From Iceland — Traditional Values: Kvæðakórinn Are Reimagining Icelandic Folk Music

Traditional Values: Kvæðakórinn Are Reimagining Icelandic Folk Music

Published February 4, 2022

Traditional Values: Kvæðakórinn Are Reimagining Icelandic Folk Music
Josie Gaitens
Photo by
Art Bicnick

Linus Orri describes himself as a reluctant conductor. He had been singing with and teaching traditional songs to friends for a long time, but when it was suggested that they turn what they were doing into a formal group, he initially resisted the idea.

“Eventually Elsa [Jónsdóttir, founding member] told me, ‘If you’re not going to be the conductor, I’m just going to find someone else to be the conductor.’ And then I was like, ‘Okay, fine. I’ll do it.’ I couldn’t bear the idea of someone else being the pioneer.”

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The group in question is ‘Kvæðakórinn’, a new collective predominantly composed of young artists, who gather to learn and perform traditional Icelandic Kvæði, a form of folk singing unique to the country. Alongside Linus, the founding members of the group are the aforementioned Elsa, and Björn Loki Björnsson, otherwise known as the artistic duo Krot & Krass. The pair became interested in learning Kvæði through their work with another traditional Icelandic art form, Höfðaletur, an idiosyncratic variety of typography strongly associated with hand carving. Attracted by the similarities and equivalences of their artistic practice, Linus, Loki and Elsa began to meet regularly to sing, encouraging other friends to join them.

Defining Tradition

Icelandic folk music is a somewhat confusing landscape. The word ‘Kvæði’ can refer to both the poetic and the singing or chanting traditions, built on a structure of very specific rules regarding metre, rhyme and alliteration. Even Linus struggles to give a specific definition when I ask him.

“It’s a little complicated, because that one word means a few different things,” he admits. “To most people, Kvæði, without context, would just mean a poem. But it also means the way to sing the poem, the style that accompanies it.”

“At the end of the day, innovation in traditional music is inherently anarchist”

Kvæði, and the similar tradition of rímur, are no longer a major part of Icelandic society. Bar a few examples that are taught in primary schools, the singing of Kvæði these days is generally confined to specialist groups, typically made up of older individuals, who seek to catalogue and preserve these artefacts of heritage.

“Part of the reason why these words are unclear and awkward is because there has not been a strong tradition in modern times,” Linus explains. This is something that he and the other members of Kvæðakórinn are hoping to change, but doing so involves breaking a few barriers on the way. This, it turns out, was the source of Linus’s reluctance.

“The Kvæði tradition is very much a solo tradition,” he elaborates. “There are parts of it that are for group singing, but it’s a very small part–a handful of songs. If you were to get a group together to learn that part of the canon, you would run out of songs almost immediately.”

Photo by Art Bicnick

An alternate reality

Instead Linus was forced to consider the practice from a completely different standpoint, in order to be able to arrange the poems and melodies in a way that made sense for group singing. To do so he conducted a kind of thought experiment, imagining a reality where Kvæði had been a mainstay of Icelandic culture in the last century. From there he tried to consider what the tradition would sound like now if it had existed alongside, and interacted with, other genres.

“To be able to make this choir work I’ve had to come up with ways of practising the tradition as a group. And so what I think about when arranging is, ‘If this had been a strong, living tradition through modern times–through the development of rock music, electronic music, jazz–what would have happened to this tradition naturally?’ And I’m thinking about it in very literal terms, in regard to which intervals would be used in harmonising, for instance.”

It’s a radical approach, and one that risks raising a few eyebrows in traditional music circles. But Linus sees this attitude as a necessity for both progressing and protecting the act of Kvæði singing.

“This form, the combination of this tradition and a choir-style group, doesn’t exist. So doing it definitely requires some innovation, which could be seen as breaking the rules.” Linus tells me, clearly choosing his words carefully. But ultimately he is resolute, firmly casting off his prior reluctance. “At the end of the day, innovation in traditional music is inherently anarchist. In a year’s time I hope we have proven the concept.”

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