Dark Music Days

Reykjavík's Dark Music Days Festival (Myrkir Músíkdagar) reviewed
7.2.2011
Words by Nathan Hall
Reykjavík’s Dark Music Days Festival (Myrkir Músíkdagar) is a bit like Iceland Airwaves, if Airwaves catered mostly to hip classical musicians, threw in a ton of contrabass instruments, and was operated entirely by about four people. This year, the usual multi-week festival was squashed into three-and-a-half days, exhausting my ears in the same way as Airwaves did, only this time with more sixteenth notes and fewer earplugs.

THURSDAY

The festival kicked off with a grand concert by the Iceland National Symphony. Daníel Bjarnason’s conducting of György Ligeti’s ‘Atmospheres’ squeezed out of the double bass section a low sustained note more fantastically vulgar than I’ve ever heard in orchestral music. Steingrímur Rohloff’s ‘Clarinet Concerto’ could have just given me the parts of the piece featuring growling, didgeridoo-like squeals for the bass clarinet, and I would have been perfectly content. The composition, and Rúnar Óskarsson’s performance as soloist, particularly showcased the bass clarinet as well-balanced against the forces of the full orchestra.

Daníel conducted his own ‘Birting’, the crowning achievement of the evening. Daníel’s work was full of primordial shifts of light and darkness, mysterious and unexpected sounds at just the right moments. I went home comforted.

FRIDAY

The onslaught of events began on Friday at lunchtime, with one-hour events placed at roughly three-hour intervals until late in the night. At Kristín Jónína’s lecture, Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson mentioned that for years he had to have an unlisted phone number after receiving threatening calls—apparently nothing made Icelanders angrier than his hosting an avant-garde music programme on the radio during rush hour.

Sigurður Sævarsson’s ‘Missa Pacis’ was hauntingly beautiful, performed in the darkly-lit Neskirkja. The restraint of the vocal writing made the work’s deliciously full moments shine even more. It is soon to be a Hljómeyki Choir hit when it’s released on CD.

The electro-acoustic performances at Hugmyndahúsið in the late evening included several works featuring altered found sounds. Ríkharður Friðriksson stood on stage for his piece, writing out computer code that propelled the work in real-time. Strangely enthralling.

SATURDAY

The highlight from Hnúkaþeyr Wind Octet was ‘Andar’ by Anna Þorvaldsdóttir, containing ideas ‘under the influence of breathing and tidal waves’. It was also a perfect nod to the sounds of pounding waves of rain on Kjarvalsstaðir’s roof. Dark Music Days this year was sponsored by Iceland’s worst winter weather: wind, rain, slush, and snow coming at you from all directions.

Kira Kira’s late-night concert at Norðurpóllinn was…eclectic. I bet that she could leave out the heavy reverb and echo effects and still have interesting pieces left over. For most of the evening I thought to myself, if I would feature all these low-sounding instruments: double basses, cornet, contrabass clarinet–I’d definitely have a tuba as well.

SUNDAY

Pulling myself together after a long night (it was the weekend, after all), I took a bus to CAPUT’s performance of Atli Heimir Sveinsson’s ‘5-hjóladrif’ at Norðurpóllinn. The two dancers on stage sadly only performed during a fifth of the work, but Atli Heimir’s multi-genre, vigorous and virtuosic (read: ‘crazy’) writing held my interest. After the concert, I got a ride back seated next to a sexy Danish opera singer-slash-rock-theatre-collaborator. Ah, how I love Scandinavia.

The final concert of the festival was held at the National Museum (Listasafn Íslands), an acoustically dull but obviously artful venue for the Reykjavík Chamber Orchestra. Hlynur Vilmarsson’s ‘Héxié’ for piano, strings, and low-frequency pulsing electronics conveyed a stillness that resonated the best through the museum’s space. Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘Verklärte Nacht’ was the final work on the programme, with intense anguish that melted into sighs of romance, and finally into an uplifting spiritual breath. It was also the bookend to the symphony concert a few nights before; it tied together many of the works over the weekend that seemed to explore inhalation and exhalation, the passions of simply being alive.

These kinds of festivals are a rare opportunity to hear so much contemporary music for such a reasonable price. Much like I experienced at Airwaves, I found it best to just be a ‘sponge’, soaking up all of the highs and lows of new classical music in Iceland today, and taking them home to ponder.

Nathan Hall is a composer and artist on a Fulbright Fellowship to Iceland this year. He can be reached through www.nathan-hall.net.


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