My incoming flight had landed after dark, and I had seen nothing of the landscape around the city. Now I stared in wonder at the miles of blackish lava, at the volcanic boulders that had dropped from the sky, at the conical peak of Mt. Keilir, in the distance. I had gone from a fashionable modern place into a charcoal sketch of an unfinished world. For a long time, there was nothing where Iceland now is.
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The volcanoes of the island began rising from the Atlantic twenty million years ago—a geological pause for breath. They brought with them the lore of the Germanic tribes, which became the basis of an oral and written tradition that changed little in the following nine centuries. No wonder I felt a chill when I saw Mt. Keilir glowering over the plain.
Until the early twentieth century, the Icelanders lived out of sight and mind, more a rumor than a fact. The novel is remarkable for, among other things, its ambiguous relationship with the Nordic idea; it paints an epic portrait of a hardy, solitary soul, yet it undercuts that mythology with slow-burning deadpan humor and blindsiding blasts of emotion.
If Bjartur suffers in isolation, the book suggests, it is because he chose to. The composer spent a large part of his early career studying in Germany, and remained there throughout much of the Third Reich. His messianic belief in Icelandic tradition blended all too well with Nazi philosophy, which prized Iceland as an uncontaminated Aryan culture. He and his wife escaped to Sweden in If one in ten inhabitants seems to play in a rock band, one in five sings in a choir.
It is sombrely beautiful music that sets you on the edge of paralyzing sadness, or, perhaps, pulls you back gently from the brink. Her parents divorced when she was almost two, and she grew up in several households at once. Her mother, whose second marriage was to a rock musician, cultivated a hippie, commune-like atmosphere.
She took theory and history classes, sang in school choirs, and mastered the flute well enough to play an atonal Finnish concerto whose name she has now forgotten. She made beats from a tape of her grandfather snoring and played drums with the accompaniment of a popcorn machine. There was a Kukl side project with the enticing name Elgar Sisters. Kukl signed with Crass, the English anarchist label, which preached a strict anti-bourgeois, anti-commercial code.
The band ran its course after three records.
That summer, she went on a long bicycle tour of remote parts of Iceland, stopping in tiny village churches and playing for an hour or two on the organ or the harmonium. She started out listening to Brian Eno and Kraftwerk, then moved on to dance music and rap. The whomping beats of techno dominated the London and Manchester dance floors, while ambient bleeps and clicks wafted through basements in Sheffield and Bristol. With new digital technologies, electronic artists could cover up the fuzz of synthesizers and manufacture hyper-real, crystalline soundscapes.
One of the most influential groups was Massive Attack, which fused the moody pacing of reggae with the sonic depth of hip-hop.
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Behind the travelogue of the Icelander abroad was a sneakily powerful thesis about technology and music. In the event, she relied on flute, harp, accordion, and harmonium to echo the old world. The intermeshing of acoustic and electronic sound succeeded not only because the production scrupulously avoided the usual formulas but because the songs were stocked with historical cues.
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Several of them lean on a stately tango rhythm, which supplies a hint of between-the-wars cabaret. She is unafraid of the darker byways of emotion, but she has no time for free-floating, modernist-style alienation. If you throw a lot of emotion into your voice, you can easily lose control of the pitch. If you focus on the pitch, you may find it difficult to convey emotion. Especially, the purity of expression.
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She was having a hard time adjusting to the warm weather and had come down with the flu. The other Icelanders had instituted a minor social revolution at the house. They released a supposedly bad-mannered dog from its kennel, and the animal now happily roamed free with a tennis ball. Valgeir had set up a makeshift studio in a ten-by-ten-foot spare bedroom. An old air-conditioner rattled ineffectively in the window.
The Inuit tribes in northern Canada have a long-cherished game in which two female singers sit face to face and make all manner of strange, rapid, breathy noises, in an attempt to make each other smile. Bahia was threatening to muscle its way into the already crowded sound-world of the album. They played complex, ever-shifting beats with a powerful martial tinge. The climactic night of Carnaval arrived. About a mile from the beach, a Brazilian security detail—nine men in charcoal-gray suits, sunglasses, and earpiece headphones—drove up in a second van to supervise the celebrity visitor.
They formed a V-shaped wedge in front, and the crowd parted. I sometimes feel as if I read a lot of important books just by listening to their arguments. Brazilian paparazzi had got wind of the approaching convoy; they swarmed around the van as we disembarked.
Beneath the rain clouds, at noon, on a sunny day
They hate each other, and they hate the prey. It is all about the moment of the kill. It would be a very interesting movie, yes? A little later, we were on a balcony high above the street, facing the old Barra lighthouse. In the lead was a big industrial tractor decorated with tree trunks on which phallic candles had been mounted. Barney was directing the action from the street. Invisible and free! The trip to Brazil felt like another miniature saga, another study in the conflict between the Nordic idea and the infinite possibilities that cluster around it.
In a way, though, there was no conflict. Icelanders, in their isolation, have always quilted into their culture whatever useful influences they have found on the outside. They live so far from the rest of the world that they have had to remake it on their own terms. They are icebound cosmopolitans, studying us all.
Harsh, dark tones enter the music. Matmos, an electronic duo from San Francisco, wrapped several songs in a mesmerizing sonic filigree, a gentle overlay of murmurs and rustles and clicks. She has an ability to stand apart from the crowd while not holding herself aloof from it. She has a strong working knowledge of the twentieth-century repertory, and is happy to discuss the pros and cons of Morton Feldman, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Steve Reich.
She sallied into high atonal Schoenberg at the invitation of the conductor Kent Nagano. Kent Nagano wanted to make a recording of it, but I really felt that I would be invading the territory of people who sing this for a lifetime. The short interludes are not so much songs as studies in vocal texture, in the manner of Meredith Monk. Music is restored to its original bliss, free both of the fear of pretension that limits popular music and of the fear of vulgarity that limits classical music.
The creative artist once more moves along an unbroken continuum, from folk to art and back again.
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So far, though, this utopia has only one inhabitant. First, Mark Bell came in to co-produce four of the songs, and he worked his ambient magic on them, processing the voices in ways that sometimes rendered them unrecognizable. Adjoining the studio was a converted greenhouse, which had warmed to a boil on this sunny day. Two candles were burning in front of six speakers on top of the board. The songs had rapidly evolved since I had last heard them, in a studio in downtown Manhattan the previous month.
Dokaka, a Japanese-born beatboxer, lets loose rapid-fire noises in the middle range. You have to kick your way out of it sometimes. The first one was a box with a line straight across the middle.