Perhaps we’ve all entertained touristic fantasies about life in Iceland, that sparkling little jewel nestled up on top of the globe. It seems like a mystical place, whose treeless, craggy terrain, steaming geysirs and elfin people conspire to give the lower, more mundane world such superbly different music and visual art.
Iceland’s creative spirit is the focus of the L.A. Phil’s Reykjavík Festival, an imaginative undertaking that puts into intriguing perspective the country’s wonderfully unfettered alterna-life. Several events running April through June spotlight well-known and newer artists from Iceland’s strangely fertile music scene, including Sigur Rós, Múm, Amiina, Skúli Sverrisson and Ólöf Arnalds, Jóhann Jóhannsson, DJ Flugvél og Geimskip (Airplane & Spaceship) and JFDR.
The festival’s April 7 opening-night event, Made in Iceland — Live, also features visual art from Icelandic artists Shoplifter (Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir) and Siggi Eggertsson, and the U.S. premiere of the film Driving at the Speed of the Nordic Sun by Xárene Eskander, with music by Daníel Bjarnason. There are also two special additions to the Reykjavik Festival — Björk performing with an orchestra at Disney Hall on May 30 and the “Björk Digital” virtual reality video exhibition, which opens May 19 at the Magic Box at the Reef. Björk's live appearance is sold out, but tickets for the virtual reality exhibit are still available.
Icelandic musicians are remarkably varied yet appear to share a common trait: a natural facility for a personally told and blessedly unclichéd artistic point of view. Working with source materials that span the world’s available sound textures, melodies, structures and traditions, Icelandic creators such as Björk, Sigur Rós, Múm, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Anna Thorvaldsdottir and numerous others have happily and quite organically smeared the borderlines between rock, folk, European classical music, avant-garde electronics and even free-jazz/improvisational music.
Iceland’s total population is less than 335,000, which means there’s something odd brewing in this disproportionately creative place. The question is, why? It’s a query that proves interesting to Icelandic artists themselves. (For a slightly more objective assessment, see our accompanying interview with the Finland-born Esa-Pekka Salonen.) Singer-composer Ólöf Arnalds, who performs at the April 7 opening event — and is not to be confused with her equally gifted cousin, composer-producer Ólafur Arnalds — attempts to define Iceland’s charm.
“I’m not sure that there’s a specific Icelandic sound,” she says via Skype from the Reykjavik studio she shares with her longtime collaborator, bassist-composer-producer Skúli Sverrisson. “It’s quite diverse. I think Icelanders share the fact that they have very personal styles, and what they do is completely their own kind of music. There’s less people who are just making music that fits to a certain genre. It’s like, individuality is characteristic for music from Iceland. It’s just very self-made.”
That’s a description she’d gladly apply to her own music, which may or may not be derived from Iceland’s traditional a cappella rhyming ballads known as rímur.
“In university I studied composition and media, but I don’t feel like that influenced me as a songwriter,” she says. “My songwriting comes from more of a naive place. I’m self-taught on guitar as well, and for a very long time I wasn’t thinking about notes or anything like that. Of course I think Björk has been an inspiration for every musician in Iceland, because of how great she is, and I really love Sigur Rós as well.”
“There’s a connection among the Icelandic musicians, but it’s difficult to pinpoint consciously,” says Sverrisson, an avant-leaning progressive-eclectic who has collaborated with the varied likes of Wadada Leo Smith, Lou Reed, Blonde Redhead, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Jóhann Jóhannsson. He is also the founder of Mengi, Reykjavik’s thriving nongenre performance space and label, which is represented by many of the artists appearing at the Reykjavik Festival. “In Iceland it’s very much a free and a curious culture when it comes to making music. We’re generally curious people, and we lack the heavy burden of musical tradition, which has been helpful in terms of making things up from scratch.”
It’s a peculiar fact about Iceland that its music history is on the young side, though the culture itself dates back to the 9th century A.D.
“People have been making music here for a long time,” Sverrisson says, “but it’s not quite as old as the literary tradition, which is one of the oldest in Europe. People have been writing books and poetry for a long time in Iceland, but the music tradition is more recent and less documented, and its influences come more from Europe. So I think that has been a useful environment for creating new music.”
Plus, he adds with a laugh, “In Iceland the winter is quite long and there is a lot of darkness, so people tend to do things inside, like playing chess or reading books, and making music is one of those things.”
Within the wildly exploding parameters of contemporary musicmaking, can these unassumingly modern Icelandic musicians even roughly be defined as “pop” artists? Arnalds and Sverrisson have politely opposed thoughts about such stuff.
“No, I’ve never thought in any of those terms, and I never really thought it was useful to define what you do,” Sverrisson says. “I’ve been involved in a lot of different types of musicmaking, and it’s a process of being inspired and just going where the music takes you.”
“Well, I would be happy if somebody would call me a pop musician,” Arnalds says, “because I think my music is maybe a little bit more obscure. But if you say it’s pop, it makes me very happy.”
Also appearing at the Reykjavik Festival is composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who alongside orchestral ensembles will reimagine the chillingly elegant music from his several solo albums, including the recent Orphée (Deutsche Grammophon) and selections from his highly regarded film scores, which include Prisoners and The Theory of Everything.
Masterfully interfacing state-of-the-art electronic instrumentation with expansive orchestral motifs and textures, Jóhannsson’s aesthetic sensibilities might have roots in an Icelandic temperament, he says, though strictly speaking his purely musical DNA skews much farther afield. Whatever the case, he’s discovered a sound with a global appeal, and he’s quite happy about that.
“I left Iceland in 2006 but I have a very strong bond with that country, and I go there several times a year, both to see my family but also to work,” he says by phone from his home in Berlin. “I work with Icelandic musicians, both at home and in Berlin, and there are many Icelanders living here. So I’m very much an Icelander, that’s my place of birth and my identity, but at the same time I’m my own person as well.”
The Reykjavik Festival takes place at Walt Disney Concert Hall, DTLA, April 1 to June 4. See complete schedule at laphil.com.
[Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the “Björk Digital” exhibition was sold out, but tickets are still available on some dates. We regret the error.]