Lilja Birgisdóttir conducts an entire fleet as the Reykjavík Art Festival sets sail
The annual Reykjavík Art Festival begins on May 17 and will feature world-class artists and performances from both local and international ground-breakers. Artist Lilja Birgisdóttir has the honour of launching the festival with a performance entitled The Vessel Orchestra, in which she will verbally conduct a band of ship-captains using their vessels’ horns as instruments.
How did you decide to compose a piece for ships?
I’ve been kind of obsessed with the ocean and the culture around it for a while. I did an exhibition at the Galtarviti lighthouse in the Westfjords, and the ocean was everywhere around me, and it really felt like therapy. I realised that the ocean helps me clear my mind and focus. Sometimes when I’m in cities where I can’t see water I get claustrophobic. It’s really important to me.
What is your composition method and how will you
act as a conductor?
Well, every ship has a horn and every one of them has its own note. None of them produce the same sound. So what I do is I go record each ship-horn, then I put them in my computer and I compose a ship-horn piece. Then I will conduct it using a walkie-talkie to call on the captains to sound their horns.
The time it takes for me to give them direction to the time it takes to press the button to when the horn sounds is about three seconds, so I have to take all these things into account. As I compose the piece, I am writing notes, so the captains will all have note sheets with them.
How many vessels are in your orchestra and who is setting it up?
I set up most of them just by walking onto the ships and asking them directly, but I’m not yet sure how many ships will actually be involved. So I can’t finish the composition yet! [Laughs loudly] There will be ships from all over the harbour though, and there will also be one or two boats coming from Ísafjörður to perform in it.
That sounds complicated. Are you stressed about how it will all work out?
No, because I’ve actually done this piece before. After I graduated from the Iceland Academy of the Arts in 2010, I did this piece for a performance-focused art festival called Villa Reykjavík. This will of course be a new song with new “band-members,” but I’m feeling confident. I’m also really happy because Úlfur Hansson is going to help me with the composition and with all the technical stuff.
How do you hope the final composition will sound?
The ship horns are grand and melancholic. It was really powerful the last time I did it. I got many emails and calls from people who were really touched. I think it’s because a lot of people feel connected with the harbour life. The sound of the ship horn has so much history in itself. I want to create a grandiose piece that the audience will remember. That would be my dream.
What have you most enjoyed about doing this piece?
I like the three-dimensional feel of it because some of the ships are very close and others are really far away. That’s really important for me, that the whole harbour is taking part in it. I think it’s the best project I’ve done and it’s so much fun. It’s amazing to work with all the captains and sailors and I’m so honoured that they want to work with me. It feels so powerful. I’m like this small, little girl leading these gigantic ships and their captains!