Postponed from its usual position in late January to early March due to last-minute Covid restriction shenanigans, Iceland’s Dark Music Days festival was therefore not quite so dark as usual. All the same, it was hardly the Light Music Days, and in any case Mother Nature was seemingly more determined than ever to reinforce Iceland’s wintry credentials, providing some of the most treacherous conditions i’ve ever known, making attendance at certain events not merely a challenge but an intimidating, daunting adventure across pavements transformed into glittering tracts of sheer ice. Festivals can be gruelling, punishing things, but in the most literal way, the 2022 Dark Music Days took that to a whole new bruising level. From a musical perspective, however, the festival was nothing like as daunting. For the most part.
As usual, the majority of the concerts featured various formations of chamber ensemble, lending them an air of intimacy, even when taking place in larger-scale spaces. The most telling example of this was the final concert i attended, featuring music by Sóley Stefánsdóttir (whose latest album, Mother Melancholia, was one of my best albums of 2021), her accordion and electronics accompanied by Kristín Þóra Haraldsdóttir on viola and Hekla Magnúsdóttir on theremin. The hour-long set had the air of a haunted folk music, caught between gentle fragility and a Kreng-like intensity and understated theatricality. Much of the music was founded upon oscillations, over which low-key verses alternated with rising, soaring melodies.
The ghostly dirge-like quality of their performance was nowhere more potent than in the final piece, a reworking of the track ‘Elegia’ from Mother Melancholia, which Sóley explained she was renaming on this occasion ‘Putin’s Funeral’, intending it to cast a spell on the Russian leader and bring about his demise. Simultaneously modern while tapping into an almost ancient, pagan sensibility that spanned centuries, the trio became silhouettes seemingly against northern lights turned blood-red, their simple delicacy slowly being swamped by a wall of noise. Though it hasn’t worked yet, my ongoing hope is that Sóley’s wondrous spell will prove to have been a slow-acting magic. Fingers crossed.
A similar level of small-scale intimacy permeated two song cycles by Gunnar Karel Másson that dominated the festival’s opening concert. Songs of Despair and Songs of Violence explore texts drawn directly from the words of, respectively, letters from Jews imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps, and black people who died at the hands of US police officers. Performed by vocalist Heiða Árnadóttir, for Songs of Despair Tinna Þorsteinsdóttir accompanied on prepared piano. Their roles veered back and forth between which of them sounded more lyrically open or closed off. Gunnar Karel’s use of the prepared piano projected an appropriately hobbled, even maimed, music that sounded increasingly at odds with Heiða’s smooth, clean pitches.
These were haunting enough, but Songs of Violence – accompanied now by a toy piano – were almost too much to take. Such a dainty instrument as this sounded almost absurd in the context of such relentlessly desperate words, reinforcing the complete power imbalance being abused in each case. Nonetheless, what was most impressive of all was Gunnar Karel’s avoidance of clichéd emotional drama. Instead, the implacability of power was alluded to in toy piano passages that continued so as to seem quietly unstoppable, while the final song, harnessing the dying words of George Floyd, was made horrific through simple repetition, Floyd’s famous phrase “I can’t breathe” becoming an endless loop, repeated by Heiða with cool, almost blank numbness. In the most understated way possible, the music became a searing testament to pure agony. These two cycles will in due course become a triptych, when Gunnar Karel completes a forthcoming Songs of Oppression.
In hindsight, part of the reason that these songs packed such a powerful punch, one that continued to resonate throughout my time in Iceland, was that the majority of the music heard during the Dark Music Days took a less direct approach to emotion, falling somewhere on a continuum between allusion and full-on abstraction. (That in itself was interesting, once again proving false the myth so endlessly put about that Icelandic music is solely obsessed by nature. It isn’t.) Two good examples of this, both in the same concert as the song cycles, were Ilm- og ómleikar [Scent & sound games] by Þóranna Dögg Björnsdóttir and Adibaran Ocirebal by Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson, electroacoustic works both of which combined sound and movement in a way that was dramatic yet elusive. In the case of Adibaran Ocirebal, the Norðurljós hall in Harpa was transformed into something akin to an alien jungle, filled with the noises of a synthetic microclimate, populated by a myriad unknowable organisms. With the air of a rite, lights shining from beneath her skirt, Heiða Árnadóttir processed around the upper balcony of the hall, closely imitating these sounds like a satellite extension of them. Guðmundur Steinn’s previous work has often underwhelmed me, yet while Adibaran Ocirebal was definitely far too long (and describing it as a “solo opera” was ridiculous), its balance of play and solemnity was surprisingly engaging.
Þóranna Dögg filled the space with not just sound but scent, emanating from specially-created programme cards we were given, containing five smells corresponding to the sections of Ilm- og ómleikar. She also harnessed elements of ritual, with one sequence featuring Heiða walking slowly around us, her singing accompanied by the ringing of a bell. But it was the electronic soundscape that was most striking, with echoes of the vast immersion heard in her 2019 collaboration LUCID. In the midst of this, not only the presence but the actions of Heiða Árnadóttir and Tinna Þorsteinsdóttir (on piano) seemed incredibly small – yet with more than a sense that they could be catalytic, directly related to, rather than swamped, by the elemental forces all around them. It was a complex, fascinating piece that really needs to be heard more to better appreciate its wealth of detail and meaning.
Another work simultaneously allusive and elusive was Ida Lundén’s Heaven whisked the clouds away, in which the members of Nordic Affect seemed to be invoking another form of ancient folk magic, swishing their bows in the air like musical magic wands. Though at times unintentionally funny, and despite there being little obvious trace of the objective to which everyone was apparently so strenuously striving, the piece was undeniably intriguing. The same was true of Music to accompany your sweet splatter dreams by Bára Gísladóttir, a far too short impression of a dream the composer had. Performed by the always superb Caput Ensemble, conducted by Guðni Franzson, it passed through periods of intense tutti roaring and braying, alternating with reposes where tremulous details emerged, coated in splashes of percussion clatter. At no point was anything still or calm; even sustained notes were undermined by tremolandi, indicating an exhilarating yet disquieting dream environment.
i couldn’t help feeling that the act of elusion was so successful in Veronique Vaka’s new viola concerto Vanascere [“to vanish”], that it actively made the music strangely hard to penetrate. Given its world première by soloist Þórunn Ósk Marínósdóttir with the Reykjavík Chamber Orchestra, the work was genuinely interesting, it had beauty, drama and a sense of power, an effective solo part with a nice relationship with the orchestra – yet throughout much of the piece i felt at a distance from it all, paradoxically only making meaningful contact at its conclusion, as the viola line evaporated. All the same, Vaka’s music is consistently beguiling, and this curious first impression only made me want to hear Vanascere again as soon as possible.
The concert that surely packed the greatest and most immediate emotional weight took place in Reykjavík’s renowned Hallgrímskirkja, given by vocal group Cantoque Ensemble. Taking place on the 96th birthday of one of Iceland’s most esteemed composers, Jόn Nordal (who was present), Cantoque explored works by Nordal spanning an incredible period of over 65 years. Some of these, such as Umhverfi (1978) and Lux Mundi (1996), brought to mind the rich, twisting chromaticism of Poulenc, though in a more adventurous form. Aldasöngur (1986) tilted between light and shade in a way that was softly sumptuous yet solemn, whereas Vorkvæði um Ísland (1994) opted for a deliciously velvet soundworld that had to contend with the cathedral bell at its end, Cantoque holding the final cadence sufficiently long to triumph over its relentless (semitone out of key) tolling.
But it was the closing piece that proved not only the most memorable of the concert, but of everything i experienced at this year’s festival. A number of the pieces Cantoque performed displayed a more simple harmonic character, somewhere between folk song and hymnody, and it’s this that typifies Nordal’s Smávinir fagrir, composed way back in 1940 (when the composer must have been no older than 14). Cantoque’s slow, almost stately, rendition of the song was gorgeous enough, so excruciatingly lovely that it was impossible not to well up; but after the song’s final cadence, conductor Steinar Logi Helgason turned to the audience, whereupon everyone in the building, in full 4-part harmonies, sang the song again in its entirety. i’m not even going to try to pretend that i wasn’t a complete mess by the end; i can probably count on one hand the number of times i’ve been at a performance so completely overflowing with emotional power, composer, performers and audience all joined in the most profound, heartfelt musical unity.