The sparky, bristly, diminutive Ilan Volkov must be, by now, very familiar to anyone interested in classical music and contemporary composition in Reykjavík. He began as chief conductor and music director of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra in 2011, and as such has been a highly visible figure, both in his work as a conductor, and as the founder of Tectonics Festival—a wide-ranging and joyful exploration and celebration of the chasms, crossroads and crash sites between the various genres of contemporary music.
“Tectonics is a project that combines new music in all its variety—free jazz, electronic music, rock, experimentation, sound art, and classical music,” says Ilan. “It has a local focus—most of the programme in Iceland is Icelandic music, then when it’s in Britain it’s mostly British, and so forth. There are international guests, too—we’ve brought some amazing guests here, including this year.”
Ilan first came to Iceland over a decade ago as a guest conductor, and returned regularly until he was offered to job of music director of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. Tectonics was born in Reykjavík during this time. “It started here,” he explains. “Then the second year it was also held in Glasgow, with my old orchestra, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, which I’m still linked to as principal guest. Since then it’s been held in Tel Aviv, New York, Adelaide and now in Oslo. This will be the fifth year in Iceland, but the fifteenth festival overall.”
Clashes & contrasts
The festival’s programme is a rich, expansive mixture of music, whether obscure works from the 1960s, improvised electronica, or Icelandic composition so new the notes are still wet on the page.
“I did 25 pieces of Icelandic music in the three years I was music director here,” says Ilan. “A lot of it was by young composers who’d never written for the symphony before. Tectonics mostly concentrates on new work, and new compositions, both for the orchestra and the youth orchestra. Then we mix in some older pieces, and pioneering pieces that haven’t been played for a long time.”
The festival happens mostly in Harpa’s halls, but it also spills out into the building’s impressive open spaces for some site-specific work. “This year we also have two pieces written for the foyer,” explains Ilan, “one by Hafdis Bjarnadóttir, and one by Ingi Garðar Erlendsson. Those are happening each day at 7pm, and were written for that location. The foyer at Harpa is quite special, so we’ve used it for compositions, installations, and durational performances.”
The name Tectonics evokes a certain sense of violence—of a crushing together or rending apart of music’s various giant plates. “It is about clashes,” says Ilan, “for example, between composed music and improvised music, notated and unnotated, acoustic or amplified, classical or more extreme. It brings out the contrasts, and also mixtures—we have Roscoe Mitchell here, who’s one of the most important free jazz musicians around, but who’s also a composer and a teacher at Mills College. His piece for the orchestra is transcribed improvisations that have been orchestrated—a really amazing idea. I don’t think he has played here for 20 years or more.”
A global project
Although he has never lived in Iceland, Ilan has cultivated close ties to Reykjavík’s musical community, and speaks with respect and fondness for the many players and composers he’s met and worked with during his tenure as musical director.
“Tectonics is a global project,” he says, “and it’s really exciting to keep developing it—trying to work with people repeatedly, and to promote Icelandic music outside of Iceland. I’ve worked with many of the Icelandic musicians again and again—María Huld from Amiina will do her second orchestral piece this year, and there are others like Ingi Garðar, who played in Sigur Rós and plays with Of Monsters and Men, popular bands like that. We also have Jim O’Rourke, a musician who was in Sonic Youth, but is now based in Japan—his piece was premiered in Adelaide, and this will be the second performance. It’s very original, but you could put it any context, next to Mahler or Beethoven or Brahms. He’s such a good orchestral writer.”
Ilan shines out a genuine sense of excitement, curiosity and enthusiasm about the myriad possibilities that music holds. “New music is in a really good moment in general,” he says. “There’s so much going on. Even though we’re not considered mainstream, this kind of music is actually influencing everything, like it did in the 70s when the distance between the experimental and pop scenes was small, so we saw things like David Bowie and The Velvet Underground. Experimental art was really connected to popular culture. That distance might be wider now, but in our programme we have both experimental music and aesthetic pieces that anyone can enjoy—it’s about the openness of the audience.”
Ilan looks back at his time as director of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra fondly. “It’s been great, to be in Iceland, and to work with an amazing orchestra and a good hall, and we did some amazing projects for a good audience. We expanded the repertoire of the orchestra into Messiaen and Morton Feldman—a big repertoire that was really wide, in addition to Brahms and Bruckner and all that. I have lots of personal contact with the artists and musicians here, and I admire the scene a lot. I enjoyed developing close ties between the orchestra and the musical community that was maybe not there before.”
This final Reykjavík Tectonics will bring together many of the participants from over the years into a large improv ensemble. “On the opening night for this last festival, we will have Free Tectonics,” smiles Ilan, “with 30 or 40 people who’ve taken part over the years. It’ll be a great celebration.”
Tectonics happens on the 14th & 15th of April at Harpa, with a “Pre-Tectonics” show at Mengi on the 13th. Find more info here.