Smartly dressed, long-bearded, bespectacled Icelandic composer Úlfur Eldjárn bustled into Harpa’s cafe, dodging cstomers and pushing a trolley piled high with flight cases and topped with a glittering silver snare drum. He’s in a rush, and stops to catch his breath, grinning mischievously as he noticed the easy-listening muzak playing over the sound system. “I feel like I’m in an airport,” he smiles.
But Úlfur is actually about to embark on a journey of another kind. He’s arriving for the final rehearsal—and imminent premiere—of his newest musical work, ‘The Aristókrasía Project’, an ambitious piece that blends together synths, vocoder and string arrangements, covering themes including utopia, AI, futuristic societies and space travel.
“We’ll be playing tonight in front of a space movie called ‘First Orbit’,” says Úlfur. “It was shot by an astronaut, in space. It’s a remake of the original trip that Yuri Gagarin went on—the same orbit—but a modern-day version, with an HD camera. I’ll perform the whole record and show the film. It should feel like a real journey.”
Space is lonely and scary
“One of the songs is actually about Yuri Gagarin,” he continues, “and his experience of being the first person to enter space and see the Earth from above. Yuri has a vision—he sees how beautiful the Earth is, and it’s amazing. But at the same time—you can’t really get any more lonely than that. So on one level he’s experiencing what he’s saying—he’s on this incredible trip. But on another level, he must have felt really lonely. And scared, maybe.”
It was a journey in itself for Úlfur to create ‘The Aristókrasía Project’, which brings together many of his interests from within and outside of the musical sphere. “The songs and the ideas have been floating around each other for some time,” he explains. “It’s not so much a story—it’s more fragmented than that—but it has an aesthetic. It’s a collection of interrelated things—space travel, utopian visions of the future, and some nostalgia and regret. There’s a melancholic undertone. ‘Victory of the human spirit’ stories always carry a certain melancholy. Just like every technological breakthrough has unforeseen side effects.”
The future ain’t what it used to be
Úlfur has long been interested in old science fiction—prior generations’ articulations of what the future might be like. I wonder if, as we slowly pass iconic sci-fi dates—1984, 2001, and now the October 2015 of ‘Back To The Future II’—retrofuturism becomes melancholic by nature. These famous utopias, odysseys and dystopias are not how our world turned out. We still have no flying cars.
“We’re now experiencing a completely technological society, but it works in a completely different way than anyone imagined,” agrees Úlfur. “When you’re imagining some future terror or entertaining idealistic ideas about a future society, you can never imagine how random it will be, and how it will feed into a mass culture. Think about all the amazing computers we have that are working on such small and silly little things… that’s actually something else I’m interested in. The emotions of machines. We already have a very complicated emotional relationship with the gadgets and technologies and algorithms around us. The question I have, although we tell ourselves it’s silly, is: What are the machines experiencing? Do they have emotions? Are they being done justice, terminally relegated to the giving end of the relationship?”
Metal machine music
With this in mind, Úlfur has been working on giving computers a more fulfilling role. His “Infinite String Quartet”—unveiled during DesignMarch earlier in 2015—allowed users to spontaneously compose music by moving different coloured blobs around a 3D grid.
“I wanted to make avant-garde composition an experience for anyone, using this interface,” he says. “People from any musical background could really get into some of those elements without even thinking about it. They got to experience this music without the framework of going to a serious classical music concert. With ‘The Aristókrasía Project’ I’m probably doing it the other way around. The music is fairly accessible, and I allowed myself to become emotional—even tacky, at times. I tried to do it with my heart, and with honesty. By doing that, I crossed some boundaries. I decided not to think about if I was making pop, or classical, or avant-garde, or a film score.”
The results became all of those things, and more. “There’s a whole wave of these crossover projects happening now,” enthuses Úlfur. “The string quartet that plays with me work on such a diverse range of projects—they’re busy classical musicians, but they’re also working with everything from Ben Frost noise pieces to complete pop music, and they’re leading players in scholarly avant-garde music. In this project, I mix bold synth soundscapes with that world. Some of these songs are completely over the top—even I think that. And because they are, I feel a certain kind of freedom. I don’t have to worry about being cool, or being correct. It’s serious work… but it also comes across as a little naive maybe. In a good way.”
Úlfur Eldjárn plays Gamla Bíó on Friday November 6 at 22:30.
Book your day tours in Iceland right here!