Text: Lauri Supponen
Photos: Arnar Sigurbjörnsson
Dark Music Days is a festival of contemporary music organized annually by the Icelandic Composers’ Society. During this darkest period of the year, the city of Reykjavík provides a unique surrounding for contemplating and experiencing a quite challenging programme. Light has an almost sacred status. Sound – luckily – doesn’t. It is scrutinized, let loose and poked at from all corners. Over 50 pieces by over 30 composers were presented during the festival. The performers were called in from both sides of the Atlantic, conveniently meeting in between continental plates. Installations and performances were a central part of the festival – a trend growing at new music festivals around Europe. More traditional concert settings were of course also included in the programme.
Near the entrance of one of the chamber halls of Harpa – the awe-inspiring concert hall where the festival took place – there is a wide space with windows giving to the bay of Reykjavík and the besnowed table mountains behind. There hung a bowling ball reaching knee-height, surrounded by pine-logs of different sizes and width. Some were knocked over, others standing precariously near the slightly swaying, ominous pendulum. A few chips of wood and bark lay on the floor inside a fenced-off area. There was a path left open to enter the circle. I could not resist to swing back the pendulum, aiming at one of the last logs left standing. The log emitted a rather pleasant, hollow sound as it ricocheted off one of its lying counterparts and accelerated towards lying still, finishing with a short roll.
Turned out, I’d appeared at the scene just as a typical performance of Keila (2013), a collective installation by Áki Ásgeirsson and Jesper Pedersen was already over. Later during the festival weekend, I witnessed many different performances of the work. Typically, a member of the audience first arranges the logs to stand in a circle. Then they pull the bowling ball away from the centre and push the ball into motion to circle around the logs. As the rotation narrows down, the logs are tipped over one by one, creating a multitude of rhythm-pitch gestures as well as a characteristic waft of pitch and sap. In a more mileycyrusian version, a spectator jumped onto the ball and swung with it, kicking a log rather close to my left ear while I was capturing the moment for social media. The short woody, xylophony gestures echoed throughout the first floor of Harpa. Some were even heard through the walls of the chamber hall during quiet moments in another performance, which for me created a unique sense of where one was. They activated associations, I found myself repeating and humming them to myself as I heard them. They reminded me of other music, other songs and pieces. In this vein, Keila has an affinity with another performance work at the festival.
In between the afternoon and evening concerts of the last day of the festival, on Saturday evening, students and people seeming like passers-by gathered one by one to a large terrace on the second floor of Harpa. Everyone was holding a triangle. Some were bashfully hiding theirs, others marveling at what was to come. Promptly at 6.30pm, just as the last rays of skylight became meeker than the lights of the concert hall, the first trianglist started a soft tremolo comodo. Their neighbour waited a moment, and then joined in. Slowly everyone followed suit, one by one, right to left, from the largest triangle to the smallest.
At first, the small audience stood awkwardly in the middle. Then they too started slowly moving to hear different variations of the ringing. In most places, one could hear a steady, mid-range pitch, which inspite of the constant irregular tremoli didn’t lose its sustained nature. Approaching one of the trianglists on the right side, bringing my ear as close to the metal as I dared, I could hear a beautiful high arpeggio in E minor coming from the higher partials of all the triangles in this corner. There was something rather humbling about the fact that such a rich variety of sound, ranging from high to surprisingly low in pitch, came from these 50+ triangles. Triangular Mass indeed. Niels Lyhne Lokkegaards work deals a lot with this effacing of the individual sound into a mass of that same sound, to be able to hear it in a new way. Or, as he states, ”The sound dissolves and reappears as untouched”. I would’ve listened to this for much, much longer, if I hadn’t signed up to another installation downstairs.
I stepped into what was the first of two rooms. Two chairs were set up at different sides of the room. I was asked to sit down on a chair that was surrounded by loudspeakers. The sounds emitted were of close-miked cardboard shuffling, tearing. Soft bubbling of water and swooshing sand-paper-like elements. This must be a mental preparation for something, I thought. To help me relax. I recall I was told by one of the artists to relax, which is a very good way to make me even more aloof. Shortly, we were asked to move to the next station. There were headphones which mimicked the sounds of brushes, cotton swabs, fingers and fingernails brushing and edging inside and around the ear canal. Blowing sounds that ended with a pop were not only strangely satisfying, they made me jump every time. Especially as the pop came always at different times, later or earlier, playing with my expectations. The sounds were diffused in such a way as to give an illusion of my ear canals being tampered with. I felt violated, in no control of myself.
These sounds were almost too intimate to bear, yet I loved every moment of it. Disturbingly purified, we were asked to move to the next room, where two similing artists Neele Hülcker and Stella Veloce were standing by a large table with objects and gadgets. I dared not look too closely. They sat us down and asked us to put on sturdy ear muffs. Next I saw two bows passing the side of my head. My brain was being bowed! Of all the things I have seen being bowed at new music festivals alike, this was the reckoning. The oscillator-like sounds of my ear muffs being bowed col legno tratto gave way to vibrators and metal bowls with whizzing aspirin held against the muffs, now resonators par excellence. I was truly inside the sound. Surround diffusion. No electricity required. Manna to any analog fan. Ear Action is one the most insightful performance works I’ve experienced in a while. Clever and polemic, it raises questions of self-awareness, of the penetrating power of sound and the possibility to engage listeners by playing with their expectations.
Another young and talented duo to watch out for gave a concise performance of three works earlier the same day, in the intimacy of the Kaldalón chamber hall, lined with the hallmark aurora-borealis-evoking wooden panels, which became so familiar during the festival, namely Yngvild Haaland Ruud on accordion and Shasta Ellenbogen on viola. In Cerulean Minim (2016) the Swedish Ylva Lund Bergner writes that she seeks to create a huge sound box (a meta-accordion) around Ruud’s accordion, the pitches of the electronic part playing in unison and counterpoint, an interplay of rich sounds from afar with those that are close and contained. The tuning of the track with the accordion slightly counteracted the desired effect, but overall the work was an interesting study in a dialogue between spaces of different sizes. I’d like to hear where this train of thought might lead. The Icelandic composer Bergrún Snaebjörnsdóttir’s Instrinsic Rift (2016) was presented in an almost candle-light setting, which was very complimentary of the settled and transparent sustains from the two instruments. The electronic part was extremely shy, barely present, which was a tasteful solution giving ample room for the performers to dwell in carefully mixing their sound-colours. Only at the end did it create a slight swell, a slight wedge in between the two. The concert ended with Gérard Grisey’s contemplative Prologue (1976), which opens up towards what’s to follow: what will the duo do next? Ellenbogen focused on the fragmentary, cellular nature of the piece. A more phrasal, forward-moving interpretation would be expected if the work is performed as part of the full cycle.
The opening concert of the festival was given by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. The relationship of the soloist to the accompanying orchestra in Haukur Tómasson’s viola concerto Echo Chamber (2015) is the relationship an earthquake has to the needle of the seismograph. The composer took great care in replicating the prism of sound colours brought to life by the violist Þórunn Ósk Marinósdóttir, and diffusing them onto the orchestral mass. The title could also mean an environment where a debate or discussion gathers momentum, but only on one side of the pole. Opposing ideas being left out lead to a lopsided truth. In whichever way one interprets the work, the masterful use of orchestral colours is apparent – though the careful build-up in the beginning is betrayed by a loss of focus towards the end of the piece. The sounds and gestures are always very distinct and well-crafted, but somehow their direction is later veiled and confused. Haukur’s work offers a chance to hear really beautiful jamming on spectral harmonies. Speaking of which, the full potential of the ISO was let loose under the direction of Petri Sakari at the end of the concert, with an impressive rendition of Thomas Adès’ Polaris (2010). An impossibly difficult piece to tie together, with lines and sound colours travelling across the orchestra at a speed challenging even for a chamber ensemble. The ISO really let loose on this one, while keeping the high trumpet chords and flute arpeggios intact to carry the sound till the double bar.
The ISO had a full roster on their hands for the festival week, as they had rehearsed three new works by young Icelandic composers which they presented at a matinee the following day. The premieres were the fruitful result of a year-long collaboration with the orchestra and conductor Daníel Bjarnason. This was immediately apparent in the bold works. One rarely hears such focus as in the ”one-idea” works by Þórunn Gréta Sigur?ardóttir and Þráinn Hjálmarsson. In Hrekkur (2016) (”prank”) Þórunn replicated the breathy and sometimes violent Icelandic sounds, and placed them in a comical hoquetus jittering on top of a beautifully mixed and saturated (remember I am sitting in a room) F spectrum. Þráinn’s Perpendicular/Slightly tilted (2016) was an ebbing and flowing of earthy, breathy ”chords” or pulses characterised by sand-paper being rubbed on flower pots. The single, simple feldmanesque idea is to play with the ever-so-slight imbalancing of variation and repetition. Both pieces suggest a larger form than was perhaps possible to write in this framework of a workshop. Finnur Karlsson’s Strik (2016) dealt more with leading an idea onto another, and exploring the interstices in between contrasting gestures. I was delighted with the humour of the work, especially with the sounds of geese rendered with oboes and clarinets, honking polyrhythms over a a dark bed of tremolo in the closing seconds.
Borrowing the words of the artistic director of this year’s festival Gunnar Karel Másson, the trends and currents on both sides of the Atlantic come together in Iceland. Many clues in Reykjavík point towards this dual existence of North American and Nordic cultures. One afternoon, after coming back from the hot springs at Vesturbaer, I was watching big hummers pass the windows of a burger joint sponsored by an American beverage company. In cafes, the Canadian and American accents are every bit as prominent as European or Asian ones, whereas the hip bar at the hostel I was staying at bustled mostly in overseas accents. The English spoken by Icelanders very often has a North American note to it. The music of many Icelandic composers has a strong affinity with the scenes at US university campuses, and in a way have created a similar phenomenon to that of the Dutch contemporary music scene, where the Nordic and European sounds are fused with the rhythmic and formal thinking of the likes of Bang On A Can. I’m thinking especially of the aksak-laden wind quintet Roto con Moto by Hlynur A?ils Vilmarsson presented by the Reykjavík Chamber Orchestra and Arborescence by Úlfur Hansson featured in the orchestral concert. The latter owes a lot to the American studio-music scenes, painting a more abstract beginning with distinct fields of sounds, masses of pizzicati and moving onto lush strings.
The North American protagonist in this tale of the Inter-Atlantic at the Dark Music Days is exclusively Robert Dick, who came to the festival with his duo partner, the German pianist and improvisor Ursel Schlicht. Together they presented a groovy programme of pieces led and conceived by both artists, as well as a collectively written suite THE GALILEAN MOONS as the centre-piece of the gig. In a marvelous way, the music of this duo embraces the dual nature of this – in the end rather elusive – Inter-Atlantic music, but also surpasses it stylistically. These were great jazz-pieces. I was bobbing my head to Sic Bisquitus Disintegrat (introduced as ”that’s the way the cookie crumbles”), which was composed of scales of compound 5ths, both played and sung into the massive bass flute in F. A generous amplification made sure that the sound kept its body throughout in the dry acoustics of the Kaldalón chamber hall. THE GALILEAN MOONS was a carlsaganesque circumnavigation of the moons of Jupiter, their different temperaments imagined by the artists. It was also a work showcasing four different flutes out of the seven that Dick had brought with him. Io has low tongue rams on bass flute – with carefully placed mikes – and brushes on piano strings to evoke earthquakes and volcanoes, Europa inhabits a high, icy world with precarious, heavily amplified whistle-tones on the piccolo. There’s something quite satisfying in letting oneself go along a naïve programme. In a way, it brings back a time when cinema didn’t exist yet, and music had to do the job of the image as well.
There will always be pearls. Entire concerts very rarely amount to that end. Contemporary music festivals that feature 50 pieces over a long weekend or somewhere around a hundred spread over a fortnight will understandably have difficulty in creating and rekindling focus during the course of the festival. I must say Dark Music Days fared rather well. Most concerts were under an hour long, there was never much trouble moving between the venues as they were all conveniently under the same roof. Insofar as the more traditional concert-settings are concerned, in my opinion it’s enough that there is one or two well-placed, focused and well-weighted ones to give the thumbs up to a festival. A truly lovely case of one was given by Cikada, who played near the closing of the festival. The Norwegian ensemble presented three works by composers whom they have had a close relationship with in recent years: Francesco Filidei, Liza Lim and Anna Þorvaldsdóttir. The concert had the benefit of featuring works that inhabited a very similar style of musical expression. One which likes resonance, one which organizes sounds in such a way that their resonant qualities come to the fore as successfully as possible. In Lim’s work Winding Bodies: 3 knots (2013-14), this was approached by preparing the strings and piano with threads that when pulled, created a coarse, overtone-rich drone akin to a lion’s roar, an instrument which made a rather buffoon-like appearance at the end of the work. Filidei’s Three Songs Without (2016), premiered here, was a feat. It brought out the extreme delicacy and sweetness of the act of sounding an instrument. Myriads of small gestural cells exist in the tiniest, waftiest of sounds or attempts at sound. It was also a feat for Cikada, who breathed and felt the music at their fingertips at quite an astounding sensuous level.
FULL PROGRAMME HERE: http://www.darkmusicdays.is/dagsrk-program/
Many concerts will be broadcast and are streamable here: http://www.ruv.is/thaettir/myrkir-musikdagar
26. – 28. janúar // 26 – 28 January
16-22/23:00 // 4 – 10/11pm
Aðgangur ókeypis // free admission
Áki Ásgeirsson & Jesper Pedersen
Keila (Bowling) 2013
Sinfónían á Myrkum // The Iceland Symphony Orchestra
26. Janúar // 26 January
19:30 // 7.30pm
Atli Heimir Sveinsson
Kristín Þóra Haraldsdóttir
Cycles (2016) – heimsfrumflutningur / world premiere
Echo Chamber, víólukonsert (2015) – heimsfrumflutningur / world premiere
Arborescence (2016) – heimsfrumflutningur / world premiere
Polaris (2010) – Íslandsfrumflutningur / Iceland premiere
Einleikari / soloist: Þórunn Ósk Marinósdóttir
Stjórnandi / conductor: Petri Sakari
YRKJA – uppskeruhátíð // YRKJA – Young Comoposers
27. janúar // 27 January
12:00 / 12 noon
Ókeypis aðgangur // Free admission
Þórunn Gréta Sigurðardóttir
Hrekkur (2016) – heimsfrumflutningur / world premiere
Perpendicular / Slightly tilted (2016) – heimsfrumflutningur / world premiere
Strik (2016) – heimsfrumflutningur / world premiere
Stjórnandi / conductor: Daníel Bjarnason
Robert Dick & Ursel Schlicht Duo
27. janúar // 27 January
19:00 / 7pm
The Galilean Moons
Tendrils, for flute with Glissando Headjoint® and piano (2005)
Sic Bisquitus Disintegrat, for bass flute in F and piano (1997)
Ursel Schlicht (2008)
A Lingering Scent of Eden, for flute and piano (2008)
Robert Dick and Ursel Schlicht
THE GALILEAN MOONS (2009)
Io, bass flute in F and piano
Europa, piccolo and piano
Callisto, open hole alto flute and piano
Ganymede, bass flute and piano
Dark Matter, for contrabass flute and piano (2005)
Neele Hülcker & Stella Veloce – Ear Action
28. janúar // 28 January
10-22:00 / 10am – 10pm
Ókeypis aðgangur // Free admission
Ear Action (2016)
N. Hülcker and S. Veloce
Shasta Ellenbogen & Yngvild Haaland Ruud
28. janúar // 28 January
16:00 // 4pm
Ylva Lund Bergner
Cerulean Minim (2016)
Intrinsic Rift (2016) – heimsfrumflutningur / world premiere
Niels Lyhne Løkkegaard – Triangular Mass
28. janúar // 28 January
18:30 // 6.30
Anddyri Hörpu // Harpa Foyer
Ókeypis aðgangur // Free admission
Niels Lyhne Løkkegaard
Triangular Mass (2016) – heimsfrumflutningur / world premiere
28. janúar // 28 January
19:00 // 7pm
Three Songs Without (2016) – heimsfrumflutningur / world premiere
Winding Bodies: 3 knots (2013-14)