“Welcome to Iceland. Don’t like the weather? Wait fifteen minutes.” So goes the clichéd joke about Iceland’s capricious meteorological tendencies—windy and wet one moment, sunny and still the next, but never comfortable enough for shorts. As a spring storm snowed, sleeted, and rained on Iceland this year, the core of the country’s music scene escaped to Los Angeles, a city where clear skies and warm sunshine are predictable to the point of tedium. For ten days this April, the Los Angeles Philharmonic teamed up with Icelandic musicians to present the Reykjavík Festival in the whimsical, glimmering Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles.
The programme for the festival, curated by composer Daníel Bjarnason and LA Phil’s Conductor Laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen, was about as multifaceted as the concert hall’s sumptuous, reflective façade. The festival’s opening night, entitled “Made in Iceland,” exhibited the brand of Icelandic pop, folk, and electronic music that is perhaps most familiar to audiences outside of Iceland: mainstays of the internationally known Icelandic music scene such as múm and Amiina joined newcomers like JFDR and dj. flugvél og geimskip, who have just begun to appear on the international radar. Three concerts of classical and choral music presented the works of contemporary Icelandic composers; three more nights of contemporary classical Icelandic music featured Sigur rós, accompanied by the LA Phil, playing old works arranged for orchestra by indie darlings like Owen Pallett and Dan Deacon.
For the festival’s concluding concert, Icelandic label Bedroom Community docked in the concert hall as part of their tenth-anniversary Whale Watching Tour, showcasing their gleeful, playful disregard for traditional generic distinctions. “Contemporary classical” is almost too reductionist a term to characterise the nimble blend of orchestral, electronic, pop, and folk music characteristic of the label’s roster. Although the bulk of the festival is over, a collaboration between the LA Phil and Björk and the LA iteration of her virtual-reality based installation, ‘Björk: Digital’, will extend the festival well into May.
A genre beyond genres
The festival’s organisers were eager to display the unique way in which Icelandic musicians blur boundaries between musical genres that are often considered distinct. “What we categorise as this or that kind of music in the States—those distinctions don’t exist in Iceland, which is extraordinary and outstanding,” remarks Johanna Rees, LA Phil’s Director of Presentations, who coordinated the pop acts involved in the festival. “The goal of the festival,” she says, “is about exhibiting a unique perspective or tone of voice and not at all about whether something is considered pop or classical.” The ease with which genres overlap and crossover, she observes, stems from the personal relationships between Icelandic artists: “Sure, just because it’s a small country doesn’t mean everyone knows everyone—but the musicians from Reykjavík all really do know each other.”
Stateside, the distinction “Icelandic music” seems to supersede concerns about genre. Johanna acknowledges that Icelandic music carries a certain cultural cachet. “It’s compelling enough just to say it’s Icelandic,” she says, and suggests that that status helped draw Angelenos to see unfamiliar, up-and-coming acts on the festival’s opening night.
Sigtryggur Baldursson, the Managing Director of Iceland Music Export (IMX), and an ex-Sugarcube, likewise notes the sense of an Icelandic music genre that defies familiar categories. That genre, he says, “is a trademark that wasn’t consciously manufactured, like some of the tourism campaigns in Iceland. It has arisen naturally.” With IMX, he’s been networking with Hollywood music supervisors seeking to incorporate Icelandic music into film and television. “Music supervisors tend to categorise music according to specific genres,” he says, suggesting that such categorisation is barely even an afterthought for Icelandic musicians.
With several carriers now offering direct flights between LA and Reykjavík, Sigtryggur feels certain that stronger connections will arise between these two disparate locales. “Iceland still feels very far away, for many,” he says, “but there’s a growing population of people who have gone to Iceland specifically to see music, and we’ll definitely see more tourists coming from here.”
Walking in a movie
Siggi and the rest of the Icelandic contingent can’t help but gloat about the bountiful sunshine that Angelenos take for granted. “Getting some sun in my face this time of year was perfect,” says Jófríður Ákadóttir, who performed as JFDR on the festival’s opening night. Not all the Icelanders fully understood the sheer predictability of LA’s climate. Johanna Rees was showing journalists from RÚV around the city and noticed one of the Icelanders lugging around a long-sleeve shirt and puffy jacket. “I told him, ‘You really don’t need to carry that stuff around LA,’” she laughs.
Steinunn Eldflaug Harðardóttir, better know as dj. flugvél og geimskip, has had no shortage of sun-soaked adventures on this first visit to LA. One day, she rented a convertible Ford Mustang and drove into the desert to see the giant dinosaur sculptures—old roadside attractions—in Cabazon; another day, she went sailing and swimming in the sea. She’s eager to enumerate creatures she’s seen so far: dolphins, pelicans, sea lions, butterflies, and squirrels. Yes, squirrels. “They’re not in Iceland and I love them,” she says, “It’s fun to see them run on the powerlines.”
Steinunn, whose music paints a world of wonder and whimsy, can’t seem to get enough of the vastly different atmosphere in LA. Small details that ordinary Angelenos would ignore—flowers sprouting along the sidewalk, palm trees scraping the sky—have distracted her from walking in a straight path. “It’s like walking in a movie,” she says, “But of course it feels like being in a movie because the movies are made here.” That she played her first LA show in as majestic a venue as Disney Hall is not lost on Steinunn. “It was really crazy,” she says, before offering a more fantastical rendering of the same sentiment: “I imagined I was playing in a club, and also that I was a princess in an old palace.”
As the festival wraps up and the last remaining Icelanders soak up surplus Vitamin D, it’s too early to tell how the festival has affected the musical connections between LA and Iceland. However, judging from the packed houses, the general hubbub in the LA media, and the pride with which the events organisers speak, the festival appears to have been wildly successful and popular. “We are making new connections everywhere,” says Siggi, “So we’ll see in the near future what avenues will open for better export of Icelandic music.”