Iceland has long been a musical melting pot, and nowhere was this better represented than in this April’s Reykjavík Festival in Los Angeles, which brought together household names in Icelandic music—such as JFDR, Múm, and Sigur rós—with a varied cast of composers, performers, and musicians, playing alongside the LA Philharmonic Orchestra. Having debuted a cello concerto there, former Maus guitarist turned contemporary classical composer Páll Ragnar Pálsson is in many ways emblematic of the steady synthesis of sound and talent currently underway on the island.
Craving the past
Páll was trained in composition to the highest level in both Iceland and Estonia, and his new album, ‘Nostalgia’, reflects a melding of cultures and sounds, both east and west. The title track precedes a six-part symphony entitled “Náttúruljoð,” and I’m curious as to why this wasn’t the title. “There’s a Tarkovsky film called ‘Nostalgia’,” says Páll, “which got me thinking about the concept. People often use ‘nostalgia’ in a negative sense—perhaps to refer to a typical love of old pop music. But with nostalgia, we have this feeling built into us where we crave the past and what’s gone before. During the Soviet era, Estonia was like a time capsule—nothing developed too much.”
An older world
Páll explains that he sensed, coming from Iceland, that he was entering an older world with a closer connection to European history. “Whereas we’re more brutalist here,” he says. “We’re pretty good at reinventing the wheel—it’s a necessary thing to do. In Tallinn, there were really simple things that were reminding me of my youth. Not in any direct way, but things that somehow reminded me of the Reykjavík I grew up in. It’s much more flashy and well-managed these days.” He pauses, and grins: “I also just thought it sounded like a good name for my album.”
Páll’s practise of composition is, for him, a bit like meditation. “I have to dwell in a certain space,” he says. “I try to draw inspiration from the textural movements within nature… the energies moving our nature. We are never totally tranquil—we are somehow reflecting the things around us. Am I being too metaphysical here?” he laughs, continuing: “We are constantly in a flow. Is it in the water flowing, or the tectonics, or the wind in the trees? I try to interpret these movements that you can experience in nature, or within yourself, using music. My pieces are like continuous flows of organic, linear movements”
Páll explains that while short-term promotion is difficult, classical compositions gain popularity through their longevity. “It’s a little bit difficult to promote an album of contemporary classical music because you don’t have an orchestra with you all the time,” he explains. “It’s very different to band life or playing music by yourself. I’m dependent on other people performing my music. This is a very slow process, but that’s the beauty.”
The second track on the album, “Supremacy of Peace,” was written for a friend of Páll’s who planned to conduct it in Holland. “The concert never took place,” he says, “and the composition sat in my drawer for a year. Then Tallinn Chamber Orchestra heard about it and it was premiered at Estonian Music Days in Tallinn. Since then, it has travelled between orchestras and countries—it’s not conducted by me. These pieces, after they are released, they live their own life. Classical music is always living.”
‘Nostalgia’ is now available for listening on Spotify
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