Wednesday, March 30, 2011

I Made That Shirt

Here in Iceland you may end up putting your foot where your mouth is, sotospeak, if you aren't careful about what you say, where you say it, and to whom. Everyone knows everyone, shops at the same stores, goes to the same bars. It can be comforting in a weird way. But the moment you want to criticize something, be careful. There isn't the same kind of removed constructive critique of artwork that I've found in the States--which is usually a blessing, to try and do whatever you want, learn as you go, but it also puts a lot of weird crap into the world, sometimes without much forethought.

Me: "I love this shirt, but it was printed kind of crappily. And the tag is sewn on badly."
New Friend I'm Trying to Impress: "That's my best friend's shirt company, she made that."
Me: "I, uh, well, the design is great, that's for sure."
Thankfully the shirts have indeed gotten better since then. So all is right in the world.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Beef Sticks

It's been a while since I posted comics! There are a few coming up soon.

A while ago I met the American ambassador in Iceland, at a fancy party at his residence. There was delicious food, and nice drinks! Unfortunately there were beef sticks, which I love and they were delicious, but they were a bit hard to chew. It looked a bit this this.
People would come up to me and I'd have a beef stick in my mouth, and how do you act casually about that? Hold it in your hand like a lollipop? Eat the whole thing in one bite? It's not like a deviled egg that you can just pop in your mouth, or a cracker that you sort of hold onto. In any case, problem solved: I ran to a quiet corner and devoured my hors d'oeuvres like a caveman, nam nam nam nam! Then returned to civilization as my charming self, oh how DO you do, sir, it's a pleasure to meet you.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Isklenska 4

I am the proud owner of a certificate completing Icelandic course Level 4 (of 5 offered). I don't know if I'll take 5 yet, but I'm proud of my accomplishments thus far! Til hamingju...mín? Congratulations me? I don't even know if that's correct, so maybe I do need to go back to school.

More Icelandic Grammar

I saw about the longest compound word I've ever seen in Icelandic, which was in the program notes at the Symphony, talking about how Steve Reich was once the principal tympanist at a filharmonic orchestra. In icelandic, Steve was was the 'pákuleika Fílharmóníuhjlómsveitarinnar í New York'. And for most people something like sinfóniuhljómsveit (symphony orchestra) is enough to wrap their brain around, let alone make it a possessive word and with a definite article.

There is a website for Icelandic sex toys and lingerie called Clever, eh? But it's also a play on words! 'Pen' in Icelandic also means 'coy'. A+ for you, Icelandic Penis website!

I've also been collecting Icelandic words that have originated in English slang, but are respelled phonetically (and often conjugated/declined accordingly) into the native language. Here are a few!

Stæl =style
Kúl =cool
Smart (but with rolled R) =well-dressed, very proper
Djass =jazz
Djók =joke
Hringitónn =ringtone
að Djamma =to jam (in a band)

Grammatical nuts will also enjoy the fun fact that while most people here say 'Facebook', using English pronunciation (and almost every Icelander is on Facebook), one can also say 'Fésbók', which is also literally 'face+book', and I sort of prefer the sound of 'fésbók'. After all, in the States I often called it 'Fa-ché-book', as if were some fancy Italian invention. And then there is also 'MySpaché.' But that's going off the deep end of pronunciation, really. There comes a point where I need to reel it in.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Keflavík and Reykjanes Peninsula

This past weekend I took an afternoon trip with friends to Keflavík and around the Reykjanes Peninsula (more commonly known as 'the area with the blue lagoon and the airport'.

We first stopped at Duushús, which could be considered one of the only 'cool' places in Keflavík, being the town that sprang up to service the US Army base that was in Iceland for decades (from about 1942-2006). Duuhús houses a multitude of things, count 'em: art gallery, restaurant, cafe, model ship museum, photo museum, theatre, army artifact gallery, and possibly other hidden surprises. And it's free to visit! I loved this model desk of the army base, here I am making a very important phone call on a 1990's phone. I'm not even sure if you should be sitting at their installations, but there's nothing saying you can't reenact some top-secret conversations about nuclear warheads, the cold war, and whale meat.

We saw an art exhibit of printers from Reykjavík, among them my Fulbrighter friend Nicole Pietrantoni had a few great prints on glass, which when light was projected upon them, would show their images as shadows on the walls.

And here is a recreation of the American foods that came to Iceland. It's all a little strange, as it's quite familiar for me to see these products, but really out of their natural context (i.e. in Iceland, where we don't even have a McDonalds, thank heavens, but thankfully we do have Honey Nut Cheerios).

Near Duuhús was a little cave-like thing attached to a coastal rock cliff. I wandered over to it and it turns out to be the home of a literal giant- one named Sigga who is definitely involved with Christmas celebrations. But the best part about the interior of the cave was this:

A million icicles; we must have discovered the cave at just the right time between freezes and thaws, and the light coming in was beautiful!

We drove on to see several lighthouses around the coast of the peninsula- I had been to the Blue Lagoon before and to Seltún's hot spring area, but never in the other direction on the coasts. It has been snowing a bit lately but the weather was quite beautiful for a drive.

The southmost coast of the peninsula has the most dramatic rock formations, and you can see the bird-filled island of Eldey in the distance from here. These cliffs are known for their bird colonies all swarming around- it's not yet crazy bird season but it will be soon! This will be a beautiful place to hike in the summer, and perhaps reenact a little Sound of Music. The hills will be alive...with the sounds of gannets.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Music Museum Iceland, Tónlistarsafn Íslands

I visited the Music Museum of Iceland today. A bit by chance, I glanced through a book of cultural attractions in Iceland and noticed that there was a music museum, that I had somehow overlooked! It was also right next door to the art museum that I planned on going to anyway, so I stopped into both.

What a delight! I was treated like royalty by the staff and got a personal tour of the exhibit by Guðrún, the curator. I was also the only guest that day, so I guess she was happy to show me around. The staff was really excited that I had learned so much Icelandic in seven months, so we could basically talk about the exhibit only in Icelandic (mind you with a lot of simplification, and me asking questions, but still it was a proud moment). Here is Guðrún next to her life-size poster ancestor Sveinbjörn.

The Museum of Music in Iceland is more like an online collection of scanned documents and recordings for use on the internet, but it has a small exhibition space that changes based on funding and as time allows. Tónlistarsafn Íslands is one of the only places that researches the physical artifacts of Iceland's mostly-oral musical history.The current exhibit is on the composer of Iceland's National Anthem, Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson. There were letters and artifacts from his life, donated by his granddaughter, texts and scores of his music, and a couple particularly cool items including a blanket from Sveinbjörn's bed and a solid-silver piano sculpture, given as a gift.

Sveinbjörn was one of the first composers in Iceland, though originally trained to be a priest and later a performing musician. As there was no rigorous academic training in music in Iceland until later in the 20th century, Sveinbjörn moved to Leipzig to study with Reinecke, and eventually to Edinburgh to work and raise a family (I'm sure a really crazy idea at that time, nearly impossible for the average Icelandic citizen to do, just up and move to a foreign country and become successful). The king of Norway and all his entourage attended the premiere of one of Sveinbjörn's works, but unfortunately, his music was constantly panned...'well, he's no Greig, that's for sure.' Sveinbjörn's music certainly isn't much in the way of originality or daring avant-garde, but the music is pleasantly Mendelssohn-y. He received a lot of accolades in his life, like a pension from Iceland, much fame in Canada (some of his family ended up moving there), and the Order of the Falcon (Iceland's version of Knighthood). There's a cool picture of Sveinbjörn's funeral procession, with hundreds of Icelanders parading down the street in the rain to show tribute to the man, their black umbrellas all a-bobbin'.

It was only recently that the melody that Sveinbjörn composed became the 'official' Icelandic national anthem, which was a setting of 'Ó Guð Vor Lands', a poem written by Matthías Jochumsson (side note: it's rare for Iceland, and I would say for anthems in general, that it's basically a poem to God, and not to nature or the landscape or the people). Matthías was reported to have heard the premiere of his poem and hated it, he thought his own words were terrible, but then again he was also severely depressed. In any case, the national anthem became common to sing in Iceland, though very few people that the museum surveyed actually knows who wrote it or who wrote the lyrics. They also say that it's very hard to sing, and requires a big vocal range, which I could say the same thing about the national anthem for the States as well. (America's is 'The Star-Spangled Banner', and was written by Francis Scott Key, a poet, but set to the music of a drinking song by John Stafford Smith. I must admit that I didn't know the drinking song fact about the Anthem. I would think most Americans, if they remember Francis Scott Key, would side with me and say that he wrote the music as well. Right?)

There are also several verses of the Icelandic anthem, but people only sing one--much like the American anthem, which has up to five giant verses but people only sing or screech or mess up the first. There's also debate of getting a second anthem, or making a more populist anthem that really gets the country all patriotic-like. Some countries have two anthems, why the heck not.

After the Sveinbjörn chat, I was also showed several other projects the Music Museum is working on, including digitizing of documents, receiving donations of instruments and memorabilia, maintaining Iceland's giant website, and I got to see a couple of old wax cylinders made by Jón Leifs (the Bela Bartók of Iceland, if you will, who went around Iceland recording traditional melodies).

Certainly I did not expect a dance remix of a folk song to enter the conversation at this point, but this is where we break it down, now. I listened to a wax cylinder recording of an (probably crazy) old man singing this folk-song 'game' (the first recorded sample on this Icelandic page). The story goes that the Devil tests someone to sing this difficult song, and each time sing it up a fourth, hardly breathing, and if you can pass the test, then I don't know, maybe you won't be taken away by the Devil or something. This old man passes the test. A composition student heard the piece and used the recording, and worked on it and it actually is quite successful (and hilarious) as a dance remix! It was even on Icelandic radio and everything. To top it off, the remix was then found by a class of children, who choreographed it into a hot dance jam. Musical dissemination through the generations at its finest!

Thursday, March 17, 2011


I took a small excursion to Hafnarfjörður today (pronounced a bit like 'Hap-na-fyor-thur' but definitely not like 'haf-nar-fa-jar-dar'), and boy, was I in for some hits and misses. For one thing, every museum there happened to be closed (and there are about four in town). One museum is definitely open all year but happened to be closed in mid-exhibit transition. There are a couple really cute bakeries and coffeeships, but both churches I peeked into were also locked. It was snowing out and pretty quiet on the streets, so I thought I'd find a hidden gem of a harmonium somewhere to play and revel away some winter songs, but also no luck with that either.

But then I noticed this lookout point on a hill, and decided that I was already walking around in the snow, why not have a dramatic view to boot (or should I say boots, I put on my heaviest boots today). I was not disappointed by this! There were even some trees up there, how delightfully big they were.

And on the way there and back I saw some of the things which Hafnarfjörður is known for- it is a small 'town'(essentially now a 'suburb' of Reykjavík's urban sprawl) full of old, charmingly detailed houses, neat architecture, and small harbor. The town is also sort of hillier than anything else around it, which felt like another country, maybe Switzerland (though I've never been there) or some alpine village, where many of the streets are joined with staircases and the houses are built a bit precariously on the edge of cliffs. Many of them have the old-style Icelandic detailing, like 'gingerbread' of Victorian homes, sprucing up the tin-clad walls of the historic timber houses.

There was a really bland building which I still kind of liked for its moderist repetition:

And this ominous-looking school (or so I think it's a school) on the hill:

I bet it was an amazing gargoyle of a building once, until the town sprang up around it.

At the base of the lookout there is a crazy Viking hotel/restaurant/souvenir shop/tourist trap.

I didn't go in but actually this one looked far less hideous and actually kind of fun, compared to some of the ones in the city. The architecture of this building is also intense, I might shop there just to see what it looks like inside. Is that a traditional rooftop decoration up there, or did someone just take a Viking ship prow and adapt it for the roof?

On my way back, I stood next to some 11-ish-year olds who asked me for cigarettes; they were disappointed that I didn't smoke. They also couldn't stop spitting every approx. 3 seconds. Really, who has that much saliva? It's just a competition at that point. Icelandic teen angst at its finest. Even in a sleepy little harbor town, there's plenty to be angsty about. Like having to wait until June until the museums open. Ptew.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

New Album in Progress!

I'm pleased to announce that I'm going to be releasing an album! With a tentative release date of August 1st, 2011, my plans are to release works I've been experimenting on here in Iceland which I'm been making since September in collaboration with Pittsburgh writer & poet Mark Mangini. Mark sends me texts, and I send him musical 'responses' of various kinds. Then he sends me a poem, or words, or a story in response. It's like The Postal Service, except one of us is doing music and the other is writing, and we have yet to physically mail anything. Okay, it's not like The Postal Service at all. Maybe it should be called 'Gmail:Send!'. Nope, that's a bad idea too.

'Course, there could also be extra treats on the album too, we'll see what happens in the next couple months. One very interesting thing about my working process(es) here in Iceland is that my work has been more about the process of making music and experimenting than really knowing what the finished product is going to be. Or caring, really, for that matter. It's not like I want my work to be crap, but I've rarely made music just for the experience of making it- in the past it's always been about a particular end result, how do I get there, gotta have it done by this time, gotta be for this ensemble, etc. These Iceland works have really been evolving more organically, much different than writing my previous chamber music (more like writing music for Music of North Side Spaces, where each site or place called for a different way of working). But that's a good thing for me, I get bored doing the same thing the same way every time. Except for minimalism, heh heh.

I'm certainly excited to put some more material out there in the world to be listened to. Perhaps a small record label will be interested in picking it up. I hope whatever the finished project turns out to be, it includes some delightful gems for your lovely ears!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Bolludagur, Sprengidagur, Öskudagur

Three little holidays, all in a row, lined up for this past week's entertainment. Bolludagur involved lots of moms making puffed pastries, and families gorging themselves on whipped cream. Then Sprengidagur was the following day, literally 'bursting day' as one's stomach explodes from eating too much salted lamb and bean soup, with potatoes and carrots. And a lot of water to drink, to combat all the salt. And then you spend the night alone with some Tums as your date, but it was worth it, gosh darn it.

I went to IKEA on a little adventure for Sprengidagur, not because it was a holiday but because I hadn't been yet, and this is supposedly the biggest IKEA in Europe. It also snowed quite a lot (a bit of a rarity here) and it was doubly adventurous to wade through some small snowdrifts to get to bus stops, and try to act casual about slipping a lot on ice. Just kidding you guys, I planned to do that! Whoahauoh!

Little did I know that IKEA would be having a Sprengidagur feast in the cafeteria, and I got a heaping plate of lambakjöt and potatoes, carrots, and soup, for only 2 kronur. That's right folks. That's practically free! Apparently in the past it was totally free, but maybe they now need a head count so they charge two pennies, essentially. I didn't really believe the sign until I went to the cashier. My Bolla, the cream-filled pastry, was 155 kr (about $1.40US) and the meat and beans were 2 kronur.

Best deal ever at IKEA, and I didn't even buy any furniture. Then I bought some sparkling pear juice and I was satiated all day.

The day after that was Öskudagur, or 'Ash Day'. Traditionally, maybe only 10 years ago, children would sneak around and try to pin little bags filled with ashes to people's backs without them noticing. A bit like France's prankish 'April Fish Day', which I always loved the title of. But nowadays it's more like Halloween, except that the kids in costumes go from storefront to storefront, asking for candy. I saw some great costumes today including ghosts, cowboys, glamour girls, and some very creative throw-everything-wacky-together costumes. The kids also sing songs for their candy! At least there's a certain amount of talent involved, rather than sugar-induced begging and pleading.

(photo credit: Stefán,
A bit more on the holidays can be found on the Grapevine.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Iceland National Symphony, Part II

I went to what could easily be a horror-of-horrors concert for my personality type, the "Family and Young People" concert on the Iceland National Symphony's program. It was full of classical excerpts all pertaining somehow to trolls, goblins, fantasy, and magic. What in the States is usually a feeble attempt to rally children into thinking "classical music is fun!...Right?!..Anybody??...!" here was really a fun and delightful little program that kept the Icelandic kids (and myself) totally entertained.

Icelandic-raised kids seem to have a higher standard of musicality (choirs, festivals, sagas told in song-rhyme, holidays devoted to singing, music schools in many towns), and they grow up learning that 'classical' music can be enjoyed in the same ways that other genres of music can. Thus as adults, there is less of a stigma that the classical repertoire is something highbrow and elitist, and frankly uninteresting to the masses. I have yet to talk to anyone here that's asked, 'so how do you plan on making a living, when classical music pays nothing and nobody listens to it?', a question I'd often get in the States. With relatively few of them around, many composers in Iceland can actually make a comfortable living writing music, and be admired for it.

What made the kids' concert so enjoyable (besides the sound of the orchestra, which is good as always) was the completely engaging host, who talks to the kids between every song. She's kind of an Icelandic character actress, so I'm told, and appears at various cultural events and wears a red nose, jumps around and makes jokes, tells really fabulous stories about the classical pieces you're about to hear, and even keeps the kids engaged with little group activities ('raise your hand if you've seen a troll!' and 'we have to help the clarinetist play really high, everybody blow real hard!'. Also, her level of Icelandic is just simple enough that I could understand most of it, especially good when I understand a joke! She loved picking on people who were coming in late- at one point she jumped off the stage and helped people to their seats as they couldn't find their way. Those people won't be late to the symphony again.

The best moments of the music concert included (surprisingly), hearing John Williams' 'Hedwig' theme from Harry Potter, in which several tiny kiddies sitting around me hummed along with the theme with scary accuracy (the melody is not exactly linear, it has a big weird interval jump and chromaticism throughout it). Then during 'Uranus' from Holst's Planets, the boy next to me pretended to conduct, and at one point imitated playing the tympani, again with scary accuracy of the rhythm happening on stage. Then he stood on his chair for a better view, took out some cheese puffs from his mom's bag, and ate them loudly. All in a day's work for a cultured five-year-old.

(image from

Sunday, March 06, 2011


Four times in the last month have my music-related questions led me to dead ends, or frustrated me to the point of giving up (until the next wave of ambition hits).

I'm a member of ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, which should more often than not be called 'Throwing Your Time Into a Black Hole if You're Not Famous Yet'. (TYTIBH-YNFY). Not quite true; I did make a couple bucks two years ago, but the rules have changed since then so now I won't be making anything until I reach a certain 'royalty limit'. I do register all my works with them, though, in the slim case that one piece might get played somewhere random that I don't know about (only slightly >0% right now).

Classical music 'business' with ASCAP is kind of a mess. It's easier if you have music on the radio, for example. X number of plays of your work, multiplied by a formula, = your royalties. But with classical music, someone, a literal person from the ASCAP team, has to happen to go to your concert and write down that you had a piece played, and then I imagine he or she takes it back to an Apple IIE somewhere and plunks in a composer's information, to see if you get any credits for your performance. Otherwise, you have to physically MAIL them copies of your concert programs, to prove that you exist. No printed program exists of your concert? TOO BAD.

Let's not even talk about the design of their registration pages, which really grosses me out. There's like, several font colors and sizes and graphic styles trying to vie for my eyes' attention! And it still manages to confuse me every time, or I end up composing something that is an exception to all the drop-down boxes you could possibly choose from.

This is sadly not even the part that frustrates me. Twice now I've sent ASCAP questions, and have received no response. There's a weird rule about not getting any royalties for having works performed in academic institutions. But what if one can rent out a college concert hall for one's own concert? I once asked this question, and did get an actual human response, but it said, "I don't know the answer to this, but let me forward your email to this guy whose job it is to handle this."
And then I got no response from guy #2. Way to go!

Any advice for me from the networld of readers out there?
I'll give myself some advice. 1. Take a deep breath. 2. Have a snack. 3. Keep working on music and don't worry about it right now.

I also want to know about copyright boundaries. I've written works that are sort of like cover songs (known as 'derivative' material, in copyright-speak), but also including original material. They're like arrangements, most of the original melody is there, but I've changed the underlying structures of the pieces. Where does a song's copyright end, and my material begin? I've emailed two copyright lawyers now, and big surprise, no response. Any music copyright lawyers out there willing to send me an email?

The 'industry' or whatever is constantly changing, I know, I know. I would almost go about my business in pleasant naivety about copyrights, royalties, stealing blatantly from pop musicians, if it weren't that I was trying to be one of the few better-informed artists out there. Maybe this is all part of the learning curve?

Lastly on my tirade about the minutiae of things that don't really matter right this second, are websites that make me sign in twice. ASCAP is one of them, and being able to add more funds to my phone through my phone company is another. Seriously you guys, I already signed in to see my balance, why do I need to sign in again to add to my balance? I don't. Game over. I win. I BIWIN.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Velvet Goldmine

I know I've mentioned Christian Bale in previous posts, in fact all the way back in 2006 he was in a collage I assembled, and then one sweaty summer he was my role model for looking good whilst shiny.
This is another post that I mention him! I recently saw 'Velvet Goldmine', in my quest to catch up on a few movies that I've heard about but never got around to seeing. The movie had its moments, and some fun glam scenes, though I was in general just a bit whelmed by the whole thing (a bit indifferent, not overwhelmed, not underwhelmed, just whelmed). Ewan McGregor plays a fiercy Iggy-Pop character, Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays a David Bowie-esque lead, with plenty of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and Toni Collette.

However, one thing kept my interest through the whole movie: Christian Bale's lips.

They look good in every scene, and apparently in every decade! Though his current mustache and beard hides the top points of the lip which I think are the defining part of his face. And that's too bad as I usually love beards.

I regret not being able to find an IMDB image of him wearing his glam-rock makeup and giant gold earring. But you can imagine it was broodingly captivating.