From Iceland — The Most Unusual Band In Iceland

The Most Unusual Band In Iceland

Published June 20, 2023

The Most Unusual Band In Iceland
Photo by
Art Bicnick

Finding the music and healing with Korda Samfónía

Korda Samfónía is Iceland’s most unusual band. With a flexible line-up of members – currently numbering around 35 – the band consists of music students from the Iceland University of Arts and people from occupational rehabilitation centres.

The idea for the eclectic supergroup originates from musician and community organiser Sigrún Sævarsdóttir Griffiths, who studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in England. Sigrún established the community-interest company MetamorPhonics to operate music rehabilitation projects, of which currently there are eight – one in Los Angeles, two in the United Kingdom and five here in Iceland.

MetamorPhonics established its first band, the London-based The Messengers, under its umbrella in 2012. A collaboration project with homeless charities in the U.K., the band comprises Guildhall students and unhoused individuals.

Korda Samfónía was formed almost 10 years later. The fourth Icelandic band to be established within MetamorPhonics, Korda Samfónía includes representatives from each of the three other community bands; 360° in Suðurnes; Barlómur in Akranes; and Hamarinn in Hafnarfjörður. The most distinct feature: all the groups include people currently in occupational rehabilitation.

With each band only meeting a handful of times a year to write and rehearse their material, each session is short and efficient. For Korda, they meet 10 times a year in three separate rounds.

Photo by Art Bicnick

One bad day away from catastrophe

Sævar Helgi Jóhannsson and Jón G. Breiðfjörð are members of Korda Samfónía, having been introduced to the concept through their studies at the Iceland University of Arts. Jón now serves as a volunteer and Sævar is a member of Korda’s leadership team.

“I got into the program when I studied Music Communication at the university,” says Jón. “We collaborated with refugees and immigrants, went to primary schools and worked with children. It was this idea of being able to help people through music that attracted me to the concept.”

“When you meet these people and hear their stories, I feel like it could be anyone,” Sævar adds. “We’re all just one bad day away from being in a similar position. It has taught me immense compassion for other people. You never know what’s going on in people’s lives.”

“You learn how to hold a beat the first time you start walking.”

The overall aim of the project is to help people step back into society after suffering debilitating trauma or illness. Korda Samfónía and MetamorPhonics do so by increasing accessibility to music, inviting people to participate, and providing them with musical instruments and a safe space to write music. Members are encouraged to throw ideas around. Some catch on quickly, but for those who are more hesitant, the atmosphere is characterised by a “no idea is bad” philosophy.

Creative chaos

Music therapy is a widely accepted form of rehabilitation throughout the world. It has been shown to have pain-relieving properties, boosting physiological wellness. As Sævar and Jón recall, they’ve noticed a major shift in members’ outlooks since starting work on the project.

“Music is a sociological phenomenon,” says Sævar, “It’s encouraging to play music together and playing in Harpa gives you a feeling of accomplishment. I notice [participants] feeling rejuvenated after taking part. Learning to support each other and listen is also a nice exercise. The most important thing about music is knowing how to listen.”

As Jón and Sævar explain, some members come to the band without any musical experience. For members of Korda, even the act of playing something as minimal as a shaker can be ground-breaking in their journey towards recovery. “That’s also an interesting aspect of this programme,” Sævar notes. “People who’ve never studied music compose differently than those of us who have spent years thriving in a musical environment.”

Photo by Art Bicnick

On the topic of composing – in a group of people with contrasting backgrounds and varying levels of knowledge, composing music sounds like it would be a chaotic act. How does Korda work around the experience gap? “We use various methods,” Sævar says. “For example, by using something as universal as a dot and a line to indicate rhythm. Even though it’s abstract, everyone can infer their meaning from it.”

“From an outsider’s perspective, it can look like massive chaos. But within this chaos, several exciting things are happening. Some may be chatting; others may be practising a piece or doing something completely different. It’s all meaningful,” Sævar clarifies.

In this massive group of contrasting characters, approximately half the members are music students. With that being the case, it can be tempting to assume certain power dynamics take shape. Sævar begs to differ: “Everyone is involved and welcomed, and we try our best to not say ‘no’ to any idea. Instead, we try to lead the ideas into a different avenue. Let’s try it! And if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. Although sometimes I think to myself, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’” he jokes.

For people outside of liberal arts circles, the notion of openness and inclusivity of ideas may appear to be alien. In Sævar and Jón’s experience, they’ve met many people with a deep-seated notion of personal faults that prevent them from making music. People have been raised with the belief of being tone-deaf or thinking they can’t keep a steady beat. Korda wants to dispel those myths by getting people to try something new, promoting the opinion that everyone can play music. “You learn how to hold a beat the first time you start walking,” Jón says confidently. “We provide this environment of all ideas being valid,” Sævar continues. “We should just try them out. Nothing needs to be perfect.”

Photo by Art Bicnick

Even though the band’s inner workings seem complex, Sævar and the leadership team are firm believers in the process. “It’s like that phrase, ‘leap and the net will appear.’”

Sustainable leadership

Korda Samfónía is now in its third year of operation. Sævar and Jón recount how it has developed since its inception. “Everyone has become so active in listening when an idea is presented and shows support. I think that’s beautiful,” says Sævar.

Since patients get better and students graduate, the band’s line-up changes occasionally. However, those who want Korda Samfónía in their lives can volunteer or come on as an apprentice.

“It’s also a good thing when people quit the band.”

“This is part of Sigrún’s vision for her to ultimately be unnecessary. To train people to put in the work and create with the group,” Sævar explains. “It’s also a good thing when people quit the band. Because that means they’ve moved on to something else. Maybe they’ve opened a business or started a new job. Suddenly, they don’t have time for the band anymore,” Sævar continues.

Based on the inclusiveness at play and the amount of compassion the people behind Korda Samfónía have for the project and participants, it’s easy to have hope that this model of sustainability will work out for the group. In the meantime, the organisers will just have to keep trusting the process.

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