From Iceland — I Am Thankful For My Ears

I Am Thankful For My Ears

Published October 14, 2011

I Am Thankful For My Ears

I have decided that witnessing an orchestra perform in unison and energy and harmony is one of life’s more affirming experiences.

I have decided that witnessing an orchestra perform in unison and energy and harmony is one of life’s more affirming experiences. I am perplexed by the complexity and build and practice and vigour and passion that such a performance entails. I am jaw-dropped and on the floor by Eldborg’s sound, where every note from every instrument is easily discerned; I think: “What mosh pit could leave me so exhausted and content?” I think: “There are a few, but the energy contained and emitted in Harpa Eldborg tonight equals anything I have slam-danced and drained my emotions to in years past.”

I am flabbergasted, I am stunned and I am amused. “I am thankful for my ears,” I scribbled in my notepad during a passage. I really am.

A missing element

The night’s programme for Iceland’s Symphony Orchestra was an ambitious and progressive one, well fitted to the more eclectic side and spirit of Iceland Airwaves (which is probably the best side and spirit of Iceland Airwaves if you ask me). Starting the night was a performance of Valgeir Sigurðsson’s Dreamland, his soundtrack to writer Andri Snær Magnason’s moving documentary of the same name.

Anyone who has viewed Dreamland or read the book it was based upon will attest that it tells a heartbreaking story; that of powermad and arrogant Icelanders sacrificing their nature and spirit for the sake of evil multinational corporations (seriously, look it up), of broken dreams and unrepairable damage wreaked by thoughtlessness and hubris.

Valgeir’s score to the film adds a lot to it in terms of mood, emotion and spirit. It is a great and studied soundtrack to the image of drowning havens and terminal grief; upon viewing the film I remember thinking it was its sentiment was perfectly amplified and supported by Valgeir’s mix of minimal classical tones, ambient textures and his patented style of glitch programming.

Observing it performed by a full orchestra, I felt moved and happy. I was at times touched. Conducted by Valgeir’s associate Daníel Bjarnason (who would go on to conduct a performance of his own music), the Symphony Orchestra did an outstanding job of delivering every whoosh, bleep and swoop from Valgeir’s score.

Being familiar with Valgeir’s body of work, however, I felt that Dreamland perhaps wasn’t the best choice to be performed. While it is a more natural match for the orchestra than, say, anything off Equilibrium, it felt at times as if the fact that the music was written to accompany images and a story line hindered my full absorption in the performance. It was telling a story, but one of the elements felt missing. A story was relayed, but not the whole one. I was shaken at times, stirred at others; I was entirely satisfied. But in comparison with the compositions that were to follow, this one felt lacking due to its soundtrack origins.

However, being performed by an entire orchestra surely is a milestone for Valgeir, and he pulled it off perfectly. I am eagerly awaiting more.

The whole story

After a short break (with some ridiculously expensive beer (TIP: the beer at Munnharpan is the cheapest); and isn’t it funny how people behave just the same in the queue for a classical event as a Fist Fokkers show?), Daníel Bjarnason conducted the orchestra in playing his own music, accompanied by piano wunderkind genius awesomeboy Víkingur Heiðar Ólafsson.

Throughout piano concerto Processions, the difference between film score and original composition were evident. Whereas Dreamland with its cinematic qualities at times felt lacking, like the images and storyline were missing, Processions was a fully formed piece, written and designed to be experienced on its own, with ones eyes closed and mind open. I have a hard time describing the spectrum of emotion I experienced as being engulfed by the orchestra, by the room and by the quavering melodies.

I thought: “It must be funny, conducting your own music.” I thought: “does that make him more nervous about it, or less? Can he discern every single note, every failure, every sidestep? Does it make his heart race, his blood boil?”

I thought: “I think I’m so smart with all my postmodern style music listening tastes. But these guys have been doing it for ages.” I felt a playfulness in the composition, a humour, a sarcasm, an irony mixed with genuine emotions, grief, fear and joy. I thought: “This genre has evolved beyond our own pop music Nietzsche style ‘LAST MAN’ hopeless syndrome where nothing means anything, into the great beyond, where one can seamlessly fuse irony and sarcasm with sincerity and remain entirely serious and heartfelt.”

I watched Daníel writhe on stage, and I watched Víkingur murder his instrument (that guy! Seriously! He could start a mosh pit at the right venue).

Processions was a nice time. A moving work of art. This is when I made my mistake, along with around a third of the audience. As everyone was clapping, and the lights went up slightly, we all assumed it was breaktime. We all went out to buy more ridiculously expensive beers and discuss the performance. It was a nice time, I’m not going to lie. But when I prepare to re-enter Eldborg for the next set, I was met with a crowd of people leaving the hall. It turned out Daníel had performed another piece after the first one, and that I had missed it.

What a bummer.

But people said they liked it. They also remarked that Processions was the better piece of the night. Which bit a little off my bummer. But still.

Moved me

After an embarrassed wait, it was time for the night’s headliner: Steve Reich. To be exact, the ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble) Quartet’s performance of one of Steve Reich’s seminal pieces, Different Trains.

I’m not going to lie. I had been looking forward to this like a cat in heat would look forward to meeting another cat (I guess). For the past six years, I have been entirely and totally obsessed by Steve Reich and his work. It is my manna, my refuge, my salvation. I love my punk rock and my electro and my hip hop and my metal, but no music has managed to move me over the past decade like Steve Reich’s. It is on terminal repeat in my life and in my brain.

And to me, Different Trains is one of Reich’s more moving pieces. It’s not the best piece, it’s not the most enthralling one, but it is the most engaging one (google its story and read up on it, then download it and listen to it. If you have ever believed anything I have told you, you must believe this: it is amazing).

I had been looking forward to this for weeks. Steve Reich at Airwaves ’11 was my CYHSY at Airwaves ’05, My TVOTR and Shins at Airwaves ’04. My fanboy moment.

So I sat down, I close my eyes and let myself become immersed in the music and sound.

The ICE ensemble did no wrong. It was wonderful.

I close my eyes, it was wonderful. The sirens weren’t loud enough in the second passage, but it was wonderful.

It was wonderful.

Thank you.

Here is an addendum: like a lot of others, I was unsure whether scheduling the Symphony Orchestra as part of Iceland Airwaves was a good idea. Does it go against the festival’s spirit? This is a valid question. However, I have come to realise that for a festival that prides itself on its eclectic and advanced nature (one that should pride itself on those things), this is exactly the colour of the spectrum that was missing, far more than Bubbi or any of the geriatric ensemble performing this year. May this not be the only time Airwaves visitors have the opportunity to expand their horizons in such a manner.







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