What does Iceland sound like? Perhaps it’s an odd question to ask about a big chunk of rock in the North Atlantic. But if you’re in tune with the sound of nature—or the nature of sound—then perhaps not.
Over the last two years, musician Kaśka Paluch has created a remarkable project addressing that question from the perspective of the island’s natural environments. But when she first asked herself the question five years ago, having just moved to Reykjavík from her Polish mountainside hometown of Zakopane, she had the sound of contemporary Icelandic music on her mind.
“My friends had been joking that I’d moved here to be closer to Björk, because I was a crazy fan,” Kaśka laughs. “When you’re living in Poland and you’re interested in Icelandic music—Björk, Sigur Rós, Gusgus—this is how Iceland sounds to you. But when you move here you realise that, musically, Iceland does not sound like this. Quite the opposite, actually. I haven’t met an Icelander who listens to Björk.”
To uncover the sound of Iceland, Kaśka asked the sorts of people who might be expected to know: musicians, artists and filmmakers. And their responses were surprising. “The most common answer was ‘a noise’,” she says. “That’s what Iceland sounds like to them—constant noise.”
Much of that noise is the incessant racket made by us humans, but that said, nature is rarely quiet. If the distinction between a sound and a noise is that one is easy on the ear and the other isn’t, then Mama Nature can be one noisy mutha. A howling wind can jar the nerves. And even the steady roar of a waterfall—surely one of the earth’s most beautiful gifts—can become an imposition through its sheer persistence. Kaśka realised that perhaps her curiosity shouldn’t be about the sound of Iceland, but about the noise of Iceland.
While working as a tour guide, she had a conversation with a customer whose sight was compromised, but who experienced nature through what she heard rather than saw. Kaśka realised that the book she was planning about the noise of Iceland would actually work better as a collection of audio recordings. “I decided I was going to record all the popular places in Iceland,” she says. “No photos, just sounds. And I assumed that I would be recording them with people, buses and everything. And then the pandemic started.”
When Kaśka found herself unemployed in the spring of 2020—and a relative silence fell on Iceland’s natural tourist spots—she set about visiting each one, making field recordings to create an interactive map which can be viewed here. And while each recording was already an art piece in its own right, some also seemed to volunteer themselves as source material for musical expansion. Thus the idea for the ‘Noise From Iceland’ album was born, for which Kaśka leaned on her experience as a dance music producer.
The resulting album is an engaging mélange of 14 tracks, half of which are pure ambient field recordings best experienced via a decent pair of headphones. Hurricanes whip around the listener, lava roars and bubbles in the ears, and the sounds of a glacier lagoon wash all around and over. Then, in the other seven tracks, the sounds of nature are bolstered by solid yet spacious dance music, influenced heavily by late-nineties progressive house.
“I’m a huge fan of trance and techno,” Kaśka says. “Most of the time that you hear music composed to field recordings it’s ambient, or some experimental electronica. And honestly, I tried to do that but I just needed a beat! It was interesting to see the reactions of people who were probably expecting music that you could meditate to. And I’m not saying that’s never going to happen, but for this I really needed that Paul van Dyk kind of sound.”
Kaśka’s musical education in Poland eventually led to degrees in musicology and ethnomusicology—the science of documenting and analysing the music of the folk. And it was that interest that led to the latest development in the Noise From Iceland project: to find a way to incorporate the Icelandic language.
The organisation Íslenskur Músík Og Menningararfur, (Icelandic Music and Cultural Heritage), curates a collection of audio recordings, photos, films and texts representing a history of Icelandic culture. And it was there that Kaśka found a recording from 1969, in which a woman by the name of Hildigunnur Valdimarsdóttir sings a folk tale called “Tungli Glotti Gult Og Bleikt” (“The Moon Glows Yellow And Pink”).
“There was such a nice energy coming from this recording, and I liked the lyrics,” says Kaśka. “But then I went deeper and found out about their meaning.” The song depicts a woman called Geirlaug, sitting at night, sewing a sweater in the moonlight. She waits for her dead husband, Glúmur, to come and take her away with him.
“Then I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s the one!’” Kaśka says. “It feels nice, we can dance to it, but it’s a horror story.” In Kaśka’s version of “The Moon Glows Yellow And Pink”, Hildigunnur’s original a cappella vocal is respectfully arranged over a subtle but uplifting house track. The whole concept is underpinned by a recording of an Icelandic storm, made by Kaśka the day before she found the archived song.
Kaśka plans to continue developing the Noise From Iceland project, creating music connected directly to the elements, to the land and to the people living on this big chunk of North Atlantic rock.
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