Le Desordre, C’est Moi
Thursday, January 26 at Harpa, Eldborg Hall
Conductor of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra (ISO) Ilan Volkov stated in a recent interview with The Grapevine that his intention was to take advantage of the “open and interested” musical culture in Iceland by performing new and challenging pieces. And that he did at the Dark Music Days festival, opening with Giacinto Scelsi’s “Hymnos,” a piece that took twenty years to be performed after its composition in 1963.
“Hymnos” involves a restructuring of the orchestra. This is hardly something uncommon when it comes to modern classical performance, as Ilan wryly notes later in the evening, half the trouble is waiting for the percussion section to get themselves ready for the next piece. But “Hymnos” is a little more involved than that. The whole orchestra is divided antiphonally, which in simple terms means that the orchestra is divided symmetrically in two, with one ‘orchestra’ on one side of the stage and another ‘orchestra’ mirroring it on the other side.
Basically it’s like a huge version of stereo sound – there is a left and right speaker. Except, well…each speaker is an orchestra. Pretty impressive, right?
Musically it is pretty impressive too. A swirling, undulating mass, it sways back and forth. The listener is aboard a ship buffeted by waves. Holding onto the bow, eventually the storm calms and as it does it feels like we are now continuing our course along a river away from the tides. The surges have subsided, but there is a dark undercurrent still remaining and the cluttered tension of notes suggests an omnipresent, humid and stifling atmosphere. It’s not really a sanctuary; instead it is as if we are travelling along the Styx. STOP.
When the piece ends Ilan turns to the audience and informs us that, because the piece is performed so rarely, the ISO will play it once again for us. There is a twist however–he requests that we find a new seat to experience the interplay of sounds from another angle. Popping upstairs to the balcony, we spy two rows of seats behind the orchestra.
From here “Hymnos” is amplified, intensified and undermined. Crescendos seem almost insurmountable, the music roars, Ilan stands centre attempting to contain and control the maelstrom and the hidden clacks of mutes being removed from brass, shuffles in seats and other ‘unwanted’ sounds of the orchestra are made audible. We see and hear the orchestra working so much more clearly and it’s pretty damn cool.
After the interval, we return to our original seats and watch the performance of two Icelandic compositions. First up is Atli Ingólfsson’s “Mani,” which is centred around a lurching rhythmic pattern. As it settles into the pattern it sounds like a group of elephants marching. It thunders about, giant footsteps wreaking havoc. However, the lurching patterns make it apparent that these poor elephants must be suffering the great calamity of only having three limbs. Unfortunate as it may be for those elephants, it is an almighty sound.
The second serving from the Icelandic plate is the premiere of Hugi Guðmundsson’s “Orkestur.” It is a piece of two halves – ‘Gegnsætt’ and ‘Gegnheilt’. ‘Gegnsætt’ proves a dissonant opening foray, which then moves into a section that oscillates back and forth between stuttering pizzicato and drawn out bowed notes. The pizzicato jumps around the strings, sounding like a cross between ping-pong delay and hundreds of insects rushing about searching for crevices within the sound. As the piece moves into ‘Gegnheilt’ the dissonance lessens and there is a sense of, at least partial, resolution.
The penultimate piece, Iannis Xenakis’ “Metastasis,” is perhaps the most well known of those performed this evening, but it is hardly a pleasant little ditty. Composed for 61 musicians, each playing their own individual part, it plays like the soundtrack to a particularly unnerving horror film. As the interior of Eldborg hall is blood red, it seems fitting. The percussive hits and achingly slow glissandi seem to imitate stabs and the subsequent slow descent the blood takes as it slides down the now blood red walls.
The finale for the evening is Hans Abrahamsen’s “Ten Sinfonias,” which has been co-commissioned by the ISO. Unsurprisingly it is ten pieces that average two minutes in length—in a way they are closer to vignettes that combine to create a greater whole. It starts in the vein of most modern classical composition (dissonant and harsh), but as we make our way through the sinfonias, the dissonance eases. By the halfway point, what we hear is melodically more traditional, but with a Phillip Glass-esque twist in the strings whereby the emphases shift and switch. And by the final sinfonia, the dissonance is resolved, leaving us with something more akin to a regal, Baroque composition like Clarke’s “Trumpet Voluntary.”
“Ten Sinfonias” is then an odd mix of progression (dissonance being resolved) and conversely regression (harking back to the Baroque style) and as such I’m going to be cheeky and say that it is therefore a ‘pregressive’ composition.
Finally, anyone who gets the reference I am making in the title of this review and why I am making it should contact The Grapevine so we can arrange to high-five or something. Thanks.
Are Friends Electric?
Thursday, January 26 at Harpa, Kaldalón Hall
After the opening concert, a second concert takes place in Harpa’s Kaldalón hall. The second concert is a smaller affair and it focuses on electro-acoustic performances and compositions that are primarily of Icelandic origin.
The concert start with the press of a button, and “Atmosphere 3291” by Kjartan Ólafsson whirs into life and into our ears. Perhaps this inauspicious start highlights the problem of electronic music in performance. It is not soulless by any means, but there is a sense of detachment and coldness when visually there is no apparent manipulation of the sound. Live performance should be a visceral experience and for “Atmosphere 3291” (and some of the other ‘performances’ later in the concert) this element is sorely lacking.
That is not to say that “Atmosphere 3291” is bad, but it begs the question–where was the performance? It would have been great seeing someone controlling the whirling mass of noises that ping between the speakers. Wrestling as they would be to direct and contain the unwieldy sounds flying off in all directions it would have been far more interesting to witness this struggle, but instead we were left with what was ostensibly the playing of a CD.
Fellow performer-less pieces fare differently. Þorgrímur H. Einarsson’s “Fjögurra Rása Verk 7.0” is a pleasant enough piece of ping-y ambience that enveloped the audience for ten minutes, and in a way suited detachment to an extent. Magnús Blöndal Jóhannsson’s “Sveitin Milli Sanda” takes short clips from a female operatic recording as its building blocks. There is little manipulation of the sound and it seems as though the piece is more like an attempt at isolating utterances and making them sound vaguely sexual. It is probably supposed to be subversive and transgressive, but it just comes across as immature.
That said, the first piece with visible performers wasn’t anything special either. Úlfar Ingi Haraldsson’s “In Paradisum III” is a piece for viola and computer. Sound travels down a wire from the viola and into the computer, at which point Úlfar manipulates and changes the sound creating harmonies and drones against the continued viola playing. The idea itself is interesting but it was poorly realised.
However “PERC”, the second of Úlfar’s pieces, is far more enjoyable. It’s a cavalcade of weird noises that sound at points like animals (owls hooting and such). It’s as though Autechre had taken a day trip to the zoo, recorded the sounds made by the animals when they prodded them with sticks and then made a composition out of the results.
In a similar manner to Úlfar’s “In Paradisum III,” Jesper Pedersen’s “Hoofddorp” is a bit of let down. It also features a guest musician (this time on electric guitar), but again it feels poorly realised. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent a lifetime immersing myself in the sounds a guitar can make, but it felt childish and experimental for the sake of being experimental and weird. Not digging it.
There is a silver lining though with guitarist Páll Ivan Pálsson performing one of his own pieces, onomatopoeically titled “Bobborobboló.” It was of the highlights of the concert. Páll’s instrument of choice for this piece is a metal box. But this is no ordinary metal box. Inside distorted sound bounces around, speeding up and down. You remember that computer game, “Pong?” Yeah it was like that…sound started speeding up to a ridiculous rate only to slow and then speed back up again. All inside that metal box.
In addition to “Bobborobboló,” highlights of the evening were Ríkharður H. Friðriksson’s “Spuni II” and Camilla Söderberg’s “An Endless Game?”—two very different performances.
Ríkharður takes samples from a song by prog-rock band Gentle Giant, melding them together to make a clunking, lumbering dance monster called “Spuni II.” He uses a sequencing programme that appears to be from an ancient ZX Spectrum or something of that ilk and looks a like a mad professor with his glasses and grey hair and beard. It’s an endearing and enjoyable performance.
Camilla’s “An Endless Game?” is a rather more dark affair. Imitating a field recording, ‘natural’ sounds are close mic’d and therefore feel all the more real. Wind howls past and water bubbles violently. A voice seems to whisper urgently and inaudibly into our ears…something is wrong, but we don’t know what and we step out into the storm, into the onslaught. It seems like we’re running from something, but what it is we don’t quite know. It is a psycho-acoustic minefield, fear gestating, storm amplified…trapped outside, fleeing.
With that the first night of Dark Music Days ends–an exciting Smörgåsbord (yeah ok, wrong country!) of new sounds and ideas.