Sounding the North
Is there a sound of the North? This was the question we spent the weekend exploring at the Sound Festival in Aberdeen back in October.
Talks from composers Bent Sørensen and Gunnar Karel Másson explored the essence of Nordic music. The sense of melancholy and longing, of freedom and space. Music inspired by big, open landscapes and life on the periphery. Set against these huge canvases is an obsession with detail: the use of microtones, small gestures, short, evolving motifs.
Yet many composers resist being stereotyped as “Nordic Composers” – understandably so – those of us from further south in the world are perhaps too quick to pigeonhole them and to assume that everything they write is drawn from their experience of living in a northern clime. This is, of course, far from the case. Like composers from any other part of the world, they are drawing from many and varied influences, writing music for its own sake. Equally, writing music inspired by a Nordic landscape does not necessarily mean the depiction of some idealistic view of the Far North. There are many “gritty” issues to explore: mankind’s relationship with his environment and the politics of the region amongst others.
Gunnar Andreas Kristinsson, too, spoke about the connection between Icelandic music and nature and the landscape, as well as the contrast between light and darkness. Norse and Germanic literature also exerts its influence over composers. However, he also pointed out that the lack of a long music history has led to a wide variety of styles in contemporary Icelandic music.
Gemma McGregor’s talk gave me much food for thought, as I’m yet to delve fully into the music of Orkney. I’m particularly fascinated to lean more of what we know of the music of the Vikings. I’ve heard the bells of St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall many a time and assumed the bells sounded “out of tune” because they were so old. Gemma explained how they’re tuned in equidistant intervals of G quarter-sharp – B flat – C quarter-sharp. These notes pretty much fit in with the pentatonic scale used to sing the sagas: G, B flat, C, D, F. Gemma also pointed out the shared heritage of the North Atlantic due to the shipping routes – something I’ve been very aware of in my own research.
During the Festival we were treated to some fascinating concerts by the Quatuor Bozzini and Edinburgh Quartet. It was a pleasure to meet young composer Sarah Lianne Lewis, whose music I’d encountered through the RSNO and also to hear Gunnar Andreas Kristinsson’s beautiful new piece “Moonbow”. I’m also looking forward to learning Gunnar’s piece for Viola and Organ, “Der Unvollendete”. Scottish-based composers Alasdair Nicholson and Geoff Palmer’s pieces were also stimulating and inspiring.
If you’re interested in reading my own contribution to “Sounding the North”, you can find it on a Dropbox link here: