It no doubt goes without saying that Iceland’s Dark Music Days festival is primarily named for the fact that it takes place in January, when the amount of daylight the country receives is minimal. In a less literal sense, though, musically speaking there’s a lot to be said for listening in the dark. I don’t just mean the obvious, actually sitting in darkness – the way that last year’s Dark Music Days got up and running – but I’m also thinking of the relationship we have with music, our expectations and considerations of it prior to, and during, the act of listening. Personally, I increasingly find that knowing less beforehand, going into a concert ‘cold’ without consulting programme notes and the like until afterwards, is a valuable, even vital, way to approach new music.
Of course, this is a personal choice, but one aspect of this year’s festival where choice wasn’t always available was the provision of sung texts. To be fair, there weren’t many occasions when this was relevant (most of the concerts were entirely instrumental), but it was nonetheless surprising that in the case of two pieces where the content of the text was evidently essential, it wasn’t provided. In hindsight, I’m not sure it made that much of a difference in Gavin Bryars’ 2004 work From Egil’s Saga, performed on Wednesday evening within the stunning polygonal architecture of Breiðholt church. Bryars’ setting of the 12th century Icelandic text was so relentlessly turgid and depressing – like offcuts from the bleakest sections of Shostakovich’s Babi Yar symphony – that, to be frank, one hardly cared about the unknown narrative. Faroese bass soloist Rúni Brattaberg deserves a major shout-out; his enormous voice managed to convey stature and dignity despite the fact Bryars insisted on making him sound like the world’s most incessant whinger.
It may not have mattered for that piece, but in the work that brought the Dark Music Days to a close, the world première of Kolbeinn Bjarnason’s Cannot be replaced (Three ways of reading the poem Everything dies by Steinunn Sigurðardóttir), the text was absolutely crucial. Inspired by the loss of the Okjokull glacier last year, Kolbeinn’s music was crowned by a barn-storming performance from soprano Hildigunnur Einarsdóttir with the Reykjavík Chamber Orchestra and accompanied by a text-focused video element above. I can only assume – or, at least, hope – that the piece was as powerful as it seemed to be, but without knowing what any of it meant, I honestly have no idea. It was deeply frustrating, the worst kind of musical ‘darkness’.
As for the rest of the Dark Music Days, there was considerable further proof of the fact that, despite simplistic journalistic hacks endlessly trying to convince us otherwise, Icelandic music is not, in fact, primarily all about nature. The vicissitudes of mother nature only made their presence felt in a small number of pieces, but some of them were among the most striking things I heard at the festival. Elin Gunnlaugsdóttir’s Árnar renna (‘rivers flow’), heard in a newly-revised version at a concert given by students from the Kópavogur Music School and Rome’s Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia, progressed from low, gently poised material to short pin-pricks of sound, like sharp water droplets, and back again, concluding similarly to how it began, only now much more marsh-like and stodgy.
Mist Þorkelsdóttir’s Kaleidoscope in the Frozen Sky, premièred by mother and daughter violin and viola partners Dúó Freyja, evoked sights of the aurora borealis. This was articulated via an intense duet in which ideas flew between the players, who were rarely doing the same thing at the same time, though clearly shared the same palette of ideas. Not as much as the real thing, perhaps, but it was still an impressive display. Undiralda (‘undercurrent’) by Ingibjörg Ýr Skarphéðinsdóttir transported the duo from the skies to the ocean, in a dronal environment, pivoting around this central point via an extensive melodic duet. Somewhat folk-like in character, it was very beautiful.
Unlike some other nature-inspired works at the festival, both of these pieces succeeded by not overtly seeking to imitate or depict the natural world but by finding ways to abstract and translate it into a sonic domain. In this regard, more successful still was Veronique Vaka’s violin concerto Sceadu, featuring Una Sveinbjarnardóttir as soloist. In a similar but distinct way from her orchestral piece Lendh, the work’s textural landscape – once again taking its starting point from a literal geographical landscape – was driven more by lyricism than anything else. The solo violin was integral to this, emerging gradually from the orchestra in the first movement to assume a soloistic presence. In the second movement the relationship was more telling; it was like viewing the same thing at two different zoom levels simultaneously: the orchestra providing a far-out macroscopic overview, the solo violin an up-close microscopic perspective. Overall, Sceadu felt rather too long due to later passages seeming to cover the same ground as earlier ones, though this was forgivable due to both the beauty of the piece as well as its beguiling harmonic language, broadly consonant yet constantly fluid and elusive.
Such real world inspirations and evocations as these were very much in the minority at this year’s Dark Music Days, with many works opting for altogether more avant-garde approaches to music-making. I’m still not really sure what to make of The Runner of the Year by K.óla (Katrín Helga Ólafsdóttir), the first and probably only work I’ll ever witness involving its soloist dictating the pulse of the music by running on a treadmill. It was a lot of fun, sure, but whether there was anything more deep or meaningful to it seemed doubtful. All the same, if the piece gets sufficient further performances then soloist Stefán Ingvar Vigfússon will become immensely fit. One of the more emotionally subtle new works was Áslaug Rún Magnúsdóttir’s a lot of ANGELS to consider, premièred on Friday night by EKKI MINNA Duo, comprising cellist Andrew Power and accordionist Jónas Ásgeir Ásgeirsson. Adorned with cherubic wings, for all the music’s material activity it felt as if there were a stasis at its core. Accompanied by a delicately enraptured electronic soundscape, over time the players got up from their seats and began to circle round the space, initially just turning, later gyrating and dancing. Musically gorgeous and visually poignant, in ways that I couldn’t (and still can’t) quite comprehend it was surprisingly moving.
For the second year running, I was left completely baffled by the work of Þórunn Björnsdóttir, the first performance of whose Spirit II involved singer Heiða Árnadóttir processing around the Nordic House with a tree in a wheelbarrow, making tiny vocal sounds. I’d say “you had to be there”, but I really don’t think it would have helped. Infinitely more compelling at the same concert was the world première of I am not welcome by Norwegian composer Birgit Djupedal. Described by the composer as a “stream of consciousness”, it was nonetheless an exceptionally focused one, the text drawing on a collection of phrases contemplating inclusivity from both personal and communal perspectives: “I am not welcome. We are not welcome. Who might be welcome? Why am I not welcome? Why are you welcome?” – and so on. The first part of the piece involved Heiða vocalising before an embroidered banner on the wall while outside ambience was conjured up via a lo-fi field recording (on cassette). She progressed to move around the space, the words seemingly directed accusingly at us. This was powerful enough, but the second half went further, Heiða turning to a hand-held spool around which an embroidered score – part text, part graphic – was wrapped. What followed was as astonishing as it was devastating, the words exploding into a myriad fragments communicated through an ever-changing cavalcade of fiery emotional contortions, by turns elegant, animalistic, animatronic, tender, brutal, unhinged, lucid, mature, infantile, exquisite and excruciating. It was by far the most stunning (literally) performance I experienced during my entire time in Iceland; just incredible.