furtive jungle walks in defiance of a menacing pirate threat. A cloaked woman who dispenses mushrooms and homemade champagne from a wicker basket. A hut, rimmed by trilling tree frogs, hunched between stands of exotic trees on a Hawaiian raw-food commune.

Many contemporary classical records are made in grand European chapels or soundstages. “Riceboy Sleeps,” by Sigur Rós singer Jón Þór “Jónsi” Birgisson and the composer Alex Somers, was made, in part, on a spit of land in the North Pacific Ocean — surrounded by total wilderness eccentricity.

This adventure culminated a five-year journey that started outside a Boston piano store and continued in a Reykjavik, Iceland, kitchen, where two lovers made music, films, paintings, illustrations, and vegan food. And next Wednesday, Birgisson and Somers — who perform as Jónsi & Alex — will celebrate the 10th anniversary of “Riceboy Sleeps” by playing the lustrous album at the sold-out Wilbur Theatre with the Wordless Music Orchestra and Choir.

Sixteen years ago, though, the two were mere strangers when they crossed paths in Boston. Somers was studying composition and music therapy at Berklee School of Music when Sigur Rós whirred through town on one of the band’s myriad sold-out tours.

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“We had an immediate connection and immediate spark,” Somers recalled, when reached in Los Angeles this month.

In the relationship’s first year, Birgisson stayed with Somers in his Cambridge apartment when he wasn’t touring or making records. The story of “Riceboy Sleeps” really begins there when, one day, the two ferried a laptop to a nearby music store that broadcast classical piano tunes through a weathered PA on its facade.

“We stood in the street holding Jónsi’s laptop in the air until someone’s arms would ache and then we’d trade,” Somers said. “We recorded it for 20 minutes, then we went back to my apartment and slowed it way down, probably six octaves. So all those fast piano gestures were happening at a really slow-motion pace.”

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This piece became “All the Big Trees,” which would later appear on “Riceboy Sleeps.” The two created a new sonic world by sampling and embellishing sounds that most would miss in mindless hurry.

They didn’t know it at the time, but the album’s title was also born during this time. While Somers was still at Berklee, subsisting on rice, Birgisson took to calling his partner Riceboy, and he named a new song “Riceboy Sleeps” while Somers rested one evening.

Birgisson, with trademark brevity, recalled this period fondly when reached on a separate call to L.A. “Beautiful times,” he said. “Innocent times.”

Somers eventually moved to Tuscany and then Reykjavik to live with Birgisson and attend Iceland University of the Arts. This is when their fertile creative existence became Renaissance-worthy, the making ceasing only for sleep. They even starred in their own low-budget YouTube cooking show and designed a raw-food cookbook.

“We were so in awe of the world,” Somers says now. “I think you can reattach yourself to that state. It just comes and goes in your life.”

He and Birgisson were regularly making porous and gentle electro-acoustic loops in their living room, smearing them with DIY recordings of the string quartet amiina, the Kópavogsdætur Choir, and field recordings. But there was no talk of making a record yet. Instead, the evocative collages piled up in an iTunes playlist that served the sole purpose of enhancing the atmosphere in which they cooked.

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“It was just our own practice and experimentation,” Somers continued, “just for pure pleasure. There was no ambition to finish anything and show it to people.”

It makes sense that “Riceboy Sleeps” wasn’t an end to pursue, initially. Birgisson was already leading a Grammy-nominated band, and music had dominated Somers’s life since he was a child in Baltimore. It was liberating to explore other mediums. Still, the pieces held undeniable appeal in sum, so in 2008 the two decided to hole up somewhere remote to see if the varied strands could cohere as an album.

This is where Pangaia — the off-the-grid commune — comes in. They shipped studio monitors to Hawaii, bought an extraordinarily long extension cord to siphon power from the commune’s solar fuel cells, and set off to work for one month. They also explored the lush terrain and grew so committed to finding sprouted coconuts that they were willing to risk harm to their bodies.

“We were led by this person who knew about everything,” Somers recalled, laughing. “He said, 'We can’t speak now for about 20 minutes ‘cause there are these pirates.’ He called them pirates. I don’t know what you’re meant to call them. You couldn’t speak because they’d kidnap you if you were caught.”

The two made it out of Hawaii alive, and flew to London to master “Riceboy Sleeps” with Mandy Parnell (Björk, The xx). And 10 years later the album is being performed live for the first time with the help of two accomplished friends.

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Robert Ames, principal conductor of the London Contemporary Orchestra, is leading the Wordless Music ensemble that’s performing alongside Birgisson and Somers. And David Handler, composer and cofounder of the vital music venue (Le) Poisson Rouge, in New York City, translated the album’s samples, found sounds, and pristine drones into parts for strings, brass, harp, percussion, woodwinds, and voice. Whirly tubes, bags of glass, bird callers, and other unconventional objects are being deployed to mimic “Riceboy’s” many extra-musical components.

“The arrangements are kind of romantic,” Birgisson remarked.

He’s not wrong, but you know the quiet polymath is understating this if you’ve seen video of the tour’s Sydney Opera House premiere.

“This just cannot be from this Earth,” one YouTube commenter wrote.

Last week, Birgisson and Somers publicly acknowledged that they were separating as romantic partners after 16 years, but their creative verve and devotion shows no sign of waning. The two just released a surprise EP, a “sibling” album to “Riceboy Sleeps.” And it was clear in interviews for this story that they remain fond of each other.

Perhaps true love is like this music. It bends, refracting new light, but never breaks.

Follow Ryan Burleson on Twitter @ryanburleson.