From Iceland — Plate Shifting, Wall Busting

Plate Shifting, Wall Busting

Published May 13, 2014

Plate Shifting, Wall Busting

If I didn’t know any better, I would say that the main purpose in the professional life of Tectonics curator and Icelandic Symphony Orchestra conductor Ilan Volkov is “to stir shit up.” Of course he’d probably call it something like “being radical and experimental,” but it should be noted that in the two short years since its inception, the Tectonics Music Festival has quickly grown in international stature (via Glasgow and now Adelaide) as a testament to Volkov’s mission statement to shake up staid music conventions, bringing together musicians from a variety of contemporary and experimental fields. 

The international line up at Tectonics Reykjavik 2014 was for the main part the same as Tectonics Glasgow from last year. The guest of honour, composer Alvin Lucier, is a man well known for being less interested in conventional musical forms and instead investigating sound once it’s left the source. Throughout the weekend, we were treated to numerous performances of his works, showcasing his views in simple, yet mischievous ways. “Music For Piano (With One Or More Snare Drum),” was a delicate piano piece with surrounding snare drums acting as resonators to the piano’s sound vibrations, while ‘Nothing Is Real’ had pianist Tinna Þorsteinsdóttir play de-familiarised melody phrases from “Strawberry Fields Forever,” with Alvin playing the piece back with a teapot as an amplifier, using the lid to change the resonance and pitch of the playback. 

Telekinesis To Terrorism 

The best performance of his works was “Music for Solo Performer,” in which Alvin used his own brainwaves to generate electrical currents that flowed to contact speakers on various instruments and objects situated across Norðurljós. Sitting there passively like the psychokinetic man from ‘The Medusa Touch,’ he would make everything come alive and buzz and rumble at random. It felt like being in a rattling old house in the middle of a storm. 

Other international artists decided to smash our senses into jelly with orchestral terrorism. Norwegian quartet Lemur’s “Critical Band” started in total darkness as heavy grunting drones and dissonant squeals and phrases from musicians dispersed through Eldborg, flying around our heads. It was an intense listen that left you feeling wiped out in the end. The title of one of Iancu Dumitrescu’s pieces, “Utopias For Iceland,” made you want to roll your eyes and groan, but very quickly you realised that Inspired By Iceland would run for the hills upon hearing this. Discordant phrases and wet noodlings were stabbed with orchestral attacks that were nasty and brutish. Following this, Ana-Maria Avram’s works were even more aggressive, as her mixture of instruments, electronics and vocal guttrics contained several moments of high frequency feedback and queasy throbbing resonances that made several people cower and clutch their ears (the two women who were knitting throughout kept at it though). 

By comparison, Liz Harris, aka Grouper, cast a reserved, almost spectral presence on Thursday night. Using piano, effects and field recordings, she created an eerie vibe that resembled the last gasp of humanity. Her vocals barely registered and stayed in the background over gentle low frequency rumbles and sounds that you couldn’t place or register. The accompanying film by Paul Clipson, echoing of the work of Malcolm Le Grice and Kurt Kren, displayed memories of a forgotten moment from a past life. Haunting, yet weirdly reassuring. 

A Mixed Bag

The performances from Icelandic composers were a mixed bag. On the plus side,Bergrún Snæbjörnsdóttir’s “Esoteric Mass For Winds” in Norðurljós was far and away the best thing I’ve heard yet from the S.L.A.T.U.R music collective. A group of woodwind instruments stood around a projection of moving dots around circles (similar to the models of electrons in an atom), playing notes determined by the speed the dot passed each musician. It was a concept so simple a child could grasp it, but the end result was playful, melodic and imaginative. Also of note was Angela Rawlings’ “Echolology,” which emphasised environmental issues with a mix of choral notes, sound poetry techniques, and contact mic’d objects, while Páll Ivan Frá Eiðum’s “Mirror Neuron System” had the orchestra head tilting and sighing in unison, displaying a form of depersonalisation and forced homogeneity reminiscent of sci-fi dystopias such as “THX 1138.”

On the downside, Hallveig Ágústsdóttir’s “kLAnK,” which consisted of time-delayed, superimposition projections of her using paint, wood and sticks on a mic’d surface accompanied by rasping cello sounds seemed to go nowhere beyond randomly making a mess. Davíð Brynjar Franzson’s “Longitudinal study #2,” a “sound piece” consisting of a string orchestra playing deadened strings or the sides of their instruments, suffered from a lack of variation and the harsh acoustic atmosphere of Norðurljós. The shuffling of the crowd caused Ilan to restart from scratch, asking everyone to take their shoes off. For a piece focused on the crowd mingling among the instruments, this ironically created a barrier between the two parties, with people almost too scared to breathe let alone move. 

Unleashing The Hounds

The final day saw Tectonics unleash the hounds. Down in Kaldalón, the Icelandic electronic “supergroup” centred around Rúnar Magnússon (with Thoranna Bjornsdottir, Pétur Eyvindsson and Valtýr Björn Thors) would for more than three hours lift up big paving stones of drone and assorted sounds to inspect the muck that lay beneath. In the main foyer, Glaswegian anti-rockers Asparagus Piss Raindrop made mischief, hunched and cloaked like the bastard moonchildren from the Outer Church, leaving slug-like trails of blue tape everywhere they went. Finally settling outside Kaldalón, they embarked on a mix of dada art nonsense, noise metal, and free jazz improv that bemused many of the crowd who’d come to see the ABBA tribute concert in Eldborg. Beyond being merely “weird,” or “kooky,” they had the aura of alien situationists, as if Guy Debord directed ‘Earth Girls Are Easy.’

The final performances of the festival were as demanding as they were relentless, far removed from the usual congratulatory dross you’d normally get. First up was “Verlat,” composed by one half of Einóma, Bjarni Gunnarsson. With spotlights that splattered red light across the walls and smoke rising from the front, we were assaulted with low-end electronic roars and screams dredged from the bowels of the Earth, all hissing rock and shrieking lava. It was the contemporary art festival version of “go hard or go home.” 

Those who decided to “go hard” were treated to Ghostigital’s “I Am Sitting On A Long Thin Wire,” a reinterpretation of Alvin’s best known work, “I Am sitting In A Room.” Inspired by sociology instead of physics, it was more coherent and better executed than their homage to John Cage at Tectonics a couple of years earlier. The insanely loud, heavy bass beats manipulated by Curver were augmented by tape recordings by Einar Örn, his speech becoming increasingly degraded with each re-recording. Whereas Alvin’s words gradually died way, leaving the resonant space of the “room,” Einar Örn’s words become lost in the cacophony, no matter how hard he screamed into the tape, highlighting the social dislocation and noise we experience in our everyday lives. It was so loud and punishing that it caused some of the wall panelling to fall off. 

This made for a slightly pessimistic, but honest, ending to what was an intensive mix of active listening, inventive ideas, and sometimes wayward and carefree execution that you rarely get to hear anywhere else, rewarding those who managed to hold on to the very end.

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