A composer’s road trip around the country
Not long ago, I was packing my travel bag into the back of my friends’ four-wheel drive SUV as we all headed out for an extended week navigating the Ring Road. I was somewhere between a tourist and a resident, living in Iceland on a yearlong fellowship, and on my boss’s advice, I decided to take my first months to sightsee before the “real work” started. We left in October, myself (a composer) and two other Americans, an artist and her writer-poet fiancée. It was a very artsy carful. Being a musician and very inspired by the sounds of nature, I wanted to hear for myself all that the country had to offer, and perhaps be inspired to make my own music in response to my travels. I carefully squeezed my tiny Zoom H-4 digital recorder into my coat pocket just in case anything might sound cool enough to document, and packed a small camera anticipating I’d take about one million pictures.
I’d seen my prerequisite Björk videos and the film of Sigur Rós travelling around the countryside. But aside from these musical interpretations of the landscape I didn’t really have my own concept of what those places would be like, let alone what they would sound like.
Iceland, like any place, has unique features that make up how we see the country. You don’t even have to leave Reykjavík to hear the uniqueness of Iceland—its “sonic footprint,” so to speak. At the harbour the boats come in and out, dragging chains to the dock with noisy fervour, unloading everything from shipping containers to vehicles to packed crates of fish. On Laugavegur you’ll hear both the shopping and party scenes; by day the air is full of family chats and commerce, and by night, the sounds of broken beer glasses, dance club beats, and a few curse words mix in with very moist make-out slobbering and some early morning seagulls.
We headed out with a guidebook, a couple bottles of wine, the phone numbers of hostels that we’d booked, and lots of trashy snack food. The first thing I noticed was that outside of Reykjavík, the sonic landscape changes drastically. Every place we visited had its own sound profile, made up of the birds and animals in the area and the rustling of plants and grasses. Naturally, many of those places were dominated by water—Route 1 never goes too far from a water source. Where there wasn’t water, there was sure to be wind—and lots of it. Iceland’s sonic profile wouldn’t be anything without its weather.
We drove first around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula north of Reykjavík, thus beginning my obsession with the sounds of innumerable waterfalls around the country. Some waterfalls have a high white-noise quality, and others a low roar. Some waterfalls have offshoots with little rivulets that sound like a chorus of babbling brooks, or even crude imitations of human voices. I would lean over the streams and the waterfalls with my digital recorder, trying to capture the uniqueness of each “foss.”
The Snæfellsnes region alone had a flurry of sounds that I never imagined I would be experiencing, including beautiful musical instruments. The bells on the cavernous Stykkishólmur church rang out with a clang. The church’s small pipe organ was one of the most warm and welcoming I played while in Iceland. And please don’t think I’m just wandering around playing instruments that aren’t mine. I do have a doctorate in music and I am a keyboardist by training, so I can make my way around some classic Icelandic hymns on two manuals. Is that enough to warrant an improvisation in a quiet church for an audience of two road-trip buddies? I hope so. I felt like I was paying homage to some of these well-kept instruments, a little concert for the off-season.
On the way down the mountain from the glacier Snæfellsjökull, a picnic bench marked the spot for Sönghellir, or “Singing Caves.” We crawled under an overhanging rock and stuck our heads into the pitch-black darkness. Once we got over thoughts of being cursed by the Hidden Folk for disturbing their homes, we realized that the acoustics in the space indeed have a beautiful resonance. Anyone’s voice sounds great in the Singing Cave—the echo is quite impressive for such a small space. Naturally I coerced my fellow travellers into singing, and we recorded a little improvisation of drones inside.
We drove to the south coast of Snæfellsnes and stopped at Arnarstapi, with its cute café. Here the coastline has an interesting sound. The way the waves recede on the polished pebbles of the cove creates tinkling sounds, almost like a glass wind chime, but multiplied by one million. And the sound was most distinct from the top of the cliff or at low tide; at the shore’s deeper edge everything was engulfed by the crashing waves.
The West Fjords
We detoured off of the Ring Road again and up to the West Fjords, where we heard the eerie hum of our vehicle in the one-lane tunnel from Flateyri to Ísafjörður, along with the gasps from fellow driving companions over what to do when there’s an oncoming car in a one-lane tunnel. (Answer: if you’re driving west, pull off into one of the side nooks, take a deep breath, wait, listen to the exceedingly long sustained whoossshhhh of the passing vehicle, and then proceed.) Above ground we heard the shrieks of Arctic terns as we desperately tried not to invade their territory, but they swooped down on us anyway. Then, we heard silence: the equally eerie nothingness of a snow-covered heath, the white-out creating a muffled pillow of the world.
Passing through farmland of the northwest of Iceland, the weather was much more pastoral. We encountered the October sheep round-up. This is certainly one of the most cacophonous sounds in the country: all the bleating sheep, being carted into pens by farmers (and sometimes tractors), and a bunch of excited children running around helping/screaming, everything covered in mud.
We continued on the Ring Road to the north of Iceland, fuelling up in the northernmost cultural hub of Akureyri, and coming to rest at Lake Mývatn. We discovered a few geothermal-related sounds at Bjarnarflag. There were bubbling steam vents and mud pots, recalling both a prehistoric past and an apocalyptic future. It’s difficult to get a recorded sense of what the mud pots sound like—there were so many bubblings, wheezings, crunchings, and gurglings that you might even mistake the overall sound for a waterfall.
We stood over an output pipe from the geothermal activity, which loudly gushed water at an alarming rate into a toxic-looking white-blue lake. There were the geothermal steam towers, which collect and process the pressurized steam from small geothermal power plants. The towers groan with a strange low howl, a bit unnerving and even a little creepy. It’s a sound just unpredictable and quivering enough that you might have second thoughts about standing close to it with delicate recording equipment.
Even further north from Mývatn, we stopped for a night in a very windy Húsavík. Normally folks come to this town for good whale watching, but tonight the gales were blowing the grasses and small shrubs so hard I couldn’t hear anything beyond a foot or two away from me. I went for a walk on this blustery night, but didn’t last long before scurrying back to my rented room. My Zoom recording of that evening sounds like a tv weather report from the middle of a hurricane.
On a bumpy road off Route 1, seemingly in the middle of a no-man’s land in North Iceland, was Dettifoss, the waterfall with the most volume flowing over it in all of Europe. Dettifoss was a sneaky foss: the drive to the falls was nearly silent and flat, with none of the “roar in the distance” sounds you’d expect from a waterfall this size. We reached a small parking area with some Mars-like rock formations, thinking, “this is cool, but it probably isn’t it.” We walked a few steps, and then, BOOM—a thunderous low rumble that echoes down the waterfall’s carved-out canyon. Its sound is nearly overwhelming, contained within its canyon walls.
The coastline of the little town of Seyðisfjörður was calm when we visited, such a change from the crashing waves of Snæfellsnes and the roar of Dettifoss. The main event in Seyðisfjörður that day was the landing of the ferry that shuttles visitors to Denmark and the Faroe Islands once a week, and we happened to arrive just as it was departing. The ferry let out a belch and a whistle, and it trailed off to the ocean. In a moment the shore was calm again, and the waves sounded unusually playful as they lapped up onto a black-pebbled beach. We stayed in a hospital that had been converted into a hostel, and were the building’s only residents that evening. My imagination was full of the sounds of nurses’ feet echoing down the long, wide halls.
Traveling down the south coast, we stopped at Höfn for a delightful swim in the town pool, and listened to all the Icelandic children giggling in the hot pots and making endless rounds down the waterslide. Höfn was a true fishing town and its sounds were all cantered on the port: the birds shrieking around the fishing boats and the shouts from fishermen to their friends on shore.
At the Skaftafell nature preserve, I was blessed to hear a sound reminiscent of my family’s home in the USA: raindrops falling on a real forest. This forest is a rare place even for Iceland; there are some tall trees here (okay, tall for this country, but taller than anywhere in Reykjavík). The shower sounded so refreshing as it dripped off the leaves, down rocks and into a small stream. This stream was probably a part of the black basalt-columned waterfall Svartifoss, up the hiking path. Svartifoss had its own sound of course, but by about day six of our trip, I’d come down with a bit of foss-fatigue.
But then Jökulsárlón: the glacial lagoon. We arrived as the sole visitors, and the scenery was magical. As the icebergs drifted out to sea from their lagoon, I could hear them dripping, sometimes overturning with a dramatic splash as they eventually joined the ocean waters. Gulls rested on the crests of icebergs, sometimes calling out to us. Ducks quacked contentedly in the shallow lagoon waters. The ocean rumbled in the distance, and a quick drive to the beach brought new sounds of the crashing waves and washed-up remnants of Jökulsárlón’s icebergs. I put my ear up to them, and they gave back a faint snap-crackle-pop, the sounds of their own melting.
The southern town of Vík’s soundscape was a surprising change from the rest of our trip: the racket of wool looms, shuttles, and combing machines, turning Icelandic sheep wool into the beautiful lopapeysur you long to buy. A few tourists were roaming about the wool factory and gift shop, and locals were chatting in the nearby restaurant/café/gas station. Even the sound of french fries in a fryer sounded pretty delightful when there hadn’t been many restaurants in sight for a few days. One more stop to a church in Vík brought another fabulous organ, which of course, I honoured with some local hymns. I noted that the Tremolo stop was out of tune and wobbled psychedelically, and had probably been that way for decades.
In just a few hours, we passed the growing town of Selfoss and the greenhouses of Hveragerði, and then our SUV reached our Reykjavík apartments, our final destination. A few weeks after our epic road trip, I documented the sounds of another very important sonic component to the country: Iceland Airwaves. I have great sound-memories of the music festival too, but it’s the more intimate noises and natural sound worlds from the rest of the country that have really stuck in my memory. Iceland’s tones, chords, whispers, chirps, roars, drips, shrieks, and echoing laughter still ring in my ears and keep calling me back.
You can hear the results of Nathan’s field recordings and improvisations on ‘The Origin of the Sun and Moon,’ the album he released as a travel diary.