Why Is Icelandic Music So Fascinating? Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen Explains

Esa-Pekka SalonenEXPAND
Esa-Pekka Salonen
Clive Barda

As part of this spring's Reykjavik Festival at Walt Disney Concert Hall, L.A. Philharmonic conductor laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen will conduct the Phil in collaboration with Iceland’s Sigur Rós. Here he discusses the unique allure of contemporary Icelandic music, the challenge of interfacing a symphony orchestra with an electric band, and the artistic vision he shares with Iceland’s genre-blurring contemporary music scene.

To your ear, is there a commonality among the Icelandic musicians, a distinguishing attitude or sound?
No! [laughs] The thing about Iceland is that there’s something really interesting going on. There’s a community of musicians who are very free from any kind of scholarly thinking, or school of thinking; they don’t feel that they have to represent any particular aesthetic. Because of the fact that they have been so isolated for such a long time, the Icelandic classical music tradition is very young — the first major Icelandic composer whose music was played outside Iceland was Jón Leifs, and he didn’t live that long ago.

So there is a sense of freshness to everything they do, which we don’t necessarily always hear in older cultures and older centers of music such as Paris or Vienna or the German-speaking world. This kind of relative youth has somehow enabled them to move quite freely between idioms and deal with influences from rock and pop music as well as ambient and electronic music, and classical music.

What attracts me is the sense of openness. They’re not trying to prove a point, not trying to write music as moral action in terms of what is right, what is wrong. They just write it. And practically speaking, the fact that Iceland is halfway between Europe and the U.S. also has contributed to this freedom thing, because they quite often study both in the U.S. and in Europe, and they have a sort of bi-continental approach to things.

I think that’s the common denominator, rather than any kind of stylistic thing. I’ve been looking at the scores by these composers now for a while and I can’t say that there would be an aesthetic that they would share; it’s more like a freedom that they share, and if there’s anything, this certain slowness of process that they share. And that slowness — I mean, I’m just painting a picture which may not even be real — that slowness of process might have to do with the landscape, which is completely open and the only process you see: You don’t see the seasons because there are no trees; the only process you see is this sort of slow erosion of rock. [laughs]

So they don’t have this kind of dramatic idea of, say, the spring in the same way other Northern Europeans do, where spring can be a violent thing — like Stravinsky used to say, that spring was the most violent experience in his youth, and all of a sudden the rivers thaw and the black soil from last year is all of a sudden visible, with all the smells. ... In Iceland, the process is more fragile, and the weather is always bad.

How will you organize your collaboration with Sigur Rós at the Reykjavik Festival? For one thing, fine-tuning the incorporation of the orchestra with the band’s amplified electric instruments must be of particular concern, especially given Disney Hall’s famously pin-drop-sensitive acoustics.
Sigur Rós and the L.A. Phil team have been discussing this for a long time already, and the tech part has been developed together. Everybody is aware of the particular challenges of amplified music in Disney Hall, so I think it will be done very professionally and I’m not worried about that. And also, the sound system for amplified music in Disney Hall is a hundred times better than what it was when we opened the hall, when of course we had all kinds of problems. So I’m confident that that is not going to be a problem of any kind.

The thing that I’m not completely sure about is how we are going to sync what we do in the orchestra with what Sigur Rós does, but we’ll sort that out, and if we have to resort to click tracks and stuff, we will. … I hate them [laughs], but you know, if it’s necessary, then do what’s necessary.

To prepare yourself, will you immerse in their recordings?
I know their music quite well, I’ve been listening to practically everything over the years — I can’t say I can hum every song, but I know the style and I know the aesthetics of it. It’s not going to be a total alien thing. In terms of preparing, I have classically notated scores, so I’m basically approaching this as a normal classical gig. And of course I will listen to those songs in their original version as well, to know what the original idea was. But I think that the whole point is that the songs will be different in terms of the colors and in terms of dynamics, and I think what is interesting for Sigur Rós is to adjust the dynamics and the color so that as much as possible it will work acoustically, without 100 percent amplification. That’s the aim here.

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I’m curious about your relationship with rock and pop music in general. Were these things of interest to you in your youth?
I’m a strange case, because I hated actively everything that was not classical music when I was young, and I became more interested in that when I was well into my 20s and perhaps 30 and plus. And that had to do with some kind of a, I wouldn’t say crisis, but I was going through a difficult time as a composer because I didn’t know what to write, and I was coming out of this sort of ideological modernist school in which I was trained, and I was wondering what should one write and how should music sound? I kind of knew what I didn’t want, but I didn’t know the positive answer. So I started to listen to rock and pop music, and I discovered people like Björk and Radiohead and Foo Fighters and these kinds of groups that operated on a high technical and artistic level. And now, at this point in my life, I would never make the claim that one particular genre of music is more worthy or valuable than another. That much I’ve learned over the years. If nothing else.

You have commented that in music we’re too fixated on pigeonholes and categories. You certainly have tried to move beyond that in your own compositions, which are conceptually varied and explore so many musical interests, as recent pieces such as NYX and Karawane make clear. How do you see your composing evolving? Where are you headed?
It’s a process of opening up, if I tried to describe it in one sentence. As I get older I’m less and less worried about the sort of guiding principles of modernism, and I’m more and more interested in just finding an expression that works. The process is that of simplification, partly, and partly I have learned to trust myself more in not having to bombard the listener with new stuff and millions of ideas per second all the time. Instead of guiding and leading always, I’m interested in creating an environment, really, in which the listener can have their own narrative and not mine necessarily. I’ve opened it up a bit, the landscape.

See laphil.com for the complete Reykjavik Festival concert schedule.

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