From Iceland — Bloody Hell, It's Magnús Blöndal!

Bloody Hell, It’s Magnús Blöndal!

Published March 15, 2012

Bloody Hell, It’s Magnús Blöndal!

The Tectonics Festival’s second day is dedicated to Icelandic composer Magnús Blöndal. I had not really heard of Magnús prior to Tectonics, and as the point of the day was to celebrate his work and bring it to the attention to a new and unaware audience, I decided to maintain my ignorance. I experienced the day as a Magnús Blöndal virgin.

The day starts with a viewing of ‘Orðið tónlist’ (“The Word Music”), a short documentary on Magnús and his work (mostly his electronic music), which piques my interest and prepares those present for the evening ahead. We then make our way to the Norðurljós Hall for a selection of Magnús’ chamber music. 

Magnús tends to be known for his electronic music and his experiments in musique concrète. His more traditional compositions appear to be less well known, but tonight informs the ignorant that Magnús is equally accomplished in this area as well—starting with “Minigrams” (1990), with an ethereal rise and fall that eases us in. 

“Solitude” is a solo piece for flute that hangs on an insistent rhythmic motif, from which melodic runs scatter in ever changing variations and spiral nearly out of control until they settle back into the motif as the piece winds down. “Dimensions” is another solo piece—this time for violin. It’s a more aggressive, abstract work that pushes violinist Una Sveinbjarnardóttir to wrench unholy screeches and squawks out of the instrument, which at points sound closer to electronic feed-back rather than noises that an acoustic instrument is capable of producing.

“Sönglög” is a collection of four pieces for piano and soprano voice. It ranges from the expansive operatic soar of “Draumsýn,” the riff-y “Krummavísur,” the clashing modernism of “Hendur” and “Sveitin milli sanda,” which could easily have passed for a Shirley Bassey-esque Bond theme if it had been a more compact arrangement.

Pianist Tinna Þorsteinsdóttir then enters and performs “Fjórar abstraktsjónir” and “Sonorities I, II and III,” which were composed over the course of twenty years. “I” is an over-pedalled mash of crashing aggressive clusters similar to Penderecki. Then for “II” Tinna barely uses the keys of the piano, instead beating and plucking the strings into a crush that sounds like the earth moving and grating against itself.
Finally ‘III’ introduces electronic sounds into the mix and as they intertwine with the piano, it’s as though we are travelling through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, trying to adjust our radio to find signs of human life. White noise and snatches of swing and bossa nova rhythms tangle into the piano parts, but nothing is settled—the sounds are always shifting. Nothing certain is found.

Main concert hall Eldborg is the setting for Magnús’ orchestral work. It’s here that the ISO play “Tvímánuður,” “Pourquoi” and “Adagio” for the assembled throng. It’s also at this point that Magnús Blöndal just about blows my mind. No single piece is to blame. It’s more the dawning realisation of how broad Magnús’ compositional range is.
“Tvímánuður” hangs in the air, spectral, floating. It’s an out of body experience set to music. Meanwhile “Pourquoi” is an elegiac, grand old beast, sounding like Johann Strauss or maybe even Debussy at his most rich. And “Adagio” throws yet another spanner into the works. It’s a gloriously simple piece. Unfussy melodies wend their way over low drones, slowly, surely and serenely. 

The final concert of the evening sees us back in Norðurljós and focusing on the electronic side of things. Magnús’ “Electrónísk stúdía” and “Samstirni” are played back along with some other pieces inspired by Magnús and his electronic compositions. “Electrónísk stúdía” is a collection of bleeps, bips and shrieks, which develops to reveal the sound sources, which they then interact with.
Meanwhile “Samstirni” is more dramatic. With greater control of his sound sources (it was composed two years after “Electrónísk stúdía”) Magnús created a far wider palette of sounds and it’s the more interesting of the two pieces that were played.

Squished in-between these playbacks was a performance of “Nýtt verk” by Stilluppsteypa. Truthfully I was a bit bored. The same can be said for the Auxpan performance that followed the aforementioned playback of “Samstirni.” Although the sounds used by Auxpan were interesting, the piece seemed badly constructed and it was only at the end when some tape destruction occurred, that things got exciting (audibly and visually).

Fortunately it was followed by the playback of Ríkharður H. Friðriksson’s “Líðan III.” Ríkharður’s “Spuuni II” was one of my highlights  of the opening night of Dark Music days, so I had high hopes. I wasn’t disappointed. “Líðan III” is a supremely enjoyable mix of laughs, sneezes, gasps and bubbling viscous liquids. It’s pretty apparent that Ríkharður has a great sense of space (he also converted Magnús’ pieces from mono to stereo for tonight) and a sense of humour as well. I want to hear more from him and I want to hear it now.

The evening is rounded off with Kira Kira performing “Sátt.” The sound isn’t that great though and it ends up being a mush rather than something more clearly defined. The sound was supposed to be “washy,” but it needed more clarity. I did enjoy the chiming Labradford style guitar and outro though.

Friday at Tectonics then:

 I’m now a Magnús Blöndal convert who is also on his way to becoming a fully paid-up member of the Ríkharður H. Friðriksson fan club. All in all, pretty, pretty good!

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