From Iceland — When Old Meets New: Reviewing and reflecting on Músíktilraunir 2023

When Old Meets New: Reviewing and reflecting on Músíktilraunir 2023

Published April 28, 2023

When Old Meets New: Reviewing and reflecting on Músíktilraunir 2023
Photo by
Brynjar Gunnarsson

Even though the first day of summer is April 20, the first days of spring truly roll in during Músíktilraunir. An incubator of new music, its role is to celebrate the up and coming diversity and creativity of the local music scene. Since 1984, the Hitt Húsið youth centre has organised five nights of sound, lighting and stage management with the aim of making the experience as professional as possible for the country’s aspiring musicians. It’s a standard many who win the annual  battle of the bands grow accustomed to as they graduate into successful careers in the industry — Músíktilraunir alums include the likes of Samaris, Of Monsters and Men, and Vök. 

Once the dust of this year’s production settled on April 1, the winners were the all-female alt-rock band Fókus. Hailing from Höfn í Hornafjörður and Selfoss in South Iceland, the band remarked onstage about the 400 km distance between members making scheduling band practise a difficult task. Singer Amylee Trindade, bassist Alexandra Hernandez, pianist Anna Lára Grétarsdóttir, keyboard player Pia Wrede and drummer Arnbjörg Ýr Sigurðardóttir are all between 16- and 18-years old, but they clearly draw influence from 90s alt-rock artists. Think Alanis Morrisette, but rougher. 

An obsolete framework

There is no fair conversation to be had about Músíktilraunir without discussing its organisation and power dynamics. Músíktilraunir is organised by Hitt Húsið, which itself is a sub-departmental institution of the City of Reykjavík. It’s a not-for-profit event, where everyone volunteers their time. Two bands advance on each night of the competition, one selected by the judges, the other by the audience. A key feature of the competition is the age limit – no participant is over the age of 25, no one is younger than 13. 

The panel of judges is comprised of seven veterans of the Icelandic music industry. Like almost every year since Músíktilraunir began, this year’s judges are all of Icelandic origin, averaging around 45 years old. The ratio of women to men is three to four.

The panel does a great job of recognising the merits of each and every artist and tallying up the winners, impressively deliberating on nearly 20 hours of programming. 

However, their massive authority as gatekeepers cannot be ignored. Their judgement holds tremendous sway, so it’s worth noting that the atmosphere among the judges exuded self-awareness and appeared to prioritise social inclusivity. A certain mindfulness of the judges’ own privilege could be perceived in their actions and words. However, good intentions only go as far as the people behind them. Relying solely on the goodness of the handful of individuals in the judges’ seats, without assessing the needs of the competition’s operational structure, would be disservice to everyone involved. 

The elephant on the stage

The lack of the organisation’s evolution is most visible on stage in the form of affable host Ólafur Páll Gunnarsson, better known as Óli Palli. It’s also where the power dynamics of Músíktilraunir are acted out. Since 1996, Óli Palli has hosted the event, bringing to the table a vast amount of music knowledge and information about the competition which he readily carries in a dossier at all times. 

Óli Palli’s position as host serves two fundamental roles. The first is introducing the contestants. The second is entertaining the audience and, more crucially, buying time between acts – Músíktilraunir’s stage hands are on a tight schedule due to the number of participants involved. It is within Óli Palli’s latter role where room for improvisation opens up. Actually, it seems as if Óli Palli likes to play his entire part by ear. Most of the information Óli Palli is required to present on stage is kept in his aforementioned dossier. What he does onstage is read aloud from said dossier. However, he still manages to make factual errors, sometimes even relishing in his lack of awareness. 

But what irks the progressive viewer more than the perceived unprofessionalism on display, is the covert misogyny beneath it all. Throughout the competition, it’s easy to spot the more precise way Óli Palli articulates the merits and talents of male participants and judges in contrast to those of other genders. Looking at the time given to male participants and the words chosen, he appears to show a general disinterest towards female and non-binary participants and judges. Although subtle, these interactions are distasteful and do not belong at Músíktilraunir. 

Ending on a high note

Músíktilraunir’s magical week of music ended with pomp and circumstance, with various musicians announcing the event’s best instrumentalists, runners-up and the winners. 

When invited to make a closing statement, judge chairman Árni Matthíasson had one thing to say, “Trans women are women, trans men are men” — a remark met with celebration from the audience. Seemingly out of context, it was potentially a way for the judges to openly support the contest’s trans and non-binary participants. Whatever the reason, it came off as a fitting comment to end a night that spotlighted the changing tides of the music industry, ushered in by the younger generation under the watchful eye of the institutional inertia and powers of the older one.

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