Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Things I've Made and Ate, Summer Edition

Here are a few more non-musical, non-sight-seeing things I've made and ate lately.

J & B came for a visit and they made me a delicious polenta! I enjoy polenta but have never made it for myself, and now I know just how easy it is. And the light hitting those vegetables was just beautiful this night.

I'm continuing some jewelry work as well, it keeps me sane here. The last few things have been getting twistier and more lava-y, even more than these two examples. I think I'm going to include some more bright, possibly even fluorescent, colors soon.

I'd really like to make more things out of fish skin leather, but the market for those things is takes a special and daring person to want to wear fish skin, but the texture of it is just so cool. Perhaps it will be a hit in my upcoming location, which should be Boulder, Colorado.

I'm guessing my crowning domestic achievement whilst in Iceland will be the creation of my first sweater. I crocheted it from Icelandic lopapeysa (thick wool) yarn, without a pattern!

For not having a pattern I think think I did a decent job! I wanted something that was form-fitting and not baggy like the traditional lopapeysas are. I also wanted a shwoopy neck. I think the shoulders could have been bigger, and made the armholes bigger up at the top, which if I made another sweater I will try to remember that. But on the plus side, the sweater also makes my butt look nice. No, just kidding, I don't need any help with that! Just a good ol' contrapposto pose, borrowed from the 16th century.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Marching Band

As I've posted about, this past June 17 was a giant celebration in Iceland, celebrating the country's freedom from Danish rule in 1944, as well as 2011 marking the 200th birthday anniversary of Jón Sigurdsson, the country's original fighter for independence.
What could be more a signal of independence than the sounds of a marching band? These guys passed by me on the street during the festivities, and all I could think of was Charles Ives. It reminded me of playing the clarinet in marching band in high school...and also how awful it was. But it built character, I guess. Mostly I was either just sunburnt or waterlogged. These kids seemed to be having more fun than I ever did.

Origin of the Sun and Moon: Mastering

Here's a quick note to everyone who may be anticipating a new album from me: music for my first solo album, The Origin of the Sun and Moon, is finished, and has been sent for final mixing and mastering! This is probably the most exciting part of the process for me. I hand over the music in all of its giant files, sound bites, and fade folders, and I get sent back more polished versions for approval and final tweaking.

The fabulous Will Dyar (of the 'band' Hills and Host Skull) has accepted the task of smoothing out the rough edges on 12 tracks that are a travelogue of experiments in sounds and music from Iceland. Will has a great ear for what I like (read: more more more handclaps!) and I can't wait to begin this part of the process. Hoping for a release date somewhere around August 1.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Independence Day Sights

T made the best use of his Independence Day by eating some CandyFloss (as cotton candy is called here). We also went with friends to my favorite coffeeshop, called C is for Cookie, and had some amazing desserts. I thought the flag of Iceland was a nice touch to this meal.

I also got my first peek in Fríkirkja, the 'Free Church' in Reykjavík. It's right downtown, next to the museum, but for some reason I've never seen it open for visitors. And I haven't known anyone to perform or get married in it, so it was nice to see something right downtown that I hadn't before!

I heard the Independence Day song of Iceland three times, in three different versions. One was from a marching band, and then I heard it sung by this male choir, all duded-up for the occasion in their tuxes, sunglasses, and beers. It's actually kind of a sad but beautiful song.

Directly after the choir performance was an electronic-dance jam version of the Independence Day song, which was pretty great to hear such a far-removed version from the original hymn. I wondered how many people 'got it', or if they just thought, oh, here's a bunch of hipsters playing around with some funny sounds.

I actually think that the coolest thing I saw all day was this chess game. There was a life-size chess game set up in one of the parks in town, with some cute kids playing with chess pieces the size of their whole bodies. But next to that were two rows of tables set up and a line of people waiting to sit down. On the tables were rows of chessboards. Chess is huge in Iceland, it's practically their national sport! So, you could wait for a turn and play chess here. But the catcher is that you could play against a young chess champion, and he was playing all the games at once- one guy playing 12 games sinultaneously!! It was really fascinating to watch, people of all ages joining in and having a good smarty-pants time, and the star of the show was super relaxed and casual about it.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Independence Day in Iceland

There are too many things to see on Iceland's Independence Day! I wanted to take a picture of everything. The whole city takes a break to come downtown and celebrate with bands, parades, performances, vendors, and lots and lots of live music.
Flowers were laid at the statue of Jón Sigurdsson, as well as at his gravesite after a parade led people up to the cemetary.

We saw a performance of these brides all dress in white doing some choreographed dance down the street and in the windows of a historic building. I didn't know exactly what it was but perhaps as so many performers are dressed (or painted) in white today (a symbol of independence, I'm assuming) they could represent the 'mountain women' of Iceland, the fighters and real strength of the country.

Street performers entertained the kids (and still surprise me to this do they not fall down, and what do their calf muscles look like.)

There are two stages in plazas for people to sit and enjoy music throughout the day.

There's also this guy, acting super manly whilst holding a tiny tiny dog.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Summer Sunsets

The sunsets in Iceland can last for hours...and at this time of the year, it never gets darker than sunset! I can still read a book outside now. I went out to a bar this past weekend and didn't stay out too late- I left for a party around midnight, just as the sun had disappeared on the horizon. Then when I got out of the bar at 3:30am (a relatively early weekend for Icelanders, due to the national holiday that closed the bars a bit early), the sun was already full up and shining over the mountains! Strange to have gone out for the evening and it never gets fully dark, as if I had skipped over an evening of sleep and time-warped into the next day. Luckily I was tired enough that it now doesn't matter how bright it is, I can always nap.

There was an amazing sunset the other night, this taken out my apartment window. The dark clouds hovered at just the right spot to make a fiery blaze on the horizon.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Choir Trip to Snæfellsness, Part III

Phwew! Even more to tell about, but our trip was winding to a close.

We stopped for a delightful piece of chocolate cake at Hellnar, this fantastic tiny café on the coast near Arnarstapi. It was great to see the whole choir on the porch, wrapped in blankets as the warm June summer hasn't quite warmed up yet. Well, here is just me, everyone else was avoiding the picture, apparently.

Dinner that evening was decent, and certainly I couldn't beat the price as the choir is subsidized by the church, which pays us a little bit every time we sing for Masses. Having a fixed grant income with the Fulbright, I really appreciate being able to see so much for so little! After dinner, I was even more surprised that the choir gathered to thank me AGAIN for the piece I wrote, and gave me a beautiful book of poems, with signatures of the choir in the front of the book. They also let me pick my favorite song for everyone to sing, so we did this great work by Bára Grímsdóttir called 'Ég vil lofa eina thá'. It's in various meters (mostly 5/8), and it took the choir ages to learn, but it's paying off- they're really getting into it now!

There's something very special about the Icelandic choir-singing experience. People can recall long and complicated works in four-part harmony, and bust 'em out at a moments' notice (often to the surprise of dinner guests, who, at least in Iceland, clap and sometimes sing along enthusiatically). This guy at a bar later in the evening was really enthusiastic about joining us. I love this operatic expression I managed to catch in a split-second.

The morning after my friends and I wound our way back to Reykjavík, but not before visiting the light tower at Stykkishólmur, climbing up the little 'mountain' at Helgafell, and sneaking up on some seals at a seal beach on the coast.

It seems like this trip went on for a week with everything I've covered, but it was really just 2.5 days! No wonder I was super tired and took about three naps yesterday. I'm back to work, and wrapping up the time here in Iceland. I plan on entering a doctorate at the University of Colorado Boulder in the fall, but be certain that there will still be lots more adventures to be had in the months to come as I try to scramble to do all the things I haven't done...climbing Mount Esja is on the list, as is maybe one more trip to Akureyri, entertaining some more guests, and hopefully seeing the interior of Iceland as well! I can fit all that in, right?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Choir trip to Snæfellsness, Part II

Off on a sight-seeing extravaganza!

Here's a couple photos from the northern peninsula of Snæfellsness- Svörtuloft, the cliffs with birds nesting, and crashing waves.

We stopped at a village of a couple hundred people called Rif, where we toured a salted cod factory, and then sang for the two people giving us a tour! If I could have understood the technical terms about fish processing, I'm sure if would be really interesting, but I was plenty amused just by noticing that all of these giant tubs are full of cod, packed in with salt. And as it's a cured process, you can just handle the fish and put them back in the salt...I think in the States everything would be overly-hermetically-sealed, über-rubber-gloved, but this way is a bit more hands-on, like at least I know a human has looked at this and not just giant impersonal machines hacking through the oceans.

Today is also Sjómannadagurinn, or Seaman's Day! Lots of activities in coastal towns when the fishermen return to play games, have country dances and balls, and party into the night. We saw a game of tug-of-war here in Rif.

We stopped at the Rif café for some delicious Indian-style cod soup. Then we of course sang again for the people in the café! It was so cozy inside, like an old farm-house. I think the building is just from the 1950's, but it feels like an update from an old house in the early 1900's. Complete with lace curtains and porcelain teacups!

Then probably the coolest thing of the trip, and definitely the darkest thing I've done- the choir donned hard hats and descended 100 feet into the Vatnshellis cave! It was full of cool rock formations (that don't photograph well using only hardhat light), glittery bacteria that looked like silver, and several large chambers to explore. And somehow there's a giant spiral staircase inside that allows visitors to descend into the insanity (with a tour guide, of course). And a fabulous tiny door which is the entrance to the whole thing, kind of Alice-in-Wonderland style.

I also finally saw Snæfellsjökull (the glacier) in the sun! I'd never actually seen it completely before, always covered in fog, snow, or rainclouds.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Choir Trip to Snæfellsness Part I

My choir for Neskirkja took a little weekend trip to enjoy our company as a group and sing in various places around the Snæfellsness peninsula. It was a great combination of musical fun and sight-seeing, not exactly a 'tour' but not just a vacation, either.
We stayed at the lovely Hotel Stykkishólmur, which is quite the step up from the hostels I've stayed in throughout Iceland. But then I remembered that I'm one of the youngest people in the choir, and everyone else enjoys traveling quite comfortably. This place even had towels and shampoo, English-language stations on the TV, and a giant breakfast spread. Lap of luxury!

Our big 'performance' for the trip was singing a concert of songs in the church in Grundafjördur, town population of just a couple hundred. Seemed like 10 percent of the town was there, but that only amounted to about 20 people in the audience, but still, it was a good concert. It was a nice semi-casual performance and I think the choir sounded about as good as they ever have, maybe there was less stress for these songs than for our bigger works like the Fauré Requiem or Handel 'Messiah'. The highlight of the concert for me was that the choir performed a work that I wrote for them, music set to the poem 'Thytur í Vindi' by Mattías Johannesen. Along with soloists for songs in the concert, the choir gave me a toast afterward, and gave me a white rose (perhaps intentional and very thoughtful, seeing how the poem I set mentions 'and the white roses that bloomed in my soul', and I got a nice blurb in the programme as well. Maybe the piece will have life in Iceland after I'm gone!

We made an emergency stop on the bus, on the way back to the hotel. Someone said, 'we HAVE to sing here, it's so beautiful!' and the bus driver slammed on the brakes. We hopped out of the bus as the sun was low in the sky (though here it's almost 11pm) and sang a couple songs for each other, posing for pictures on the beautiful harbor.

The evening following the concert was fairly quiet for Icelandic weekend standards, but a few hotel-room parties were hosted, and more singing erupted. I was a bit tired, and thought about going to bed, but then I heard my song being sung from down the hall in the hotel room. I walked slowly and quietly and just listened from the hallway. I was very moved- how great of an experience to hear your music being sung by people who appreciate it, without my own instigation. Quite the honor.

Tomorrow on the trip we're headed around for some Snæfellsness sight-seeing local-style. I was really curious to see how Icelanders would sight-see. I'm just the foreigner, so basically everything is new to me (I'd been in Stykkishólmur once before, in September, but just for one night basically to see the Library of Water.) We'll soon find out how much more there is to see!

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Reykjavík Arts Festival

Reykjavík has a long arts festival every summer, featuring numerous bands, artist performances, gallery shows, all gathered into one. I noticed that there was a free performance outdoors which kicked off the festival. The performing company was La Fura dels Baus, who rigged up the town square by the Parliament with zip lines, construction equipment, and a music-dance-performance work. The piece itself seemed fairly abstract, but the execution of it was pretty amazing! It also included renditions of Bizet and Handel's 'greatest opera hitz' as well as some snappy electronic music.
The drama began with the stars of the show being brought into the square on fork loaders, and throwing out things to the audience, like balloons and fake money. Then an opera singer descended from the Church on a zipline, and let loose a bunch of feathers.

A third girl was sort of 'birthed' from this bizarre contraption filled with water, suspended from a crane. Then everything kind of came together when another crane lifted a bunch of people in the air and they did this sort of choreographed apocalyptic air-dance, all strapped onto this metal cage, but moving in sync with each other. The streamers were flying, it was quite beautiful.

The best moments of the piece were the finale when 42 Icelandic volunteers (and Spanish dancers of the troupe) were harnessed into these cables and then lifted into the air by a crane, and then they all did this dance, way up in the air.

It looked like a combination of modern dance, rock climbing, and nuclear radiation cleanup. They poured glitter out from their suits and into the air and then expanded and contracted their bodies into great shapes.

Certainly an impressive start to the festival, and a giant crowd assembled to enjoy the performance, and soak up the new summer sun!

Friday, June 03, 2011

Music and Nature Conference

I attended my first musicology conference ever the other day, Music and Nature. Strangely, it was the first of its kind in Iceland, perhaps as they are just so used to music and nature being very intertwined (or maybe just lack of funding). It involved a lot of collaborations between many organizations, so I'm glad it came together so well (and everything was in English, which was super duper for me.)

The conference was held over three days in Salurinn, a small and acoustically lovely concert hall in Kópavogur, a neighboring city to Reykjavík (but just a couple minutes away by bus). I only attended the last day of the series as I had other events to attend the first two days, but I still got to hear six lectures. Here's a sample of only some of the topics, and what I gleaned from them in my non-musicologist but interested-composer way.

Lolita Furmane from Latvia discussed nature as an 'energy', and ties between Latvian music and folkloric traditions and other Scandinavian sounds. She made an interesting point that Icelandic cultural traditions never had much of a problem allowing for pagan rites right alongside Christian beliefs, but in Latvia, Christianity is directly opposed to paganism. She also played a sample from a Latvian composer named Santa Ratniece called 'horo horo hata hata' that I desperately want to get my hands on a recording of it. It featured singers acting as an 'owl chorus' and later a 'deer chorus'. Heaps of awesome.

Andreas Waczkat and Birgit Abels (both from Göttingen) discussed an analysis of Sigur Rós's 'Heima' documentary/music video in cultural construct terms. Foucealt was mentioned several times. There was a great point about Sigur Rós defending nature and protesting the building of a new power plant, as they played outdoors in acoustic concerts--while at the same time the video was partially supported by the Icelandic Tourist Board. Also, the very companies they're protesting do allow them to have the electricity for their plugged in megawatt-shows. But then an annoying guy in the audience, perhaps a previous day's presenter, asked an overly complicated question that was hard for everyone to know if it was even a question or that he just wanted to hear himself sound smart. And then that lecture was over.

Øyvin Dybsand (from Oslo) spoke about Johan Halvorsen’s music and his work for scoradatura traditional violin and orchestra called 'Fossegrimen'. His lecture was a bit all over the place, but I would be interested in hearing more of that piece. He also made a point about how many opening statements of 'nature' works (especially works about waterfalls) open on a quiet setting and soon grow, and then end by receding into the distance. This could be an analogy to the viewer coming upon a natural sight/site, as well as the sound of the waterfall itself growing as we approach it. However, it could equally be that our relationship to the piece grows more and more complex, just as our viewing of a natural site becomes more sophisticated the more we walk around and explore nature. I shall have to think about that idea for future works.

The last presenter was Árni Heimir Ingolfsson, who's probably the smartest person in Iceland no djók. He's the program director of the national symphony as well as having a choral ensemble that he directs, and he's published a giant biography of Icelandic composer Jón Leifs (sadly only in Icelandic, though I continue to push him to translate it, in of course, all his spare time). He spoke of Jón Leifs adopting a nationalistic 'Icelandic' style that he used in his compositions, much of them inspired by nature and folk-song traditions. Leifs is a bit like the Icelandic Bartok, if there ever was a comparison to be made. Sadly Leifs' music was highly disregarded (and really, quite dis-liked) even until the 1980's, many decades after the works were written.

But I think the award for my favorite/best presentation of the day goes to a musicologist from the Academy of Arts, Reyjavík, Thorbjörg D. Hall. We have the same last name, I forgot to mention that to her! She made a short presentation on rock and pop documentaries from Iceland and how they portray Reykjavík city life; in turn, through the years they tend more and more to focus on bands that might not be so popular in Iceland but have international appeal. She had a great point that could probably only come from a local, which went something like 'foreigners tell about what Icelandic music is, and we Icelanders are all too happy to apply that to ourselves.' She also mentions that the Icelandic landscapes shown in the pictures don't reflect the everyday lives of locals here, which I personally can relate to. But then again, shots of my tiny one-bedroom apartment and my 5$ IKEA desk for two hours while I click on ProTools sound samples would not make a very exciting documentary, so let's stick in a few backwards waterfalls and some lava fields for good measure.

I don't know if I could have lasted for three days of the conference, that's a lot of topics to discuss! But I was certainly eager to hear more from people, and having a fairly strict time-limit on your presentation certainly keeps things flowing. For being outside of the academic work this past year, this kind of conference was certainly up my alley. Perhaps I'll submit something for it if the conference is held again, a presentation based on my Fulbright research and writing, and a great excuse to visit again.