This March, Ilan Volkov is launching a new modern music festival that corresponds with John Cage’s centennial anniversary. In addition to being an annual event on Reykjavík’s cultural calendar, he will also bring the festival to a new location starting next year with Glasgow with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Read on for some highlights of this exciting programme of fifteen concerts and events featuring more than 150 musicians, composers and amateurs…
Ilan tells me he has spent a lot of timing researching John Cage, and there will be a day in the festival dedicated to his work. “Two pieces are really interesting that day. One is ‘Fifty-eight’, which is a piece for a big wind brass band, and we are having young musicians from Iceland play that. It will be the big opening performance of the festival in the foyer area of Harpa on Thursday. It’s an un-conducted piece so everybody will be taking a lot of responsibility for the performance. The players will really be making composing decisions as performers. So it will be nice to get a different kind of energy and audience.”
The selections of John Cage pieces range the gamut from his early to late works. John Tilbury will be performing one of his really early pieces—a piano concerto—which Ilan says involves hours of preparing the piano to sound like a huge percussion instrument, with every note being specifically modified with different materials—sometimes rubber, sometimes coins. From his later works, the orchestra will perform a selection of time bracket pieces, which Ilan explains, have almost no score. “The musicians basically have to decide for themselves when to come in, and when to stop. Sometimes they have to decide the volume, and only the pitch is notated.”
Other Cage performances not to miss include ‘Improvisation III,’ which is a piece for cassettes that will be performed by musicians including Reptilicus, Slowblow and Stilluppsteypa, and ‘Music for Piano with Amplified Sonorous Vessels’ which involves sound amplifying vibrating vases in the hall.
There will also be a full day devoted to the Icelandic composer Magnús Blöndal. A pioneer in modernism during the Icelandic ‘50s and ‘60s, you could call him Iceland’s John Cage equivalent. “I decided in advance to focus on Magnús Blöndal’s music,” Ilan tells me. “People know it, but they never really hear it in a serious context.” After the orchestra performs a few of his pieces, local musicians—Ríkharður Friðriksson, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Kira Kira, and Auxpan—will pay homage to Magnús’ electronic music.
Finally, there will be a couple of world premieres over the weekend. One of them is a piece composed by Frank Denyer, especially written for Eldborg Hall. “We tried all kinds of acoustic things; he asked me to whistle and sing while he sat in the hall,” Ilan says. “It’s like doing something that fits the place and the orchestra, not just another kind of tick on something. It’s far more personal and you feel that right away.”
And Ilan himself will be debuting his collaboration with Oren Ambarchi, a piece for electric guitar and orchestra. “We are thinking about doing something with very little actually written. I will be using gestures to react with the orchestra to what he’s playing on the electric guitar. It’s kind of a new way of trying to do something,” he says, also admitting that he “has no clue how it will work yet.”
The festival takes place March 1 – 3 at Harpa. Tickets available here.
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