Published November 17, 2016
Umbra Ensemble is a five-piece band whose repertoire consists of pop songs reaching back a thousand years. Among the newest are compositions by Radiohead and Joni Mitchell, but the oldest go back to the 12th century German nun and polymath Hildegard von Bingen. In between we get period pieces about the love life of Henry VIII, and Icelandic folk songs detailing the carrying out of babies in the bad old days. “Móðir mín í kví-kví,” surely one of the most haunting songs in any language, is about the posthumous response of one such baby to its mother and murderer.
Fittingly, the performance includes such instruments as the baroque fiddle and the Celtic harp. The band’s first album is expected soon and they have recently scored a production of ‘Blóðhófnir’ based on the story by writer Gerður Kristný and describing rape among the Nordic gods. Founded in 2014, Umbra Ensemble is certainly one of the most interesting cover bands around, and in a way they are giving us the musical education we never had. For you see, up until quite recently, Iceland was almost a country without instruments.
Another current band which refuses to play any song composed later that the 1870s is Rauðir fiskar (Red Fish), fronted by former Sugarcube Einar Melax. So, are we in the midst of a Medieval Revival? And what was music like in Iceland in the Middle Ages?
“People didn’t dance to music, but rather to singing,” says Einar. “When I was teaching music in Kirkjubæjarklaustur, I met a few grandfathers who had sung a cappella at these types of balls.”
“Dancing was also banned for a long time,” adds his bandmate Níels Rúnar Gíslason. “The houses were so small that people worried they would constantly be bumping into each other. This was not only indecent, but could also damage the interior.”
But what was the singing like?
“The particular form of Icelandic music is the singing in fifth interval,” says Einar. “This was brought to Iceland in the late Middle Ages by a French priest named Richini who came from Paris to teach singing. However, no other teacher was sent for a long time after, so the form survived here when it died out elsewhere. The more common minor and major intervals didn’t arrive here until the 19th century.”
“It is a 15th century fashion that became isolated here,” Níels agrees.
So when was it that Icelanders learnt to play instruments?
“Instruments began to be imported after the founding of the Reykjavik Music School in 1930, but it really became a craze around 1970 when every village wanted to have its own music school. Children no longer just played football but also studied music. Björk learnt music from a very young age; education was important,” says Einar.
Heiða, host of a radio show called Langspil (named after the two-stringed instrument which was the only one available in the country for centuries), and a musician in her own right, agrees: “When I was growing up, there wasn’t much to do. You either had to take up sports or form a band. I think that a lot of kids who aren’t into sports go to music schools or even join marching bands, which sometimes turns into a career later on. I could cite Wonderbrass, Björk’s brass band, or the drummer Birgir Baldursson, who has played with many of Iceland’s best known bands. And that’s just my contemporaries from Keflavík.”
So now that music finally has come to Iceland, perhaps it’s small wonder we feel there is a lot of catching up to do.