Summartónar 2019 (Part 2)

by 5:4

As i previously remarked, one of the most (and one of the only) disappointing things about my first experience of the Faroe Islands’ Summartónar festival was the almost complete lack of music by Faroese composers. The inclusion of Kristian Blak – artistic director of the festival – mitigated that to an extent, and of course i’m conscious of the fact i only attended six says out of more than 90, but i nonetheless came away with a limited sense of what contemporary music in the Faroe Islands is like. During my time there, the emphasis was on an initiative called North Cultitude 6263; begun last year, it seeks to bring together cultural activities from the countries located at the latitudes of 62-63 degrees. The initiative is not simply about showcasing each other’s work, but also to foster collaboration: Ensemble 6263 is a newly-formed group who, performing for the first time at this year’s festival, included players from Greenland, Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia. The plan is to expand this further until all countries around the world at these latitudes are included.

Some of these performers came from the Icelandic ensemble Caput, who gave a concert of their own in Tórshavn’s Nordic House, a much larger and more lavish counterpart to the one in Reykjavik. i’d been highly impressed by Caput when hearing them in action at the Dark Music Days in January, and while their concert on this occasion was a somewhat more relaxed affair (a free lunchtime event), if anything it proved to be even more involving. This was largely due to the choice of repertoire, Caput bringing together a collection of works that all had a tendency to move slowly and meditatively. To this end, the concert was dedicated to three figures who have died in recent times: flautist Manuela Wiesler, and two Icelandic composers whose music book-ended the occasion and brought to it an intense solemnity. Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson‘s Kveðja, which opened the concert, featured episodes of freedom on flute and viola, flying gently out from a steady rhythmic grounding in the harp. It sounded akin to a processional, but one looking steadfastly up at the sky rather than down at the ground.

Atli Heimir Sveinsson‘s Minning II closed the concert in a similar way: it proved all the more potent due to its extreme brevity (barely two minutes), low melodies meandering around an again unwavering harp. In between these works, Anna Thorvaldsdottir‘s ensemble work occupied a delicate state of tension, at the liminal point between suspension and movement. Seemingly permanently poised, there was something deeply enigmatic about its character – solemn? fearful? sad? – yet this only made it all the more stimulating. Skak by Haukur Tómasson, another trio, pushed further into the same kind of mindset, going beyond meditation into obsession. Emerging from oscillating ideas, it sounded so restrained that it seemed to have turned in on itself, short assertive flurries of energy all returning back whence they came, closing with only the piano still moving, clarinet and cello seemingly trapped by an invisible force.

Two informal evening concerts, both taking place in smaller spaces, focused on the North Cultitude 6263 initiative. The first, in Tórshavn’s jazz and blues bar Blábar, featured a mix of old and new chamber works, including a really lovely rendition of Carl Nielsen’s The Fog is Lifting; the fact that the upright piano was a little out of tune ended up enhancing its atmosphere. As for the rest, Oliver Knussen‘s Elegiac Arabesques for cor anglais and clarinet was given beautifully intertwining treatment by Panu Sivonen and Elina Pyykönen, the two intruments clearly always on the same page but echoing, anticipating, suggesting, reinforcing and embellishing each other. Flautist Carina Sørum Øgaard gave an amazing and highly entertaining performance of Ian Clarke‘s solo The Great Train Race, navigating the unstoppable chuffing momentum and toccata-like runs (including singing) with real brilliance. The highlight of this concert for me was Magpipe for oboe solo by Finnish composer Kimmo Kuokkala; as its title suggests, the piece was like a formalised, abstracted birdsong, almost the product of a cybernetic bird with artificial intelligence. Panu Sivonen’s control over its complex lyricism – particularly through a slow progression of multiphonics – was incredible, causing a stunned silence within Blábar.

The second of these informal concerts took place in Reinsaríið, a small concert space close to Tórshavn’s harbour. Making it through the performance given by MonkeyRat Duo (comprising husband and wife Anna Iachino and Arnold Ludvig) required increasing amounts of gritted teeth, their songs an immature and somewhat embarrassing farrago of rap poetry to disarmingly inept bass and electronic accompaniments. But the rest could hardly have been more different. Alongside members of Caput, poet Marjun Syderbø Kjelnæs delivered a lengthy text, written earlier that day, inspired by a dream about a goat that reminded her about a cow that used to live under her grandmother’s house. Yes, really. Being in Faroese, i obviously couldn’t follow the details of her no doubt remarkable poem, but this in no way detracted from how fascinating the performance was. In particular, i found myself engaging with the intricacies of Kjelnæs’ voice, the lyricism of its language, the peculiarities of its timbre, the music of its contours and cadences. Her delivery was deliberately flat and matter-of-fact – as if simply relating a story rather than seeking to dramatise it – with members of Caput acting as a sympathetic counterpart, gently infusing Kjelnæs’ words with textural colour. The connection between words and music, initially tenuous, became increasingly intimate, as if the product of telepathy, especially when each fell silent at various points to allow the other time to go it alone. The concert opened with one of the most enjoyable performances of my whole time in the Faroes, featuring another married double act, Duo Stemma: violist Herdis Anna Jónsdóttir and percussionist Steef van Oosterhout. Together they gave a hilarious whistle-stop rendition of assorted Icelandic folk tunes, Oosterhout resorting to more and more unexpected implements to accompany the melody, including a jew’s harp, a bottle and finally a jawbone.

The culmination of North Cultitude 6263 at the festival came in a pair of concerts across a weekend: the main concert on Saturday night back at the Nordic House, repeated in a slightly altered, slimmed-down form the following day in SALT (Sound Art Live Theatre), a former silo converted into a stunning waterside concert hall, situated on the southernmost of the islands, Suðuroy. Eva Holm Foosnæs‘ overture of sorts, 62/63 Vignetten, was a forgettable sliver of cookie cutter cinematic clichés, and while it was good to get a chance to hear Hugi Gudmundsson‘s again (having heard Caput perform it at the Dark Music Days) it confirmed all the problems that had seemed to plague it the previous time, lacking a strong sense of direction and feeling as if something crucial were missing. The same could be said of much of Siinto by Finn Pasi Lyytikäinen, one of the oddest things i’ve heard in a while. A suite comprising six movements, for the most part they embraced tired generic tropes, primarily light, inconsequential noodlings (with some occasional Stravinskian bite) that wouldn’t sound remotely out of place as incidental music in a TV drama, all accompaniment to some absent substance. An equally tired, pointless bit of faux- (or possibly real) Classical material gradually being more and more corrupted, seemingly played for laughs, didn’t exactly help things. In hindsight all of this was made more irritating due to the fact that its fourth movement was much more engaging, sustained oblique chords with an adventurous piccolo soaring high above them, permeated with uncertainty. If only more of the piece had been like that. But where Siinto had been far too overlong, Ticks and waves I & II by Norwegian Trygve Brøske left me wanting a lot more. The first part channelled metronomic strictness into a post-minimal textural drama, full of mystery at its end, while the second evoked a Britten-esque seascape (replete with low triads), slow and cryptic, nicely toying with clarity.

These concerts provided a further opportunity to hear the work of the Faroes’ new music hero Kristian Blak. Compared to everything else i heard by Blak during my time there, his Harp Concerto – featuring Elísabet Waage as soloist – was the most conventional. That being said, its three movements didn’t in an obvious way adhere to the familiar fast-slow-fast model: if anything, speed from that paradigm was converted into chiaroscuro, the outer movements introducing quantities of shadow and menace into an otherwise lyrical sensibility. In opening movement ‘Systirin’ this was sudden, as if dark clouds had abruptly appeared and surrounded everything, whereas in the finale, ‘Vallarin’, darkness was suffused throughout all the material, forming a convoluted soundworld in which lilting and volatile ideas were in continual close proximity. Only the central movement maintained lightness throughout, cheerful and elegant, though even here it possessed a quiet intensity, with something inscrutable about it. More compelling – and arguably the most vividly memorable musical experience of my six days on the Faroe Islands – was Shaman, composed by Blak in 2001 and which, though actually lasting less than 20 minutes, sounded so substantial and portentous it felt as if lasted twice as long. The piece, which Blak had revised so as to incorporate Siberian folk singer Vera Kondrateva, invokes Shamanistic practice via what amounts to an extended act of musical ritual – to the extent that it frequently seemed less like the performance of a score than the enactment of a liturgy. On the one hand, its opening sequence – aggressively energetic, founded over a deep drone reinforced by didgeridoo and the rhythmic twanging of Kondrateva’s reindeer bone jew’s harp – set the tone of everything that would follow. Yet what it didn’t imply was the level of complexity contained in Shaman: its elaborate narrative and unpredictable counterpoint, emerging from a continually roaming locus of attention, periodically embellished with loud shouted refrains. But to speak of the work’s details – though they were all completely engrossing – would be to miss the point: in Shaman, Blak has crafted something that sounds wholly spontaneous, as if Ensemble 6263 had gathered together on the spur of the moment to speak with one musical mind, articulating something hard-to-define but undeniably immediate:  heightened in outlook, elevated in tone, transcendent in trajectory. In more than just a figurative sense, magic was made.

i’m incredibly glad to have had the opportunity to travel to the Faroe Islands to experience something of their annual Summartónar festival. In some respects it was disorienting, but that’s entirely in keeping with my first contact with many foreign music festivals. It was certainly a huge relief to spend time at a festival that, unlike most across Europe, wasn’t obsessed with including as many premières as possible (i don’t think i heard any at all), focusing instead on celebrating exciting local (i.e. Nordic) music presented in a warm atmosphere of collaboration. Everything about it felt inclusive and welcoming, which in today’s climate is most definitely something worthy of loud celebration.

Summartónar continues until the end of August; full details about the festival can be found here.

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