The Dark Music Days festival started unassumingly in 1980, but in the 38 years since, it has taken the contemporary Icelandic composition world by storm, becoming a well known festival of unusual and inventive Icelandic and international composers. This year, it’s bigger than ever, presenting everything from new works by former Grapevine cover star Daníel Bjarnason to experimental sound masses.
“The festival started out as a way for the Society of Icelandic Composers to present the music of its members,” explains Gunnar Karel Másson, the artistic director of the festival. “It’s always been embedded into the musical life here because the big ensembles, the symphony orchestra and the chamber orchestra, have all been a part of Dark Music Days since the beginning.”
While the festival was originally a two- to three-week affair, the last few years have seen it moved to Harpa for a more concise three-day extravaganza. For the 2019 iteration, Gunnar decided to journey back to the festival’s roots, adding off-venue shows at Mengi, IÐNÓ, Húrra and more, and extending the celebration over one week.
“It’s a good step forward to go backwards,” he says of the shift. “You have to have time to contemplate what you’ve heard. When it was only three days, you were running between concerts and you didn’t have the time to really know what you were listening to.” He pauses. “There will be some hectic moments, of course, particularly on Friday and Saturday night, but it’s more relaxed now.”
Finding new footing
While Dark Music Days might have started as a somewhat niche soirée, it has since gained an international presence in the contemporary scene, with composers from all over Europe flying in to present their works, as well as an increasing amount of Icelandic artists vying for spots.
“See, in the beginning, the composer society was probably one third of what it is today,” Gunnar explains. “But now we are seeing younger generations go into composition, which I’d connect to the Iceland Academy Of The Arts offering composition classes. It’s a huge boon for the festival, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg.”
The rest of the iceberg, Gunnar reiterates, comes from Iceland’s unique geographical position. “Iceland is a meeting place between Europe and North America and we should capitalise on this.” But, that said, Gunnar emphasises that, for him, the joy of the festival is still about musical innovation. He gives a small smile when asked about this year’s programme. “Well,” he teases, “you’ll never know what to expect here.”
Info: The last two days of the Dark Music Days festival are on February 1st and 2nd. You can check out the programme online here.