ICELAND - Building on the Fusion of Old and New
Árni Heimir Ingólfsson
Árni Heimir Ingólfsson holds a Ph.D. in musicology from Harvard University and has written extensively on Icelandic music history from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. He teaches musicology at the Iceland Academy of the Arts.
Nordic Sounds 2005 - 02; pp 14 - 16
ICELAND, A LAND of strong contrasts. They are everywhere you look: frozen glaciers and fiery volcanos, expansive lowlands and towering mountains, weather capable of violent changes from one minute to the next. But there are also internal contrasts, not as readily apparent to the unfamiliar eye. Despite leading an ultra-modern lifestyle (statistics show that mobile phone ownership and internet access are among the highest in the world), Icelanders have a deep-rooted sense of their own history. The Althing, the Eddic and saga literature, and the religious poetry of the 17th-century poet Hallgrímur Pétursson, are a source of national pride and pillars of the Icelandic historical consciousness.
In recent years, this co-existence of the ancient and modern has produced interesting results in virtually every art form. Reykjavík’s parliament building, an 1880 stone construction, was expanded in 2002; the new wing impressively combines features of the original with massive glass windows and cascading water. Poets look to past masterworks as a model for their new creations; Reykjavík’s Hallgrímskirkja recently sponsored a poetry event called Passíusálmar plús, in which renowned poets were encouraged to write under the influence of Hallgrímur Pétursson’s Baroque Hymns of the Passion. Musically, the fusion of past and present has produced a resoundingly vibrant and varied outcome.
For the past 30 years, one of the more exciting points of contact between old and new has been the summer music festival at Skálholt. One of Iceland’s most hallowed religious sites, it became the seat of the Icelandic bishop in the 11th century, although the current cathedral is a modern construction. In 1974, harpsichordist Helga Ingólfsdóttir and flautist Manuela Wiesler organized a series of concerts which gradually expanded into a six-week music festival. From the beginning, the emphasis has been on Baroque music, for the performance of which Ingólfsdóttir founded the Skálholt Bach Ensemble, and new Icelandic music.
Every summer, she has chosen one or more composers as “composer-in-residence,” resulting in well over 100 new compositions: choral works, chamber music, solo works, etc. In recent years, the festival has begun to explore even earlier repertories. The allmale ensemble Voces Thules has performed several programmes devoted to medieval Icelandic music, and last summer’s festival featured an entire concert devoted to the music of the Renaissance composer Josquin des Préz.
In 2004, Helga Ingólfsdóttir relinquished her post as artistic director of the Skálholt festival, handing the torch over to Sigurður Halldórsson, a cellist who has devoted his career to Baroque and 20th-century music. It should come as no surprise that he is himself a veteran performer at Skálholt. Halldórsson says that while the basic framework for the festival will remain the same – the emphasis on the Skálholt Bach ensemble and new Icelandic music in particular – there will also be changes. “I feel it is important for a festival like Skálholt to keep attracting new audiences. This summer we will organize a music workshop for children aged 6 and older. Every weekend from 3-6: 30 pm, music instructors will work with the children to help them create their own compositions, which will be performed at the end of the day once the cathedral concerts are over. I also want the Skálholt festival to become more visible on the international scene. One of the ways we wish to attract new audiences is by giving evening concerts during the week, instead of limiting the concerts to weekends.”
Bringing living foreign composers to the festival is another novelty; the 2006 festival will feature the Romanian composer Doinu Rotaru as composer-inresidence. This summer’s season promises to be a lively affair, with Renaissance choral music, an English recorder quintet, and chamber music by Schütz, Veracini, Boccherini, Haydn and Mozart performed by the Skálholt Bach Ensemble under the direction of Stanley Ritchie and Jaap Schröder.
The 2005 Skálholt concerts will also feature premieres of works by four young Icelandic composers, each of whom has been asked to build his/her music on the traditional Icelandic music from earlier centuries.
This is a long-standing tradition. Many of the most interesting works to be premiered there have combined old and new traditions in meaningful ways. Jón Nordal’s Matins in Spring (1993) combines the Latin Mass ordinary with medieval and modern Icelandic texts; Tryggvi Baldvinsson’s Missa Comitis generosi (1999) is based on a Gregorian sequence for the feast-day of St. Magnus. Baldvinsson is only one of many composers who have turned to the large number of surviving Icelandic manuscripts from the 13th to the 18th centuries for inspiration. This manuscript heritage was, until recently, little known. But during the past decade, it has been catalogued and explored by Collegium Musicum, an organization headed by researcher Kári Bjarnason. As expected, much of this music has turned out to be derived from German hymnals and other continental publications. Much research remains to be done on the transmission of this music both from the continent to Iceland, and locally.
One effort to aid scholars in their research has been the Ísmús website, run by musicologists Bjarki Sveinbjörnsson and Jón Hrólfur Sigurjónsson. Their company, Músík og saga (“Music and History”), launched the site in 2000, and it continues to grow at a steady pace. It now contains thousands of pages of musical notation from original Icelandic manuscripts, each of which can be searched by individual titles.
In 2004, a new component of the site was opened to the public: over three thousand field recordings of Icelandic folk music and other ethnographic material, collected and recorded by researchers at the Árni Magnússon Institute in Reykjavík in the 1960s and 70s.
In the past few years, the vocal group Gríma has maintained a high profile at Skálholt and been at the forefront of the old/new fusion. Gríma began in 1998 as a madrigal ensemble, but in 2000 their development took a new turn, as Ingólfsdóttir invited them to perform at the Skálholt festival. She commissioned works for them with the stipulation that they should all be based on music found in old Icelandic manuscripts, mostly dating from the 16th-18th centuries. The first batch of music resulting from the collaboration between Gríma and the Skálholt Festival was released as a double CD in 2003; another CD will be released later this year. The 2-CD set, entitled “Sweetly I Rejoice” (SMK 31), contains works by six young composers. They range in style from the haunting a cappella writing of Hildigunnur Rúnarsdóttir (b. 1964) to soft-spoken minimalism (Jón Guðmundsson, b. 1968) and spectral writing à la Grisey (Steingrímur Rohloff, b. 1973). Gríma’s alto singer, Guðrún Edda Gunnarsdóttir, says that the group’s collaboration with the young composers went beyond their expectations.
“The only thing that worried us sometimes was that we received the music at very short notice. Since some of the works are extremely difficult, this would mean a lot of long and exhausting rehearsals at the last minute. But we’re very glad that we had a chance to record this repertoire, especially since the works are composed for a variety of instrumental/vocal groupings. This ensures variety, but makes it difficult to put together live programmes of this music.”
The Gríma CDs are released by the Icelandic record label Smekkleysa, which has a curious history of its own. It was founded in 1986 by the group of young “rebel” artists that had recently formed the popular group The Sugarcubes. They included Björk Guðmundsdóttir and Sjón, winner of the Nordic Council Prize for Literature in 2005. Its first publication, a postcard in commemoration of the Reagan/Gorbachev summit in Reykjavík, sold so well that it financed the Sugarcubes’s first release, in November 1986. Although Smekkleysa initially concentrated on releasing rock LPs as well as poetry and novels by its founding members, it has recently emerged as a leading label for “classical” Icelandic music. Few of these have been bestsellers, even on Iceland’s modest scale. This idealistic enterprise includes the complete works of Jórunn Viðar (b. 1918), Iceland’s first female composer, and the groundbreaking electronic works of Magnús Blöndal Jóhannsson (1925-2005). In 2004, Smekkleysa released a 4-CD set lavishly encased within a velvety black tome: Silfurplötur Iðunnar (SMK 30). The CDs contain recordings made by Kvæðamannafélagið Iðunn – a society founded in 1929 with the aim of preserving the Icelandic folk music heritage, especially the monophonic epics known as rímur and the two-part tvísöngur. In 1935-36, 13 of the society’s members recorded a total of 200 rímur-melodies on silver lacquers, which have now been re-mastered and released as a 4-CD set, complete with transcriptions of texts and music, as well as articles that explain the history of the society and the genres it has preserved. The president of Kvæðamannafélagið Iðunn is the soft-spoken and charismatic Steindór Andersen, whose performances of rímur have done much to revive interest in the genre in recent years. Andersen says that the recordings on the new release have been crucial to the society’s success in fulfilling its mission of keeping the rímur tradition alive. “Without them we wouldn’t really be able to do much. In the early 1930s there was much discussion as to how the rímur should be preserved and transmitted to later generations.
Jón Leifs, the composer, encouraged the members at the time not to try to notate them, since many of them employ quarter-tones and irregular rhythms. Thankfully, they took his advice – if they had relied only on traditional notation, this art-form would be completely dead.”
Once again, the old, traditional forms of musicmaking are being placed in new, modern contexts. In 1998, Steindór Andersen was asked to appear on television to teach a young guitarist called Jón Thór Birgisson, a member of the popular band Sigur Rós, how to recite rímur. This attempt was so successful that Sigur Rós began taking Andersen along on their tours, and recorded several tracks in which Andersen recites rímur to the band’s subdued instrumental accompaniment. The most ambitious undertaking of Sigur Rós’s collaboration with Andersen and composer Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson is Hrafnagaldur, a massive fusion of folk and rock elements first performed at the Reykjavík Arts Festival 2002 (this earned Andersen a nomination for the Nordic Council Music Prize in 2003). They have gone on to repeat the project at international festivals in Trondheim and Paris, and at London’s Festival Hall. Andersen has also collaborated with Icelandic rap singers, resulting in a CD called Rímur and Rap (HITT CD 011). Here, the medieval Icelandic rímur stanzas (in a sense, the “pop” music of their day) alternate with modern, even violent, gangsta rap. Yet despite his undeniable “crossover” success, Andersen gives a negative reply when asked if he has become a truly “popular” artist. “I’m not popular in that sense,” he says, “I’ve only once been asked for an autograph, and that was at a drive-thru in Hafnarfjördur!” In the broader sense, though, the fusion between past and present which Andersen represents is certainly popular. For the modern Icelander, it continues to be a vital source of energy and inspiration.
www.smekkleysa.net (Smekkleysa / Bad Taste)
www.sumartonleikar.is (Skálholt Music Festival)
www.rimur.is (Kvæðamannafélagið Iðunn)