Tore Størvold’s Dissonant Landscapes presents thoughtful reflections on Icelandic nature, music and national identity
There exists a widespread narrative about Icelandic music’s connection with nature. Ever since the early days of Björk and The Sugcarcubes, when Icelandic artists started receiving international attention, the story goes that music emanating from island is somehow innately linked to the geology of the place.
An intricate relationship
This is one of the subjects in Tore Størvold’s latest book, Dissonant Landscapes, which seeks to challenge the notions that Icelandic nature is inherently connected with Icelandic cultural phenomena. Associate professor of music at the University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Størvold based the book on his PhD research at the University of Oslo. Having been a frequent visitor to Iceland since 2011, it’s clear he has a good understanding of Icelandic society, as well as great respect for the music that’s made here.
“So to begin with,” starts Tore, “I actually wanted to avoid talking about the nature and landscape because I didn’t want to play into the touristic, sensationalist narrative about Icelandic music. But then later on, I figured out that it’s possible to do it in a kind of critical way. So for my PhD, I started exploring the relationships between music, nature and national identity,” he continues.
Dissonant Landscapes’ primary argument is that music has been the most imperative art form for presenting Iceland to the international society. “Along with music, these ideas about nature and landscape have become so important for maintaining an attractive image of the nation,” he says.
Whether these connections with nature are manufactured by parties with vested interests, or they’re a true manifestation of Icelandic music making is still an interesting notion to consider: Is Icelandic music inextricably linked with nature?
“I think in some ways, of course it is. Music takes place in a place, so by definition, it needs to be somehow influenced by your natural surroundings. But that link between music and nature is also a very cultural thing. It’s not a natural thing. It’s something that people have recognised and then propped up and celebrated and used as a branding tool to kind of market Icelandic music internationally,” answers Tore.
Music As A Polluter
An interesting point is that Icelandic music isn’t exclusively used as a tool of the state or tourist industry to further their interests. It’s also utilised by Icelandic musicians. Creating music that plays into the exoticist narrative of Iceland is a sensible decision for artists accustomed to working for peanuts.
“[Some] musicians are happy to kind of play along, play the part because it’s a really effective way to get international attention,” Tore says. In the book’s introductory chapter, the author presents the example of Kaleo’s music video to their song “Save Yourself,” which presents the four-piece performing their song in the middle of a glacial lagoon.
In the chapter, the author points out that “the video presents several reflections, the most important one being that […] Kaleo’s video capitalises on the fact that Iceland […] is defined by two entities: nature and music.”
“This is because there’s so much economic incentive, because the commercial tourism industry is eager to promote Icelandic music abroad. So if you play the part, you get more money,” Tore elaborates.
Tore offers an interesting glimpse into both the musical and sociological aspects of Icelandic culture. In fact it is Tore’s skillful writing that manages to capture the essential musical features of the artists he discusses. Expanding on Icelandic music’s indivisible link with nature, Tore mentions Sigur Rós’ 2013 album Kveikur.
“Where you look at the actual connections between music and landscape, I talk about Kveikur, and how it relates to living in a volcanic landscape with earthquakes, seismic activity, and how this has turned into a kind of musical style. [It’s] full of explosive, fracturing sounds, dynamics, dissonance, feedback. There are some connections to nature, but that shouldn’t be the whole story. Icelandic music is a lot more than that and most music is made here in the city – not on a glacier,” he says smiling.
Local Understanding Versus Foreign Expectations
Then there’s the question of the chicken and the egg. Does Icelandic music influence the country’s external perception, driving up tourism numbers – or does increased tourism affect the output of Icelandic musicians, whose interests become vested in conjuring up a more exotic image of Iceland?
“I think it’s a kind of circular process. Over the past decade, especially after the crash, when you have this explosive buildup of mass tourism, the government and private companies like Icelandair realise the value of music for promoting an attractive image of the nation. So you have this gradual entwinement of music and tourism, where certain parts of the music industry are fused to the tourism industry,” he says – as is the case with the Iceland Airwaves festival.
“There’s so much promotion happening – so much marketing that’s built into the festival, that it’s kind of like a tourism event as much as a music festival,” Tore continues. “It’s both.”
Resulting from the marketing of opportune music and the erroneous narratives spun around Icelandic culture, Tore points out the domestic effects it has. “This has effects on locals. They learn to see themselves as special because of all of this attention from the outside world. People walk around with a kind of dissonance, meeting the expectations of the foreigner versus just doing stuff for the locals,” he argues.
This dissonance takes on a wider meaning presented in the title. It refers to the dissonance between domestic comprehension of Iceland and, in Tore’s words, “the story that’s being sold to the outside world.”
Dissonant Landscapes is available for purchase online at the Wesleyan University Press and other book retailers.
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