Monday, September 10, 2007

Something Old, Something New

Well, I'm back from a full week in Reykjavik and surroundings, plus two travel days, and recovering at home after a long, hot shower, blissfully absent the smell of rotten eggs. No disrespect to Iceland's unique and environmentally sound hot water supply, but damn. I'm also sorting through the usual chaotic set of impressions, experiences and memories, good and bad, that accompany such a tip-of-the-iceberg immersion in a new culture. Once again, though, I return madly, hopelessly in love with a place, or rather its landscape. I was woefully under-equipped for venturing out into the wilderness on this trip, though I did manage some short excursions into places like Þingvellir national park, seen above, where you can see the American and Eurasian tectonic plates – the ridges at left and right, respectively – pulling apart.

Iceland is everything I'd read: rough, exotic, hip, cultured, friendly, bleak, exciting, a curious mix of traits, with aspects of both Nordic social organization and a frontier-like chaos of events. The Hvönn Choir and Gunnsteinn Ólafsson gave an enthusiastic, lovely-sounding performance of two movements from my choral piece Shiki, graciously letting me join them in singing, and even managed to find a kargyraa guy for the second movement. The festival itself went off rather well, without much of the usual dick-swinging that accompanies a largely male group of artists with big egos being sequestered together for a week. I admit that I socialize minimally in such circumstances, not because I don't like people, but because I get claustrophobic in groups full of people I don't know. I can manage a night or two at the bar, chatting and trading ideas, but at heart I'm a homebody, something I get from my father, and prefer to spend evenings with my wife, or talking in the company of trusted friends. And at New Music events, the conversation can become circular, with the same topics coming up over and over. At such times, I prefer to strike off on my own or, as with this week, with a few buddies. One of the best parts of the week was getting to hang out with one of my favorite colleagues, composer Antti Auvinen, whom I rarely get to see more than once or twice a year due to his living in Jyväskylä in central Finland. He's a cool guy, a serious artist who doesn't take himself too seriously, as another friend once put it, and it's always a pleasure to talk with him. Our music sounds like we're from different planets, yet we see eye-to-eye on a great many issues. He's funny as hell, a character, and very much the way his music sounds: jerky, hyperactive, peppering his talk with lots of sound effects, yet strangely lucid, and with startling moments of introspection and calm. Antti does great work with professional and amateur ensembles out in the provinces, but I selfishly hope that the Helsinki scene will be able to steal him away someday soon.

Reykjavik itself is a charming, busy, terminally hip little city, full of activity and life, far from what one would expect from its location and population.
Once I got used to the staggering, breathtaking prices, and the notion that I'd be paying off the trip till Easter, I had a wonderful time. The Icelandic people I found to be friendly, welcoming, zany, but with a curiously Finnish sense of humor, self-deprecating and unpretentious, and unashamedly proud of their country and heritage. It's remarkable how many artists there, having gone abroad to study, ultimately return, never having intended to stay away for long.

What I most enjoyed was hearing the language spoken all around me for the first time. I've heard bits of Icelandic before, but never a whole backdrop of it. Being an English speaker is sometimes a lonely state, oddly enough for one of the world's dominant language groups. I occasionally miss the sense of kinship that comes of having a surrounding group of cognate languages, siblings, half-siblings and cousins to our own. As much as the influence of vernacular Latin, French and others have enriched English and made it singularly adaptable and fluid as a mode of verbal construction, it's an isolated language, with no close relatives like the pan-Scandinavian group of Swedish, Danish and Norwegian, all of whose speakers conversed freely this past week (though Swedish-speaking friends tell me that talking with Danes usually involves a lot of smile-and-nod). Even Finland and Estonia share a close kinship in this regard. Despite their cultures being so different and their languages mutually unintelligible (contrary to popular myth, Finns and Estonians can't understand each other freely), there's still a sense of shared roots, of "these are our people" that I've never had as an English speaker, and a New World one at that.

So in spite of not understanding more than a few words, and finding that it sounds nothing like modern English (indeed, Dutch and Swedish are closer), hearing Icelandic still started a twitch of recognition in some long-dormant corner of my subconscious, a sense of close familiarity with the sounds, rhythms and cadences of the language, and a desire to understand more of it. There was a sense that along with the changes that made English such a force in the modern world, we have lost a level of familial connection with other languages, like the black-sheep sibling who ventures out into the world and never quite fits in again at holiday dinners. There's an ancient poetry to Icelandic, the impression of which was only strengthened when I got to hear some Icelandic folk music, in the powerful form of Bára Grimsdóttir, whose singing had an unaffected beauty and immediacy, and whose control of a huge range vocal timbres is exactly what I was going on about a few posts ago. I've since heard some of her choral music, and she's an accomplished composer as well, it seems. Her performance of an Icelandic song she introduced as the Seafarer's Hymn had tears welling up in my eyes, not least due to the surprise, crystalline addition of a Finnish kantele to the accompaniment, which up to that point had consisted of various string instruments familiar and strange played by Chris Foster. Truly memorable.

Another highlight of the week was a barnstorming performance of Le Sacre du Printemps by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra which, to quote Pres. Josiah Bartlet from The West Wing, "has got some serious game". I'm slightly ashamed to admit that I blew off a festival concert for this, but it was unforgettable: raw, edgy, and not a little bit wild. The culmination of the first part was like a tsunami, with all the non-congruent rhythmic cycles going off with great precision, yet feeling like the barely-controlled bacchanale it really is. The final upward thrust of the piece, which you always know is coming, somehow came as a complete surprise this time, like a slap in the face. It was all I could do to keep from following Debussy's lead (or was it Ravel?), springing to my feet and shouting, "Genius! Genius!"

The strange thing is, I don't really know what motivated me to go to the concert, other than that I felt an irrepressible need to hear this piece again, right now. It's heresy to admit this, but unlike most composers, I'd never been truly captivated by Le Sacre. The orchestration has always been fascinating, and indeed, there are parts of my recent orchestra piece, Solen, that would not be the way they are without Le Sacre (six solo violas, who else but Stravinsky could have thought of that?). But for me, twentieth-century music always began and ended with Debussy, and to some extent Bartók, whose mantles as the great innovators of the century I've always felt were unfairly usurped by Schoenberg and Stravinsky. With Stravinsky especially – with the exception of pieces like Symphony of Psalms and the Elegy for solo viola, which are uniquely expressive works in his output – I'd gotten the impression of being able to see all the strings being pulled, of not being quite as impressed as I should, despite the bells and whistles. Stravinsky was better than anyone at picking up fashionable stylistic elements that were in the air and polishing them to a gleaming shine, but that was pretty much it as far as I was concerned. I've heard Le Sacre live many times, and yet it wasn't until now that it hit me why this piece caused a riot at its première. (Yeah, yeah, I know that story may have been inflated, but it's worthy of legend, so I'll let it go.) The primal, raging energy of the score, the intended cacophonic effect of the rhythmic complexity, was evident for the first time, and I went back to the hotel – after a long, long drinking session with members of the orchestra, who graciously welcomed Antti and me like part of the band – burning with the desire to break out a score and recording and go through it again.

Revelations abounded on this trip, and the country itself was another major shock, one that will necessitate another post. I plan on folding it into my delayed ramblings on landscape and "Nordicity" as it concerns my coming to Finland, but that will have to wait another few days. For now, I'll end by stating that everyone should go to Iceland. Now. Next time, I'm bringing a backpack and a good tent. Waterproofed. For a country with a self-explanatory name, it sure rains a lot.

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