Tuesday evening at the Dark Music Days brought Dúplum Dúó – comprising soprano Björk Níelsdóttir and violist Þóra Margrét Sveinsdóttir – to the somewhat lugubrious setting of Iðnó, one of Reykjavík’s many bars and cafés that also serve as concert spaces. Þóra Margrét didn’t get much of an opportunity to let rip in the recital, while Björk’s voice was mesmerising and often surprisingly powerful, yet it was the understated theatricality of her performance that proved most telling.
Despite the brevity of the four premières they performed, some of them made for a frustrating experience. Sveinn Luðvík Björnsson‘s setting of Shakespeare’s 39th sonnet, consisting of a few half-hearted viola bleats either side of an entirely spoken recitation of the text, almost sounded like the work of a complete musical novice (though hearing Shakespeare recited with an Icelandic accent was admittedly rather lovely). Sóley Stefánsdóttir‘s Parasite should have included electronics but I learned afterward that these had been removed at the last minute – which perhaps explains why the music had sounded provisional and insufficient. Aart Strootman boldly took on the challenge of setting Baudelaire. In many respects his Flowers of Evil nicely captured the atmosphere of the text, in conjunction with a tape part conjuring up a kind of dreamy reverie with clear underlying passion. The piece was undoubtedly overlong and became monotonous in its latter half, though the way Strootman introduced ferocity and a distinct acidic quality at the work’s end – nicely alluding to the bitterness and desperation implied in the poem – made for a superb conclusion.
Yet strangely, the piece that I’ve found myself pondering most was the one I understood the least. Björk Níelsdóttir‘s own Allt er ömerlegt (everything sucks) was a litany of miniature gripes and diatribes – some barely a few seconds long – about everyday life, concerning “the mundane problems of everyday existence … through the use of song fragments, uncomfortable noises and a little bit of complaining” (her words). Unfortunately, an English translation wasn’t provided so it was impossible to know what she was singing about (and I wasn’t remotely convinced by Google Translate’s subsequent efforts, e.g. “As I was a child, I drunk raisins for the purpose of pumping jars and fixing them unpunished for eternal pranks”). It was all the more frustrating as the audience’s reaction suggested the piece was highly witty and entertaining. Despite this, the more I’ve reflected on its weird combination of wan, drab and robotic viola gestures in dialogue with Björk’s melodramatic delivery, cheekily embellished (if that’s the right word) with a shaker, the more it seems as if I nonetheless knew exactly what she was on about.