From Iceland — The Unexpected Sound: Four Female Composers At Iceland Airwaves

The Unexpected Sound: Four Female Composers At Iceland Airwaves

Published November 3, 2017

Valur Grettisson
Photo by
Art Bicnick

The Iceland Symphony Orchestra played for the sixth time at Iceland Airwaves last night. All of the composers in the programme, and the conductor, were women. The guests were not the usual guests you’d expect to see at these kinds of concerts—two girls in the back row were secretivly sipping some hard liquor from a flask while two others couldn’t stop talking throughout the performance. And in the end, well, we had a surprise when one of the guests forced himself into one of the compositions.

But let’s start with María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir. This incredible musician is one of the driving forces of the Icelandic band amiina, known to many because of their famous collaboration with Sigur rós. María’s composition, “Aequora,” was the newest piece in the programme, composed last year and then played at the fantastic Tectonics festival. The Los Angeles Philharmonic performed the composition the same year. The songwriting was slightly too neat for my taste, but the composition was by far the most accessible of the evening, and for an amateur classical enthusiast such as myself, it was good to let myself go with the flow.

Þuríður Jónsdóttir was the most experienced composer of the bunch, and the audience felt it from the first tone. She had a strong hold on the composition, which had a beautiful, dark energy that the orchestra delivered impeccably. Named “Flow and Fusion,” the piece was inspired by flowing magma in the earth. It was the strongest composition of the night, although Anna Þorvaldsdóttir gave Þuríður a run for her money.

Hildur Guðnadóttir is no beginner when it comes to music, and it’s very likely that you’ve listened to her cello playing without knowing it. If you’ve seen the movie Sicario, and remember how you felt like freaking out from the tension of the harsh, ascending cello resonating throughout the movie, that was her doing. Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson and Hildur have been making music together for a long time now, and some say that Hildur is his secret weapon. So I was quite thrilled to hear Hildur’s solo composition. It was a highly experimental score, during which Hildur played with light in the audience. The orchestra started in darkness, and then she lit them up in a dance of light. The piece, ‘Under Takes Over,’ was a challenging one. It was repetitive in nature, with the same beat throughout—it was a demanding listen, but the most visual performance of the night. I loved it.

Last but not least came Anna Þorvaldsdóttir. She was listed by the Washington Post earlier this year as one of the best female composers in the world. Her composition, ‘Dreaming,’ was like a sound world born from silence. It was clear from the first note that Anna is phenomenally skilled at composition. The tone was unique, and the piece like an ever-evolving earthquake with passion boiling under. In the programme, her work is described thusly: “In each chord there is a world of collective sounds where the small sound particles dissolve and create their own world. By attending to the various qualities of the sound the perception can be changed from one moment to the next.”

This is exactly how I felt her composition was. Towards the end, when the cello player played a fragile yet powerful solo… a phone rang violently, and literally forced itself into the composition! You could here the sheer panic in the hall, where around a thousand guests sat and listened to this unexpected addition to the solo. After four or five rings, the owner finally found the phone and turned it off. But it was too late—the solo ended within a minute, and the asshole with the phone robbed us of the moment. So, screw you phone owner—learn to put your phone on silent.

Phone etiquette aside, this was a wonderful evening, and a great chance to hear four exciting homegrown composers in the Eldborg Hall.

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