Considering its population of less than 400,000 people, Iceland has produced an extraordinary number of quality contemporary composers. And, more importantly, it has produced a sound that we hear immediately as Icelandic.
This is not to stereotype Icelandic music. The range of these musicians is considerable and the genres in which they work is wide. But certain elements can often be found: atmospheric electronic ambience, recurring melodies that take a page from minimalists like Philip Glass, and harmonies that remain within a fixed key.
Two new recordings showcase the wildest reaches of two Icelandic composers.
A Sunrise Session, composer Ólafur Arnalds’s new “visual EP,” is a Spartan essay in color. It was filmed on the 2020 Winter Solstice, featuring the composer on piano and synthesizer performing alongside a string quartet. .
It begins with Spiral, a slowly unfurling weave of string lines that open like an umbrella. The color is cold, as I imagine Iceland was on the solstice evening when this visual EP was filmed. A quiet keyboard pokes its head out at the end of the track, like an animal checking if the coast is clear.
The visuals of Still/ Sound are striking. The camera moves in constant rotation throughout the room, showcasing the string quartet and Arnalds himself meandering between a synthesizer and a piano. is The piece has a futuristic sound, for all of its string texture. The synthesizer adds a flavor to the sound that overpowers the human element.
The visual EP ends with We Contain Multitudes, a song of soft longing with piano playing reminiscent of American R&B. It is a solo track performed by the composer. It is a lonely work, in stark contrast with the ensemble sound of the previous tracks. And yet it is a fitting end. The sun rises. The solstice is over, and the composer is quiet for the first time.
The world of Moonbow, a new album by composer Gunnar Andreas Kristinsson, couldn’t be further, musically from Sunrise Session. And yet there is a quality of sound that I find common to both recordings with their emphasis on slowly moving harmony.
Moonbow’s sound is dominated by its orchestration, reminiscent of atonal music by Webern or Berg. Sisyfos, the first track on the album, is a stunning showcase of clarinet virtuosity set alongside an ensemble of 13 musicians.
The album’s title track, Moonbow, is a slowly moving mass of strings that devolves into something wild. Over the course of 15 minutes, Kristinsson uses slightly changing rhythmic motifs to guide the piece.
The album’s brightest track is Roots I, a strange and terrific piece built around droning notes. Subdued strings lie atmospherically below woodwinds that intone repeating notes. It feels like meditation, until it descends into chaos at its end.
Perhaps because this album is a collection of a decade of works from the composer, it can lack focus. The individual pieces, while fascinating on their own, don’t speak to each other the way I had hoped they would. The saving grace is that several of the tracks are relatively long so it’s easy to get lost in their individual worlds before leaving them behind.
Icelandic music’s prominence in the contemporary world is not new. The record label, Bedroom Community, the band Sigur Rós, the musician Björk, and now a new crop of celebrated composers including the film composer, Hildur Guðnadóttir, are just some of the bright spots that have emerged in the past two decades. To generalize, Icelandic contemporary music sounds more as if it evolved out of indie rock and electronic music than the contemporary classical tradition of many American composers. And this gives it its charm.