Through Shimmering Webs And Verdant Soundscapes
Words: John Rogers
A wistful, enticing cello melody echoed out suddenly through Harpa’s cavernous lobby, slowly drawing together festival wanderers from benches in far corners and murmured conversations by quiet bars. As a crowd started to coalesce, the cello was joined by undulating electronic sound, like wind through an empty landscape, and then, finally, by a dreamy singing voice. Figureight Records labelmates Gyða Valtýsdóttir and Úlfur Hansson’s improvised collaboration was evocative of deep dreams and dusty faraway landscapes, and served as a perfectly inviting introduction to the second day of Norður og Niður.
A pattern of more ephemeral sounds would emerge throughout the evening. Kórus sang original material composed by the choir’s various members for a rapt audience in one of the glittering side-rooms. In Kaldalón, Mary Lattimore created a shimmering web of harp notes, complicated and deepened by her use of loops and delay effects. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s audio-visual presentation of her 2017 album ‘The Kid’ was a lush, warm embrace; the audience wandered through her verdant soundscape, drifting into dreams to sounds that could have grown from the earth and exploded from a seed pod.
This thrillingly varied menu of experimental music created a relaxed and low-key atmosphere in which GusGus struggled to get the party started. Rather than tuning their set to the strengths of their current stripped-down incarnation—with Veiran on the desk, and Daníel Águst as the sole vocalist—they instead played to their weaknesses, performing a stream of songs like ”Crossfade,” “Obnoxiously Sexual,” and “Over,” with previous vocalists Högni and Earth relegated to the backing track. It was a mysterious choice, given the breadth of their back catalogue, and underscored the loss of these big stage presences. GusGus are clearly in a period of transition, and with new material on the horizon, it’ll be interesting to see what emerges next.
The Conspicuous Absence of Dogs
Words: Grayson Del Faro
The second day of Norður og Niður took a bit of a step back from the flurry of people, excitement, and experimentation of the first. It was more toned down, relaxed and had a stronger focus on more traditional performances. A bit late to the party, the first performance I caught was by KÓRUS. Having seen them perform bits and bobs at various different events over the years, this was the first time I’ve been able to see a whole set. This allowed them to show off how diverse their range of personalities and voices are, as well as their collaborative nature.
At the end of each song, the group would rearrange slightly to allow new soloists to come forward and someone to emerge from the choir to conduct the next song. They swapped ranges, languages, and styles like an army of musical chameleons. Halfway though, the lights were dimmed and their performance became completely hypnotic, commanding a rare silence and a powerful reverence amongst the crowd. The only disappointment was that the dog pictured in their band photo was not present at the performance. Let’s have a moment of silence now for the doggo of KÓRUS, who is banned from entering Harpa. (Rude!)
Since there were more people waiting outside to see Mary Lattimore than there were people inside watching her, the next set was Gus Gus. Although their origins were experimental and collaborative, their transformation over the years into plain good dance music put them a bit at odds with the spirit of this festival and the largely too-cool-to-dance spirit of its audience. Next, about four minutes into the endless reverb of Kevin Shields’ guitar, I realised with sobering clarity that my bloody teenage years are long gone. So I slipped out before I could get bored and into Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s set.
Armed with enough electronics to build the cockpit of a spaceship, she twisted the knobs and pushed the buttons as though she were piloting our escape pod through a particularly dense asteroid field. But instead of an interstellar journey, her kaleidoscopic synths—and new-agey macro visuals of crystals and multicoloured bubbling jelly—better mimicked a trip through a microscopic universe. Imagine ‘The Magic School Bus’ driven by Fever Ray. I kind of don’t want to live in the normal-sized world anymore.
Words: Jessica Peng
On the second day, the first piece I saw was called “Areolae Undant” by Icelandic composer and performer Bergrún Snæbjörnsdóttir. Six instrumentalists were positioned in a circle in Silfurberg, with Bergrún standing in the center. The piece was somewhat centered around the interactive lights, which were beautiful. The audience were sitting around the circle, which made it seem like some kind of ritual.
Reykjanesbær Music School Bell Choir were a lovely surprise. They performed arrangements of Sigur Rós songs, and the sweet timbre of the bells fit the festive atmosphere. Mammút rocked the Silfurberg stage with their emotional and slightly dark songs. The singer Katrína was a vocal powerhouse, and her energy was contagious. Mary Lattimore, an American harpist, gave a thrilling performance with her loop pedal. I closed my eyes while her magical fingers plucked the strings, and I could see time moving as crystals in her music.
As it gradually unfolds, Norður og Niður is turning out to be one of the most eclectic festivals out there. With acts in rock, indie, electronic, classical, contemporary composition and more, the audience need to have an open mind to be able to enjoy what the festival has to offer. Eclectic, or lacking focus? Why not go to the festival and find out yourself?
Music For Winter
Words: Alexander Jean de Fontenay
I started my Thursday night at Norður og Niður with the serene sounds of Jo Berger Myhre & Ólafur Björn Ólafsson. They were playing the Hörpuhorn stage for a considerably large audience. Everyone listened carefully as they improvised with drums, double bass and organ. Myhre and Ólafsson created an ambient space where time almost stood still. Gloomy sounds which progressed at a leisurely pace. It set the mood for the night.
Next up were Mammút who played for a pretty packed Silfurberg. The black clad members performed a slick set of screeching yet finely tuned rock songs. Shimmering lights lit up the concert hall as people bopped their heads in approval. I noticed the use of electronic percussion, a recent addition and a twist to the group’s jaded, drony and powerful rock sound. Music for winter indeed.
GusGus sounded as crispy and booming as ever, and played for a half-full Silfurberg. Only two core members of this legendary Icelandic dance music outfit appeared onstage tonight. Biggi Veira was in charge of the deep and wondrous melodies his modular synthesizers produce, while Daníel Ágúst strutted around in shiny attire while harmonizing his voice, with the occasional help of a delay effect.
I do miss the beautiful voices and stage presence of Urður Hákonardóttir (a.k.a. Earth) and Högni Egilsson—the pre-recorded playback of their parts in older songs didn’t do them justice. A couple of new songs were a refreshing addition to the many hits that were heard tonight, with a sound reminiscent of early GusGus—a euphoric emphasis, mixed with the minimal sound of later releases ‘Arabian Horse’ and ‘Mexico.’
Alex Somers’s contribution to Norður og Niður is a reoccurring and timed sound-installation. At the strike of 10:25PM each night of the festival guests are invited to come to the Norðurbryggju venue. There, old gramophone speakers and other sound equipment have been carefully positioned and wired together to create a controlled sound installation that can run independently. This time around, various tapes where heard through tape decks on the speakers. One of the them had a note attached that asked the guests kindly to turn the tape over and press play when it had finished playing one side. It’s an unusual but welcome experiment that adds to the festival’s atmosphere.