Tuesday, February 22, 2011

25,000 views, Glumbær, Harpverk

400 more views, y'all, and someone is going to be the 25.000th viewer to this blog. What an honor! It could be you! I want to know who it is. I remember MW was the 10.000th, maybe she'll refresh her page so many times that she's the winner again! If you let me know that it was you, you could get a prize from Iceland. I'm surprised that I've lasted this long; since 2006, just over once a week, gosh.

I did a couple random things lately that I thought I'd share with you.

I went to this random-ass museum in the middle of the 'ghetto' of Reykjavík, and by 'ghetto', the locals just mean that there are mostly children and immigrants living there and there aren't any designer boutiques within spitting distance. It's really quite nice otherwise; the pool has a hot-pot moat that you can lounge in underneath the lookout tower, and two waterslides. Anyway, the museum was a sort of civic-center/cafe/children's museum/doctor's office/cultural house, and it had these fabulous 'exhibits' (are they even? is it for kids to play on? is it about learning? I still can't figure it out, but I guess that's not the point) that combined a wall of clocks, a dragon that you could climb through, sound installations, a room of green felt hands, boots, wall carvings, runes, and a wall of TVs. And a giant stuffed dog the size of a small car.

In the basement of the museum were offices, but the treasures lay outside! There were these amazing displays of old icelandic postcards from as early as the 1900's, and shelves upon shelves of old children's toys, categorized by themes around Christmas.

I went to a concert of Harpverk, a harp and percussion duo. It was pretty amazing! There were some great moments, some very ideomatic works, some not-so-interesting and/or badly written moments, and then a couple REALLY wacky pieces that pushed the boundaries of the categories 'harp' and 'percussion'. Like this one, by Jesper Pederson, which looks bizarre, and indeed sounded about how it looked, but it actually was quite effective and fun. The percussionist put a blinking light on his head--the blinks were generated from a signal generator in a computer--and every time it blinked, he'd slide ball bearings down a tube which made quite a fun sound. The harpist played her new electric harp in a mostly textural way.

Another piece involved a cardboard box with a demon face in permanent marker on it, with some duct tape. I'll leave it at that. I think the eclectic mix is what makes it a really good show! Very profesh the whole time, but relaxed as well, not taking themselves too seriously. I left wanting to write something for them really badly. That's always a good sign.

Changes of Light and Weather

A lot of life in Reykjavík involves regrouping. Change of plans! Change of schedule! Last minute curve-ball! Re-thinking the course of projects. And also spontaneous fun! Perhaps a lot of that stems from the weather, which seems to change quite quickly here, much more than in the States. Sunshine one minute, hail the next. Cloudy and rainy one morning, windy and snowy by lunch, then sunny by sunset.
Only a couple weeks ago, it looked like this outside, sort of gross:

And then within minutes it looked like this, kind of Swiss-ly sunny and bright. And then it would change right back again.

Now, I can see the sun, poking real rays of light around the buildings. The other day I got direct sunlight rays into my apartment! It's been a while since I've seen you little buddies, welcome back.

With the sun suddenly showing its big fat fés, the whole city looks different. The streets appear wider. The sky is much bigger. The days are more open to long walks, and people's attitudes get a little chattier. Long, lazy sunsets are returning!

I also discovered the joy of the best-kept-secret in Iceland- a footbath! It's a giant rock, right on the ocean, with a carved out hole in it, that has constant hot freshwater pumped into it. Don't believe me? Here's my leg in it.
You could fit about four happy foot-bathers in here (but nothing more than feet or perhaps a tiny person might fit.) I walked out to it the other day and dipped my toes in, in between snow squalls. The view I got from the footbath was breath-taking. Check out those contrasts- dark black sea rocks with the snow on Mount Esja in the distance. The light and air were so clear and bright. Amazing!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

More Things I've Made and Ate

Here is another chapter in the saga of Things I've Made and Ate in Iceland. This one's just about as random as chapter one! In no particular order:

A necklace out of sea-glass from the Reykjavík coast, it could be quite nice for a bride's dress or something summery and formal. Potential brides: cawl me, we'll tawk.

Some no-bake chocolate-oatmeal-peanut butter cookies, and a Pittsburgh favorite (thanks, Mark!), sage and carmelized sugar-coated pecans.

Icelandic lamb, two ways! I splurged one week and bought Icelandic lamb, and one medium-sized steak was enough for several meals. First it was a lamb masala! The mix was from a jar but it was some of the best out of a jar I've had. I used potatoes, chickpeas, and onions for the veggies. And then made a collage that day too. Then came steak salad, with leftover veggies. Really quite good- the lamb is fatty but not greasy, so it kind of melted, it wasn't chewy at all. Absolute yumsh.

Bracelets made out of fish skin leather! I made four of these beauties and they should be on sale at Mattress Factory in a bit, for those stateside people that want some elegant salmon and spotted wolf-fish around their arms. And don't it look lovely.

Also in the meat family, some beef curry. Maybe the winter has influenced me into making a lot of stews. They're certainly easy and I can also leave them while they simmer away. This curry came with some bamboo shoots, but I added the rest.

And finally, two small collages of Mount Esja in two seasons. I just worked on these this weekend and they're simple but I love them! I hadn't collaged anything in months, and it was about time. I also don't really do figurative things or landscapes, but being here and looking at the mountain all the time, it's hard not to at least use a mountain shape. The works are on silver paper too, which has a really shimmery glow. I'm really happy that I found a piece of magazine that had colorful stripes in it- I think it's a picture of the pavement, but it works really well for imaginative mountain layers.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Listening with fresh ears

I'm discovering a ton of sounds and samples in Björk's 'Vespertine' that I never heard before! How could I miss them? It's like paying a visit to an old friend, having a nice cup of tea, and then you look up and discover she has a different hair color than you remember, and it's always been this way, nothing's really changed. Surprising and refreshing, but still the same friend. Listening with fresh ears (and headphones), it's almost too many good sounds to handle.

Also, I wish I had discovered (or paid more attention) to David Lang's music, which is now on the forefront of my playlists (currently listening to: The So-Called Laws of Nature). He, along with Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe, founded the contemporary-music group Bang on a Can. I had his older piece 'Cheating, Lying, Stealing' on an old 8th blackbird CD from around 2000, but I hadn't ever really listened to it before. I then bought his 'Little Match Girl Passion' which is a Pulitzer-Prize winning work for motet-like voices that double on percussion. Lang combined the seemingly-incongruent texts of The Little Match Girl story by Hans Christian Anderson with the Passion of Christ, and they work beatifully together: cold, crystalline, and indeed passionate.

Now I have several more works of his- I have to admit that watching the movie 'Untitled' was sort of the gateway into his other works- perhaps listening in a new place, a new context, was all it took. I love the minimalist rhythms, but also the rock music influence that one can hear nestled into the music. He has works for bells, pieces of wood, flower pots, nearly movement-less voices, bass clarinet...The man knows how to work rhythms into something fascinating that I only hope to aspire to.

Monday, February 14, 2011


Three short and sweet images that are the opposites of pink hearts. I used to send black squares in the mail, sometimes with nothing even written on them, but I've sweetened up a little bit since. Now at least I sign my name.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Lot of Free Time

Funny things happen when you have a lot of free time on your hands. For me, I've always been an admittedly excellent manager of my time. Even when I had a day-job and wrote music on the side, I got a lot of my own work done. But in Iceland, with only my creative side to tend to, I also see that the apartment is cleaner. I don't ignore writing emails or calling my friends (as much). I write more music, I listen to more music, I get to read. I do some exercises 5 days a week (read: mostly interpretive-dancing around my room, interspersed with push-ups. No judging. It seems to be working, and making me happy too), and I get to swim here more! But then other things start to pop into my head, really unrealistic things.

'But I still have so much work to do!' My unrealistic side replies.
My relaxed half replies back, 'but you set your own schedule here.'
'But I need to DO ALL THE THINGS!! I need to do everything there is to be done!' (much like this fabulous comic here). I need to go to all the museum shows! I need to go grocery shopping! I need to see every concert every day! I need to hike up the mountain! There's not enough time to do everything!! I need to write all the music I will ever write ever because when will I have this time again??

This guy had time to write, I should be slaving away, too, preferably by candlelight. Oh wait, he's dead. Composers in past centuries aren't really good role models for today anyway.

I'm not fluent in Icelandic yet, and I've been taking lessons for SEVEN MONTHS!

I haven't gotten famous yet and sold a million copies of my still-in-progress contemporary-classical album, why aren't I getting on this??! And I'm not hanging out with the cool kids every minute of every day. And I still haven't had sexy babies with my new Icelandic husband yet, WHAT'S WRONG WITH ME.

Then, I step outside for a walk. Or do something different that day, and I realize... duh! Relax! It's only because I don't go to work to an office every day here that I feel like I'm not doing what I'm supposed to be doing, it's just what I'm used to doing. I've given five concerts here already, and performed in two others! I've written three choir works, lots of collaged music, I've made freakin' bracelets out of fish skin leather.

I hear in my head these outside pressures, that are really not meant for how I operate well. What's more, I'm learning language plenty fast enough. I'm doing work that is outside my normal boundaries, and challenging myself in countless ways. And certainly no man no friends nobody, will want me to freak out Jessie-Saved-By-The-Bell style over nothing. Though I still love that clip, it's pretty timeless...right?

Sorry, Mugison, I had to use your face as the ideal Icelander on this post (I believe the photos are by Páll Stefansson, or possibly Oddvar, I forget) Í alvöru. Though frankly you're still pretty awesome; I have it on record that most people who watch you perform swoon over you, no matter what their sexual preference is. For the record, my prerequisites for husband material are not limited to beards, fishing boats, reindeer pelts, and life in the fjords.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Short trip to Akureyri

The fantastic Fulbright organization of Iceland paid for a short trip up to Akureyri this week, the 'capital of the north' of iceland, at 17,000 people. Seven of us drove up to hear a fellow Fulbrighter's dissertation in geophysics, and we got a free trip out of it, a free night in a beautiful guest house, and a delicious fancy dinner to celebrate our team of nerds! But the best part of all was that the following day we had some time to drive to Mývatn, which I have only been to one time (in September), but this was the winter glimpse of some of the most spectacular places in Iceland.

Akureyri is a totally beautiful town! It's a tiny version of Reykjavík, in its own way, with a lively bar scene on weekends, all the shopping and entertainment you need, and some great architecture to boot. It's on the end of a fjörd and the mountains on the other side are even closer to you than in Reykjavík. The airport is also right out on the water, and the planes look like they're going to make a water landing...until a stretch of runway juts out right into the fjörd and saves the day.

We made it only a couple minutes late for J's defense, as the weather was really quite something along the way! There was a beautiful shot I got in the countryside while standing to stretch my legs (in the rain):

But soon after the landscape turned totally to snow, as far as the eye could see- it was this amazing monochromatic whitewash without much definition...where does the mountain end and the sky begin.

Akureryi was supposed to be a snowy wonderland, but it had melted a bit in previous days. Still, the views were beautiful.

We had dinner in Hof, the new concert hall/meeting center of the north, and it was totally gorgeous and very me inside, lots of concrete and stone, dark wood and ambient lighting. And the food, based on Danish smørrebrød, was delicious. I got a sampler of fishies.

Then, we all had wine, coffee, desserts, which were equally beautiful! I also liked the clear/monochromatic table at this particular moment.

We swam in the evening in Akureyri's luxurious public pool, which sort of puts Reykjavík's older pools to shame. We kvetched about being Fulbrighters, as when we're in Reykjavík it feels like we should always be doing "work" of some sort, rather than "experiencing", but when we get out of town, immediately we all go into vacation mode.

The next morning we were off to Mývatn, only about an hour away from Akureyri. We drove past a shimmering, wintry Ljósavatn (perfectly named: 'Light Lake').

I saw a couple areas of Mývatn that were new to me, and a few familiar sights now covered in snow and ice. The lake itself was incredibly beautiful and still, with a few birds fluttering here and there. Dimmuborgir was under several feet of snow, so we pounced around on snowmounds around the lava formations. I might have seen a Yule Lad as well- they've only recently come back to live here after Christmas.

But my favorite sight was something new, and it blew my mind. We drove into a nondescriptly-pretty area with some cool rock formations, and walked around for a minute. But then one Fulbrighter's husband said, 'it's over here, bring your towels!', and he disappeared into a hole in the ground! We followed suit, entering a cave-like rock fissure, and inside it, underground, was a natural hotspring that we swam in! I've never done anything like that in my life. It was a little scary, a little crazy, and a whole lot of exciting. The water was so clear, so mysterious, and just on the border of too hot but tolerable (as really, it's just hot from some magma under the earth, heating it up. No bigs.)
The only light came in from a small opening, and the rocks all around may fall at any moment. These dark and shadowy rocks are right over my head.

But they didn't fall. Instead, some lucky artists and scientists got to swim together and laugh about how insane/lucky/humbling it is to be here, in the winter stillness, inside of a fissure in Iceland.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Grapevine Review- Mýkir Músíkdagar

I have my very first piece of writing published in a newspaper, it feels like a milestone. It's a music review of the Dark Music Days Festival, which was a contemporary music creezycrazy weekend. I ended up seeing 12 concert total from Thursday night to Sunday night. Not every concert made it into the article, as I knew in advance that I would have to chop it down into something digestible for print. Luckily all that was changed were two semi-colons, or if there were more edits, I really can't tell the difference.

I did have to leave out the story where I wasn't told that there was an intermission to a concert, and I was asked to be a stage crew hand, so I wandered out right in front of an orchestra taking a bow, leaving me to look hilariously stupid, standing in front of a sea of violins trying to move around me. But that's a story better left for the blog. I doubt that anyone but me remembers who the weirdo volunteer guy was. Well, now I just gave it away. Next time I'm not volunteering to do more than help with programs and set up chairs, or even better, just be the guest composer who has a piece on the program. That's more my speed.

The published text is pasted below, or you can read it at the Grapevine's website; it's from Issue 2 and turning to page 22. Fancy!

Dark Music Days
Nathan Hall

Reykjavík’s ‘Dark Music Days’ Festival is a bit like Iceland Airwaves, if Airwaves catered mostly to hip classical musicians, threw in a ton of contrabass instruments, and was operated entirely by about four people. This year, the usual multi-week festival was squashed into three-and-a-half days, exhausting my ears in the same way as Airwaves did, only this time with more sixteenth notes and fewer earplugs.


Dark Music Days kicked off with a grand concert by the Iceland National Symphony. Daníel Bjarnason’s conducting of György Ligeti’s ‘Atmospheres’ squeezed out of the double bass section a low sustained note more fantastically vulgar than I’ve ever heard in orchestral music. Steingrímur Rohloff’s ‘Clarinet Concerto’ could have just given me the parts of the piece featuring growling, didgeridoo-like squeals for the bass clarinet, and I would have been perfectly content. The composition, and Rúnar Óskarsson’s performance as soloist, particularly showcased the bass clarinet as well-balanced against the forces of the full orchestra.

Daníel conducted his own ‘Birting’, the crowning achievement of the evening. Daníel’s work was full of primordial shifts of light and darkness, mysterious and unexpected sounds at just the right moments. I went home comforted.


The onslaught of events began on Friday at lunchtime, with one-hour events placed at roughly three-hour intervals until late in the night. At Kristín Jónína’s lecture, Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson mentioned that for years he had to have an unlisted phone number after receiving threatening calls—apparently nothing made Icelanders angrier than his hosting an avant-garde music programme on the radio during rush hour.

Sigurður Sævarsson’s ‘Missa Pacis’ was hauntingly beautiful, performed in the darkly-lit Neskirkja. The restraint of the vocal writing made the work’s deliciously full moments shine even more. It is soon to be a Hljómeyki Choir hit when it’s released on CD.

The electro-acoustic performances at Hugmyndahúsið in the late evening included several works featuring altered found sounds. Ríkharður Friðriksson stood on stage for his piece, writing out computer code that propelled the work in real-time. Strangely enthralling.


The highlight from Hnúkaþeyr Wind Octet was ‘Andar’ by Anna Þorvaldsdóttir, containing ideas ‘under the influence of breathing and tidal waves’. It was also a perfect nod to the sounds of pounding waves of rain on Kjarvalsstaðir’s roof. Dark Music Days this year was sponsored by Iceland’s worst winter weather: wind, rain, slush, and snow coming at you from all directions.

Kira Kira’s late-night concert at Norðurpóllinn was…eclectic. I bet that she could leave out the heavy reverb and echo effects and still have interesting pieces left over. For most of the evening I thought to myself, if I would feature all these low-sounding instruments: double basses, cornet, contrabass clarinet–I’d definitely have a tuba as well.


Pulling myself together after a long night (it was the weekend, after all), I took a bus to CAPUT’s performance of Atli Heimir Sveinsson’s ‘5-hjóladrif’ at Norðurpóllinn. The two dancers on stage sadly only performed during 20 percent of the work, but Atli Heimir’s multi-genre, vigorous and virtuosic (read: ‘crazy’) writing held my interest. After the concert, I got a ride back seated next to a sexy Danish opera singer-slash-rock-theatre-collaborator. Ah, how I love Scandinavia.

The final concert of the festival was held at the National Museum (Listasafn Íslands), an acoustically dull but obviously artful venue for the Reykjavík Chamber Orchestra. Hlynur Vilmarsson’s ‘Héxié’ for piano, strings, and low-frequency pulsing electronics conveyed a stillness that resonated the best through the museum’s space. Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘Verklärte Nacht’ was the final work on the programme, with intense anguish that melted into sighs of romance, and finally into an uplifting spiritual breath. It was also the bookend to the symphony concert a few nights before; it tied together many of the works over the weekend that seemed to explore inhalation and exhalation, the passions of simply being alive.

These kinds of festivals are a rare opportunity to hear so much contemporary music for such a reasonable price. Much like I experienced at Airwaves, I found it best to just be a ‘sponge’, soaking up all of the highs and lows of new classical music in Iceland today, and taking them home to ponder.

Nathan Hall is a composer and artist on a Fulbright Fellowship to Iceland this year. He can be reached through www.nathan-hall.net.