From Iceland — Ísafjörður Calling

Ísafjörður Calling

Published June 14, 2024

Ísafjörður Calling
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Supplied by the artist

New York composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone returns to the Við Djúpið Music Festival

This year’s edition of the Ísafjörður-based Við Djúpið Music Festival sees the return of composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone. Building off his long standing relationship with the festival, the American artist ventures north again to perform his latest composition False We Hope.

In 2012, Yale graduate Ellis Ludwig-Leone visited Iceland for the first time to attend the classical music festival Við Djúpið. There, in Iceland’s rugged Westfjords, the classically trained musician took part in the New Composers’ Project, initiated by conductor Daníel Bjarnason, and met future creative collaborator Halldór Smárason. “Halldór and I have a long history of collaboration,” says Ellis. “When we met each other, we recognised that we are similar in many ways.”

Haukur Sigurðsson. Við Djúpið. Ísafjörður in June 2023.

The link to Iceland was made through fellow American composer Nico Muhly, a member of the Bedroom Community label. “At that time, I was working as an assistant for Nico,” Ellis recalls. “One of the reasons I went to Við Djúpið the first time was that Nico’s record label was based there. He talked so glowingly of Iceland.”

Parallel lives

Similarly to Nico, who easily navigates between the contemporary classical and popular music galaxies, Ellis finds multiple realms equally fascinating. Solo career aside, the composer founded the chamber pop band San Fermin in 2011. Coming from an artistic family, Ellis’ all-embracing open-mindedness seems to be hereditary.

“Pretty early on, I started taking piano lessons with one of the professors at the school where my dad taught,” says Ellis. “I got really into playing classical music. Separately in high school, I started playing in a rock band. I had these two separate lives that came simultaneously but never talked to each other. Then when I got to Yale, I started taking the classical side more seriously, not as a pianist but more as a composer. It was very natural to me to understand how these pieces actually function, what are the nuts and bolts behind them.”

I had these two separate lives that came simultaneously but never talked to each other.

During his senior year, the composer put out a concert that involved both components — the neoclassical pieces in the first part and the set with San Fermin in the second half. “It was the first time I saw these things juxtaposed with each other — they were in dialogue with each other in my own brain.”

The return

At Við Djúpið this year, Ellis will perform his latest album False We Hope, a sequence of haunting pieces featuring the Attacca Quartet and vocalist Eliza Bagg (formerly of the art-pop collective Pavo Pavo).

With the libretto written by Pulitzer finalist Karen Russell and poet Carey McHugh, False We Hope is cathartic as it is therapeutic. Recorded during the covid-era lockdown, the album is a meditation on connection inspired by Biblical tales (“Prodigal Daughter”) and personal takes on the pandemic (“How To Resurrect A Loved One’s Voice”).

“This album became about isolation and connection and trying to create rituals that make us feel together but also acknowledging the impossibility of being together. A lot of music on this album took a form of seance. It’s about someone who is missing, it’s about trying to connect with the memory of someone. This dealing with absence was really the inspiration behind the album”.

Við Djúpið happens in Ísafjörður from June 17-22. Ellis Ludwig-Leone performs on June 19, accompanied by Eliza Bagg and a host of musicians. Listen to False We Hope on available streaming platforms.

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