A survival guide for the darkest months
As Reykjavík society withdraws from the bleak northern winter into a post-Christmas domestic bubble, the city’s cultural calendar looks uncharacteristically bare. But fear not, because for four days in January, there’s an event housed in the warm and airy confines of Harpa, one that uses the darkness to shine the spotlight on the intriguing world of Iceland’s contemporary and experimental composers.
Dark Music Days (Myrkir Músíkdagar, in Icelandic) has been running since 1980, beginning as a biannual event. “When the festival began,” says artistic director Kjartan Ólafsson, sitting in the Harpa cafe, “there was nothing much happening in Reykjavík from the end of November, right through till March. It was just a very dark season—much darker then than now. The lights of the city have probably made a difference. And maybe this building too; Harpa is certainly a beacon in the dark.”
Kjartan took the reigns of the festival when he became the chairman of the Society of Icelandic Composers in 1989. At the time, the festival—like many others across Europe—was suffering from dwindling attendance. Kjartan decided to try a new approach.
“We started putting an emphasis on Icelandic music,” he explains, “because as well as this gap in the cultural calendar, there was also the need for a new platform for contemporary and experimental music. So, instead of me leading the festival as a traditional artistic director, we decided to try to perform as many interesting pieces as we could. This is my way of directing—to have it open, let it breathe freely, and keep these simple rules in place.”
This had an immediate effect, galvanising the city’s more ambitious young composers and musicians to come out of the woodwork and start contacting Dark Music Days about presenting their work. “Of course, when they asked, we said yes,” says Kjartan, “and so the festival naturally started to feature more new work and first performances. As a result, it’s more diverse now than ever before. All that started with the inclusion of young people—both in the audience, and as composers and performers. There were six or seven concerts and for perhaps 500 people. Today, we have over twenty concerts and around 3,500 people coming along.”
With the country under deep snow and deeper darkness, it seems to follow that most of the audience at this time of year would be local. But winter tourism is on the rise, and the niche that Dark Music Days is carving out is piquing the interest of the outside world in its own right. “We have an increasing number people from both Europe and America coming along,” says Kjartan, “including the artistic directors of other events. The festival has grown a very strong identity over the years—it’s around 70-80% Icelandic music, much of which has not been performed before. So if you come to this festival you can see something new, and specific to Iceland alone. We don’t play contemporary music that’s 50 years old—the music at Dark Music days represents the time we are living in now.”
New School thinking
Kjartan is also uniquely positioned to see upcoming talents via his work as a professor of composition at the Icelandic Academy of the Arts, where he has taught for nine years. “I’m seeing the same thing there,” he says. “When the curriculum opens up and becomes more flexible, the students immediately start to find a more personal pathway, and then transition towards the festival. It’s an excellent platform to see their work coming to life. The younger ones get involved with the festival—they join the society, and the board—they are the ones that will take over, after all, when we’re all in the old people’s home.”
Dark Music Days comes at a time of the year when Reykjavík’s many cultural creators and organisers are hibernating, and offers them a chance to emerge for a while. “It’s a time for writing books and composing, when you are sitting in a smaller world, and reading, thinking, creating,” says Kjartan. “People come out from that bubble, and into the festival, for an interesting and valuable conversation about culture. So Dark Music Days has that quality of meeting and exchange too.”
And darkness itself has long been a muse for artists, representing things glimpsed or unknown. “Darkness holds things on the edge of vision,” Kjartan finishes. “In the sagas, darkness held an exciting hidden world. Perhaps that’s like music itself—it can never tell you exactly what it means, but it can give you an idea.”
The festival runs January 29 – February 1, see our listings page for the full schedule.
Snow, darkness, SAD –Is it time to hibernate?