It’s two years since I was last in Iceland and, as I made the familiar journey across the bleak lava fields between Keflavik and the capital, it felt good to be back.
As ever when I’m travelling, it was straight to work. Pianist Arnhildur Valgarðsdóttir and I have known each other for almost 3 years, but this was the first time we’d played together. With our concert approaching at the end of the week, what better way to get used to each other than to get stuck in with an informal lunchtime concert for the senior members of Fella- og Hólakirkja’s congregation. We played a mixture of music from Orkney, Shetland and Iceland and there was much interesting discussion afterwards on the common cultural and linguistic links (old Norn, now extinct, is related to the Norse languages). Exactly what Nordic Viola is all about.
Wednesday proved to be an interesting day in many respects! After a rehearsal with Arnhildur, it was time to turn my thoughts to the evening concert in Mengi.
When I’d arrived on Monday, the weather was benign, but things were getting interesting on Wednesday. Huge convective weather systems as the warm and cold air currents battled for supremacy meant squally winds and violent snow and hail showers. Not exactly the weather to be landing a tiny, 30-seater plane! And so it was that I got a call from Charles Ross, my fellow viola player and composer, telling me that there was no prospect of them leaving Egilsstaðir in East Iceland anytime soon. Time for some emergency planning just in case I needed to improvise solo for 45 minutes!
I headed down to Mengi in the afternoon to meet the staff and set up the electronics etc. Mengi is one of the coolest venues in Reykjavik. It is home to experimental music and art and has seen some of the biggest names in Icelandic contemporary music pass through its doors. It is an intimate, informal space with a wonderful acoustic and a highly interesting and eclectic record store at the front of the shop. If you’re in Reykjavik, stop by on Oðinsgata and see what’s going on. I guarantee you’ll find something interesting and thought-provoking.
After much crossing of fingers the news came through that Charles was on his way, though he would only arrive 15 mins before we were due to play. Reykjavik City Airport is so near town that I heard the plane coming in to land and breathed a sigh of relief.
There’s nothing more exciting than doing an improvisation gig on the hoof. We had each brought some ideas to work with but didn’t have much time to discuss them. That demands a lot of trust. I confess to being a little surprised (pleasantly so!) when Charles started playing back my sound processed through the computer for me to react and improvise with. It’s slightly unnerving but a beautiful thing to do. Listen here. Definitely a new idea for me to work with back home.
Charles has a wonderful way of looking at the viola as a vehicle for sound and not just a “classical” string instrument. Flying obviously means you’re limited in what you can bring and he has some truly ingenious solutions: amplifying the viola with an old-fashioned telephone receiver and a small speaker, using a feather instead of a bow and making vibrations by tying a bow hair onto the string and pulling it through rosined fingers to name but a few. The range of sounds he produces is incredible. Kolfreyjustaðir.
As well as the fully improvised pieces, I also performed Kristian Blak’s “Drrrunnn”, a semi-improvised score for viola and seabirds from Mykines in the Faroes and Scots-Canadian composer Emily Doolittle’s “Social Sounds from Whales at Night.” I actually find this a really moving piece to play. After a gradual crescendo of whale and water sounds, I play a two-note phrase which is then unexpectedly answered by a whale, at which point we engage in a duet. Even though it’s a recording, it’s quite humbling to duet with these magnificent and intelligent ocean mammals.
After the concert there was the chance to meet and chat to the audience, including Justin Batchelor, a film documentary maker on his way up to north-west Iceland. Many thanks, too, to Justin for allowing me to use his photos of our gig above. It was also a chance to catch up with composers Gunnar Andreas Kristinsson, who I had previously met in Aberdeen, and Jesper Pedersen.
The following day I woke up to snow. After another morning rehearsing I headed for town and the Maritime Museum. 2020 will be Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters, so it was an opportunity to do some research on life on the sea in Iceland, looking for links between Scotland and the north, but also conflicts – the cod wars of the 1970s, for example. With the sun coming out later, I enjoyed a crisp, snowy walk round the harbour.
No trip to Iceland is complete without a swim and a session in the hot tubs and it seemed as good a way as any to prepare for the evening concert in Fella- og Hólakirkja. This church has a wonderful, warm and generous acoustic that also allows you to play really quietly and is lucky enough to enjoy a Steinway grand! I loved filling the building with the beautiful, long melody of the second movement of Adrian Vernon Fish’s fabulous viola sonata, “Qaanaaq”, inspired by the eponymous settlement in north Greenland.
In fact, this piece proved quite a hit with the audience. The impassioned outpouring of the second movement is preceded by the stern, angular lines and almost threatening air of the first movement. The scherzo, in 13/8, is great fun. Full of bounding energy, you can easily imagine a sleddog team exuberantly flying along over the ice on a crisp, cold day. The final movement is a reflection on a Greenlandic drum dance and also cleverly alludes back to the preceding movements. I’ll be performing this piece again in Dunblane Cathedral on 2nd June at 12:30, so if you’re anywhere nearby, come and listen to this music!
I opened the concert with Orkney composer Gemma McGregor’s “Joy.” It’s inspired by the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle and is wonderfully free and, well, joyous!
The concert closed with British-Icelandic composer Oliver Kentish’s witty variations on an Icelandic tune, “Kvinnan Fróma.” Well, actually, that wasn’t quite the end, as we played Adrian’s wistful arrangement of the Unst Boat Song, Starka Virna Vestalie, from Shetland. And I discovered that the Icelandic name for these islands is the same as the old Northern Isles name: Hjaltland.
One important part of the Nordic Viola project is sharing practice with other artists and so I enjoyed my final free day in Reykjavik watching my hosts at work. Firstly Ásta accompanying some very talented young violinists in a competition. We were discussing music education in our respective countries and I mentioned that music funding in the UK often comes under pressure compared to core subjects. Ásta commented that the arts are core subjects – quite.
Later that afternoon, Ásta’s husband Trausti was directing a set of Samuel Beckett’s plays, which he’d translated into Icelandic. I’m ashamed to say I’ve never seen this great writer’s work, but they sounded great in translation – all credit to Trausti – and I intend to buy a copy of the plays and fill the gap in my knowledge! It was also inspiring to see another small-scale project done so well.
I rounded off the week by heading down to Mengi again for the launch of a new CD from composer and bass player Bára Gísladóttir, an exciting voice on the contemporary music scene in Iceland.