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.

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