Late Bloomers Among the Lava
It may not be its spewing volcanoes, its velvety tundra or toasty geothermals that keeps Iceland healthy environmentally or economically. It may be its eclectic music.
With 80 percent of its young people enrolled in music studies, Iceland is pumping some of the world’s most innovative sounds today. That’s startling considering the isolated nation of 325,000 just south of the Arctic Circle was so musically backwards that instrumental music was unheard there well into the 19th century. As late as the mid-1970s there was just one radio station, but today Iceland has more music festivals than countries 20 times its size. It’s also one of the world’s top producers of CD albums rivaling Jamaica’s reggae factory.
Iceland’s pent up musical energy erupted during the late 1970’s punk invasion when Icelanders wanted to join a band, regardless of whether they could play an instrument. The country’s storyteller tradition was another powerful factor as music became the modern way to tell Iceland’s story. GusGus band leader Hogni Egilsson perhaps explains the historical saga/contemporary music connection best.
“One of the most prominent factors is the heritage of the language itself, and the Nordic pagan tradition that’s engraved in the culture and the language. We have the old sagas, the old storytelling culture, and we have a very strong oral tradition. So, there has been a preserved poesy that is live here — it’s been isolated and hasn’t traveled as much as other cultures,” Hogni told Beat Portal. GusGus is among Iceland’s vanguard groups in electronic music and tours globally.
Economic limitations also drive Iceland’s youth into music. Playing guitar or piano is a better alternative than working on a cod boat or in an aluminum factory. The government’s enlightened support for the arts also deserves credit. Writers and musicians get government subsidies to hone their craft because culture is seen as an important part of the country’s economic future. Icelandic culture is now its second largest GDP contributor.
Harping on Harpa
The beacon of Reykjavik’s economic renaissance is not a tall office building or a five star hotel—it’s a concert hall. Along Reykjavik’s old harbor, there were plans to build a massive, by Icelandic standards, real estate project attesting to the country’s World Trade success in the early 2000s. The project’s anchor was going to be the new headquarters office building for Landsbanki, but when Iceland’s offshore banking sector crashed and burned in 2008, everything changed. The government decided its banks “were too big to save” and let them fail. Instead of a bank bailout the government invested in culture spending $72 million to complete Harpa, the stunning concert hall that opened in 2011.
With its multicolored glass hexagonal tube design by Icelandic Artist Olafur Eliasson, the building features a 1,800 seat red paneled main concert hall. It could rank someday with Sydney’s Opera House and Bilbao’s (Spain) Guggenheim art museum as a world class cultural icon. Iceland’s home grown talent aspires to play there and Europe’s top symphonies appear regularly.
Iceland’s former minister of culture is 37- year-old Katrin Jakobsdottir who took a kickass approach to championing the arts and fought to fund it. She sees the arts not as some high society play thing, but as a way to a better life for all Icelanders. “We see culture as an increasingly important part of our economy. It’s a matter of survival.”
Extreme Chill and Dark Music Days
It’s not the national parks that draw young tourists to Iceland, but rather the music festivals and club scene. Over 70 percent of young visitors say they came for the 50 music festivals that range from experimental electronic to 1950’s style jazz. The venues originally were in Reykjavik but today even small villages will host raucous rock events.
The first festival to catch fire was Airwaves in 1999 held in an old airplane hangar sponsored by Icelandic Airlines. Originally designed to showcase new talent the festival now includes global stars, recently attracting Sinead O’Connor, Yoko Ono and Björk, who, of course, is an Icelandic musical icon. The festival has also branched outside the air hangar and includes Harpa and eclectic venues such as Hresso; perhaps Reykjavik’s most beloved bar. Hresso serves coffee by day and drinks and music at night and its courtyard attracts musicians and dancers even in winter.
Airwaves is held every November and continues to dazzle music reviewers. “Iceland’s Airwaves remains one of the world’s most superlatively unique musical expressions. The coming together of a peculiarly beautiful Nordic attitude to music and the state of wonder that visiting bands and fans find themselves sharing is something that can’t be duplicated anywhere else,” wrote a reviewer in Best Fit following the 2013 Airwaves.
The festival scene includes Dark Music Days held to enlighten the shortened days of late January and attracts new bands. The Extreme Chill festival is an all-electronic affair in summer held at the base of the Snaefels Glacier in the small town of Hellissandur. As you sit in front of the stage the glacier is on your left and the sea is on your right. You almost don’t care what the music sounds like as Iceland has successfully integrated its art and landscape.
Björk’s Strange Brilliance
Everyone in Iceland has been emboldened by the success of Björk. This pixie genius went from a Reykjavik classical music school in the 1970s to become one of world’s most influential alternative rock musicians/singers. Björk’s fame transcends music and she will have a six month retrospective devoted to her work at New York’s Museum of Modern Art next March.
Björk’s enigmatic sound can be uncomfortable and at times indescribable but it’s always different. She makes the act of frying an egg exciting, in her music video, “Venus as a Boy.” Her untiring experimentation has kept audiences riveted since her days as a punk rocker with Spit & Snot in the 1980’s. Her movie career was brief, but captured the 2001 Best Actress Award at Cannes, for “Dancer in the Dark.” Her most recent tour and video “Biophilia” somehow married science and experimental rock and captured MOMA’s attention. It was the first “album” released as a cell phone app and the museum acquired it, the first of its kind in its art collection.
Björk’s backstory is pure Iceland. She grew up in a hippy commune raised by her mother, Runa Hauksdottir, who was in the vanguard of the 1970’s hydro plant protests. Her stepdad Saevar Arneson was the lead guitarist in one of Reykjavik’s early pop rock bands, “Pops.” At age 6 Björk attended classical music school, studying piano and flute, but it’s her idiosyncratic soprano stylings that captured the attention of her teachers. At a school concert she sang, “I Love to Love.” A teacher recorded the performance and sent it to the country’s one radio station, RUV and it went viral ‘70s Icelandic style. Falkinn Records signed her at 12 and her career was launched.
After starring with Iceland’s biggest rock group, the SugarCubes, during the 1980’s she went solo in the 1990’s and began experimenting with sound, costumes, instruments and video. She lived in London for years but is now back in Iceland and at 49 is the face of the country’s success. The government tried to give her an island, but she rejected the star treatment.
In fact, Björk is startlingly accessible. At various festivals one can find her either performing or on the dance floor getting down with the festival goers. Here is how Best Fit describes Björk’s appearance at Airwaves 2013 where she didn’t play.
“The first time we catch sight of Björk we’re so excited that we take a photo (forgetting that she’s not taken too kindly to such behavior). She’s down in the front of Harpa Silfurberg dancing to Syrian dabke singer Omar Souleyman, acknowledging the Middle-Eastern techno legend’s delivery of the festival’s first large scale communal party. As strangers spin each other around their heads, there she is, smiling, shaking her hips, looking like a normal person but instead being Björk. It’s a bit overwhelming, but thankfully everyone around us is either too preoccupied with Souleyman’s magical set or just as intimidated by her presence. It turns out it’s a lot easier to spot bloody Björk in Reykjavik than it is to glance upon some foliage or a bird that isn’t a seagull. She’s everywhere; walking past us as we queue for venues, sitting on the floor at the front of the crowd as her son’s band rocks out in a record shop, even plonking herself in a seat directly behind us and donning her 3D glasses for Kraftwerk’s highly anticipated headline set.”
And that’s what makes Iceland so appealing. It’s accessible in all its random, enigmatic, eclectic raw natural and musical beauty.