The New Yorker
This week in the magazine, in “Björk’s Saga,” Alex Ross writes about Björk, Iceland’s best-known cultural export. Here Ross discusses his recent trip to Iceland, and what he discovered about the island nation’s music scene, Björk and beyond.
My first day in Iceland was a freezing horror. Every inch of Reykjavík was covered by a film of ice. I made the mistake of trying to walk from my hotel into the center of town, and after about a mile I felt as though I had been walking for days, like some beaten-down soul in the novels of Halldór Laxness. It seemed like a hallucination when I turned a corner and saw golden light streaming from the windows of a store called 12 Tonar, which is Icelandic for “twelve tones.” The moment I stumbled through the door, a smiling record clerk offered me a cup of espresso; within a few minutes, I was warming my ears with Icelandic music.
Iceland may have more musicians per capita than any country in the world. This nation of two hundred and ninety thousand people—roughly the same population as Cincinnati—has ninety music schools, about four hundred choirs, four hundred orchestras and marching bands, and some vast, unknown number of rock bands, jazz combos, and d.j.s. Before Björk ascended to world fame, in the early nineties, it never occurred to many outsiders that such a small country could have such an active music scene. Now Icelandic acts such as Sigur Rós and Múm have gained their own international followings, and the devilishly powerful works of Jón Leifs have begun to appear on orchestral programs around the world. When considered en masse, the music of Iceland is startlingly diverse, yet much of it reflects, in one way or another, what Glenn Gould once called the “idea of north.”
Björk began her recording career at the age of eleven. Her disco-, video-, and bibliography now include five major solo records (“Debut,” “Post,” “Homogenic,” “Vespertine,” and “Medúlla”), a soundtrack album (“Selmasongs: Dancer in the Dark”), a greatest-hits record, a remix record (“Telegram”), an album of jazz standards sung mostly in Icelandic (“Gling-Gló”), two box sets (“Family Tree” and “Live Box”), a Björk book (“Björk Book”), a DVD compilation of videos by Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, and other filmmakers (“Volumen”), and assorted other DVDs of live shows. She also made three records with the Sugarcubes and two records with the arty punk band Kukl; the Sugarcubes may have had the alternative-rock hits, but Kukl’s “Holidays in Europe” sounds better over time. It is difficult, if not impossible, to rank Björk’s solo records: each is indestructibly Björk-like, and if you love or hate any one of them you will probably love or hate them all. “Vespertine” is perhaps her most unified album, a work of dazzling sonic design and almost claustrophobic emotional intimacy. “Medúlla,” despite its obsessive focus on the technical possibilities of the human voice, is earthier, more extroverted in tone—“folk music, but without any folk attached,” as Björk told me. “Greatest Hits” is probably the best place to start, with “Vespertine” and “Medúlla” as adventurous follow-ups.
When I was in Reykjavík with Björk, I got to meet Ásmundur Jónsson, the manager of the Bad Taste record label, which Björk co-owns with former members of the Sugarcubes. Jónsson has watched Björk’s career since the time of her first pre-teen recording sessions. Alongside Bob Hurwitz, of Nonesuch Records, and Manfred Eicher, of ECM Records, he is one of the great genre-crashing visionaries of the record business. “He is the underestimated hero of Iceland music,” Björk told me. “He is very humble, thinking only of himself and working all the time for Icelandic music. He used to have many sleepless nights cleaning floors of restaurants to pay for the record store, for records, and so on.” She went on, “I owe so much to him, to his hyperventilating enthusiasm for every kind of music—rock, punk, electronic, classical. He has no limitations to his vision.” Once, she explained, Jónsson hired a small orchestra for the fledgling Sigur Rós, at a time when the band seemed unlikely to sell more than a few hundred records. It wasn’t that he perceived an international phenomenon in the making; he simply saw an ambition that deserved to become reality.
Sigur Rós came up from obscurity with an almost dangerously hypnotic record entitled “Agaetis Byrjun,”a mix of slow-motion chords and warmly shimmering figuration. Like Björk, this band often hovers at the border between pop music and classical composition. About two years ago, they worked alongside Radiohead in creating a score for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company; their contribution, “Ba Ba / Ti Ki / Di Do,” is available as a single from Geffen Records. Múm inhabits the same ambient world, casting spells with fuzzed-out guitars, a breathy-voiced, Björk-like lead singer (Kristín Anna Valtysdóttir), music boxes, and crunchy samples. “Finally We Are No One” (Bad Taste / Fat Cat), their breakthrough record, was made in part at Valgeir Sigurdsson’s Greenhouse Studios, which is also where Björk’s “Medúlla” began to take shape. “Summer Make Good,” Múm’s follow-up, prolongs the trance another hour.
Not all of Icelandic music floats up into the ether: a macho school of guitar bands, including Singapore Sling and Minus, projects a Viking rather than elfin image. There are some strong psychedelic rave-ups on Singapore Sling’s “The Curse of Singapore Sling,” but Minus’s most recent album, “Halldór Laxness,” is straight-ahead rock fit for late nights on MTV2. (What its cocaine ballads have to do with the Nobel Prize-winning novels of Laxness is anyone’s guess.) Einar Örn, the goofball mastermind of Kukl and the Sugarcubes, has outdone all younger rivals with “Ghostigital,” a spectacularly weird venture into hip-hop, with noise rock and free jazz in the mix. It’s about time someone tried to reconcile Dr. Dre and Cecil Taylor.
Icelandic classical composition began in earnest with the intensely radical Jón Leifs, who based his ultra-dissonant, percussive sound on ancient folkloric themes. The classic Leifs CD is BIS’s recording of “Hekla” and other pieces, with En Shao conducting the world-class Iceland Symphony. Two other BIS releases, of the “Saga Symphony” and his Organ Concerto, show Leifs’s unruly talent in more controlled form. Contemporary Icelandic composers generally sound tame by comparison, but they have other satisfactions to offer. Jónsi, the lead singer of Sigur Rós, told me that he prefers the finely crafted, formally playful music of Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson to the explosions of Leifs. Jón Nordal is another composer worth investigating: the thickened, suspended tonal chords of his “Invocation to the Rock” might have inspired Björk’s song “An Echo, a Stain.”
Unfortunately, most Icelandic new-music CDs aren’t available in American stores. You can, however, order many of them directly from Bad Taste (www.smekkleysa.net), which has recently branched out into classical recording. The label offers a series of CDs by the Hamrahlíd Choir, which is associated with the music school where Björk studied in her childhood. “Icelandic Spring Poem” and “Icelandic Christmas Songs” contain haunting plainspoken settings by Nordal, Sigurbjörnsson, and other leading composers. You can also find a numbingly unadorned collection of folkloric field recordings, “Raddir.” The Germany-based medieval-music ensemble Sequentia takes you back even deeper into the mists of time; its CD “Edda,” on the Deutsche Harmonia Mundi label, re-creates the chanted recitations with which Icelanders once whiled away the dark winter months. Gods, heroes, dragons, dwarfs, a stolen magic ring: the stories of the sagas have been retold many times since.