I was going to profile an Australian artist called Ben Frost. A friend recently sent a link to his School of Emotional Engineering song To Be Continued/Refrain and I thought it was pretty nice. I like the self-aware crackling and the effect on the piano. I like the whispers, the echoes and the repetition. As I started reading about Frost I realised he is involved in a community of musicians and composers who are either based in, have recorded in or are from Iceland. This community includes Ben Frost of course, who now lives in Reykjavík, Valgeir Sigurosson, Nico Muhly, Amina, Jón Þór Birgisso (Jonsi), Sigur Ros, Mum, cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir and of course Bjork. While you may not have heard of them all, chances are you have heard of some of these performers and musicians.
I don’t think it is surprising that a place like Iceland is the home of and a magnet for such intense creative output. I think places with an extreme environment can act like a pressure cooker for self expression. And by extreme environment I don’t always mean the climate, it can also be social or political extremities – forces that can act as a weight on the human spirit. With pressure, there is density. This is true for the physical world, and perhaps also for the spiritual and creative realms.
I don’t know much about Iceland except for their progressive attitude, mystical tendencies, cold climate and hard living. I came across a video link on Dylan Carlson’s blog Dr Carlson Albion featuring Icelandic people and their beliefs in the ‘invisible world’. Perhaps their consistent connection with their environment has enabled a consistently open-minded attitude towards the unknowable. According to a 2005 New York Times article, the majority of Icelanders either believe in elves or are unwilling to rule out their existence.
The link between the northern countries and our own Anglosaxon heritage is tangible. Beowulf is one of the first instances of Anglosaxon story telling. Set in Scandinavia its author is unknown and was most likely an aural tradition that became a recorded document and more or less the beginning of Anglosaxon literature. This story very much echoes the Icelandic sagas and still resonates with us today. The Icelandic author Halldor Laxness also resonated with the western world. He won the Nobel prize for literature in 1955 and has written books that reflect the hardships of Icelandic life and the importance of self-reliance and independence in their culture. His stories seem analogous of the country itself, a blend of hostile brutality and fragile beauty.
The glacial sounds of Iceland are very much a trend in instrumental music right now. Think of the music of Peter Broderick, Nils Frahm, Library Tapes, Grouper and Sylvain Chauveau for example. They all seem to be creating work that is silent, crushing, forging, melancholic and expansive. It seems the brutality and beauty of Iceland has a far reach and continues to be a source of wonder and inspiration for natives and outsiders.