The majority of the concerts at this year’s Dark Music Days were focused on chamber music. The most leftfield of these came courtesy of Trio Isak, in a concert titled ‘Ballet on the Moon’. That title in part derived from the opening piece on the programme, Daníel Bjarnason‘s White Flags, nominally inspired by the flags planted on the moon’s surface, bleached white by the sun’s light. It was an example of what i’ve come to call ‘wanbient’, music that tries (and fails) to draw an equivalence between fragility and profound emotion, whereas in reality its achingly slow noodling through bland, vaguely referential material just sounded like someone with brain damage trying to recall a nursery rhyme.
Far more compelling was the trio’s performance of Bernd Alois Zimmermann‘s Présence, a genuinely bizarre work that seeks to find, if not a narrative, then at least points of connection between Ubu Roi, Molly Bloom and Don Quixote, overseen (if that’s the right word) by a voiceless “speaker” who flamboyantly introduces each section (performed on this occasion by conductor Mirian Khukhunaishvili). The power of its juxtapositions of extremes was its most compelling feature, moving swiftly between gentleness, impenetrability and allusion, in the same way oscillatingly wildly from intensely serious to blatantly silly, downright ugly to gorgeously lovely.
In the hands of a lesser composer, such a kaleidoscope of content would end up as a feeble postmodern mash-up, but everything about Présence felt carefully considered, ensuring the twists in its contorted structure always made an askew sense. Trio Isak deserve lashings of kudos for their outstanding performance of this strange piece, in terms of commitment, accuracy and focus, especially pianist Stefan Kägi, who managed to navigate through an extended solo sequence of halting piano notes without ever breaking the work’s weird magic spell.
Two of the concerts were connected to new releases. The Bozzini Quartet gave a late night performance of Éliane Radigue‘s Occam Delta XV; their recording of the piece, composed for them in 2018, has just been issued on CD and download. It’s a piece i explored in some depth a few years ago, and i’ll also be tackling their new recording soon, so for now i’ll simply say that the Iceland performance was good, albeit less compelling than is usual for the Bozzinis. Normally they suffuse Radigue‘s music with a kind of electricity, while on this occasion they seemed somewhat matter of fact. It’ll be interesting to see what emerges on the new recording (which includes two performances).
Bára Gísladóttir presented her new work SILVA, which has just been released by ESP-Disk’ (CD) and Sono Luminus (download), in the appropriately moody setting of Húrra, a small venue in downtown Reykjavík. Though somewhat let down by Húrra’s sound system, which clearly struggled with the intensity coming from Bára’s bass and laptop, it was nonetheless clear that SILVA operates in similar territory to her earlier work, combining drones, noise and squall to create lavish waves of sound, by turns lyrical and abrasive. It was typically immersive, and often seriously beautiful – as i’ve discussed previously, i really enjoy the way Bára re(de)fines ideas of sonic beauty – but, again, i’ll save my words for now until i’ve had a chance to explore the recording.
Music for string quartet was featured on multiple occasions. The Bozzinis also performed on the opening night of the festival, the highlight of which was Warblework by Canadian composer Cassandra Miller. Its chorus of multiple overlapping modal lines with a recurring chirpy motif suggested a combination of avian similarity, imitation and competition. Miller made this more nebulous in the work’s second movement, though also conveying a greater sense of unity of purpose, while the third movement went the other way, internalised and individuated, before everything took a turn for the lyrical with a twinge of melancholy at its close. It was an engrossing performance of a highly effective, evocative piece.
An especially nice aspect of the Dark Music Days, which tends to be absent from most contemporary music festivals, is a commitment to including works from the last few decades by the previous generation of composers. Gró String Quartet included Frá draumi til draums [From dream to dream] by Jón Nordal (who turns 97 next month), composed in 1996. Its musical language struck an interesting balance: on the one hand steeped in song, occasionally hugely impassioned, yet equally understated (at times almost diffident), also finding power through more stately solemnity.
The standout work from that concert came from Sveinn Lúðvík Björnsson, whose …og í augunum blik minninga [… and the eyes glittering with memories] was apparently written while the composer’s mother was ill. This was easily the most enigmatic music i heard all week, occupying a strange harmonic world (either actually or only perceptually microtonal, it was impossible to tell), but also displaying an equally strange fundamental character: it evoked lyricism, intimacy, tumult, though more like an idea of these things rather than their actual existence. One step removed, if you like, dislocated from reality. As it continued no answers were found; first, the work’s progression seemed paradoxically random yet calculated, and then the music kept getting stuck as clusters, as if the quartet were both trapped and conjoined, moving together in a tightly-confined space. The piece didn’t remotely resolve, it just stopped; yet for all its obliquity …og í augunum blik minninga was emotionally raw, and deeply moving.
Siggi String Quartet’s concert included perhaps the most dazzling Icelandic quartet i’ve yet encountered, Aldarmót [Turn of the century], composed in 1984 by the late, great Atli Heimir Sveinsson. It was an essay in the most spectacular shape-shifting, irresistably driven to keep transforming while somehow retaining a sense of cohesion. As a consequence we often moved between apparent opposites in almost no time at all, from intense vigour to gentle tenderness, fast and furious one moment, caught in a glistening repose the next. A sequence of static chord-holding, the quartet seemingly hypnotised, suggested the composer himself becoming fascinated by his own spontaneously-generating material. The work’s title references a major pivot-point in time, and in that light Aldarmót‘s extended celebration of musical invention encompassed past and future, revelling in pastoral, folk sensibilities as much as hard-edged, modernist ferocity.
Also impressive, in the same concert, was María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir‘s Horfnir skógar [Vanished woods]. In some respects it was similar to Sveinn Lúðvík Björnsson’s …og í augunum blik minninga, in terms of being emotionally difficult to read. Yet María Huld’s musical language was more variegated and as a consequence felt somewhat easier to penetrate. Paperclips on the strings enhanced its initially forlorn demeanour, whereupon the soundworld tilted between bright, upward-looking and playful episodes, and periods where solemnity and even pain seemed to predominate. The work was at its most direct towards the end, becoming akin to a song without words, simple but heartfelt.
Lilja María Ásmundsdóttir‘s music first properly caught my attention around the end of 2021, when exploring flautist Berglind María Tómasdóttir’s album Ethereality and more extensive Lokkur project. In both cases Lilja María’s contributions were among the most interesting, and the same was true at Dark Music Days 2023, which included two electroacoustic works that proved all the more potent despite both being relatively low-key. British pianist Andrew Zolinsky gave the first Icelandic performance of Tracing, where at first a distant, somewhat distorted drone was embellished with plucked, prepared piano strings. Yet that neat description was almost immediately rendered moot: was it, in fact, a drone? or was it actually a byproduct of the plucked notes? Whatever the reality, the result was gorgeous and mesmeric, seeming to form a texture but the appearance of low piano notes changed everything, its dark rapidity startling the electronics into silence. Its conclusion was nicely ambiguous, the combination of a nocturnal lullaby with scampering granular electronics suggesting the electroacoustic relationship might be broken.
Zolinsky also gave a superb account of Per Nørgård‘s 1989 Remembering, making its not exactly aloof but remote lyricism work hypnotic magic, managing to sound passionate, even grand, all the while remaining intimately tender.
Nordic Affect’s concert included Davíð Brynjar Franzson‘s Fragments, work in progress, wandering, a really lovely bit of ambient mixing pseudo-crashing waves with a mixture of acoustic and electronic tones. i could have listened to its soothing, restful, mobile-like progression for a whole lot longer, especially its captivating blurring of harmonic progression and stasis. But it was the ensemble’s performance of Lilja María Ásmundsdóttir‘s Imprint that, living up to its title, made the strongest impression. So understated that it’s difficult to write about, the piece brought together low electronics with an almost indistinct violin. Together they bloomed slightly, leading to an exquisite episode of floating shimmer while the violin gently shone. As with Tracing, the nature of the electroacoustic relationship was made uncertain, and all the more effective as a result, at first suggesting the electronics might be resonating the violin, an idea later undermined as they appeared to have parallel, behaviourally static roles. Subtly complex, and wonderfully performed, this was some of the most seriously beautiful music i’ve heard in a very long time.