About Einvaldsóður or Monarchy

Einvaldsóður is an opera about the history of the world – greed and pride. The text is an Icelandic 17th century poem by reverend Guðmundur Erlendsson who was one of Iceland’s most beloved poets at one point but fell into obscurity during the 20th century. The text is in turn based on the very long poem Monarchie by sir David Lyndsay.

This transcription which was made by Dr. Robert Cook, contains 307 stanzas of fornyrðislag, a meter affiliated with much older poetry or Eddic poetry.

Here my passion for natural tunings and liberal rhythm collide with traditional Icelandic performance styles. You could say it’s influenced by rímur performance even though the poetry has a different meter, but more particluarly it is based on the ideas of Hreinn Steingrímsson (good friend of Lucky Moscow) and Danish ethnomusicologist Svend Nielsen.

Their ideas about “stemma” are the main ingredient in the compositional approach I take in this piece. Stemma (related to stimme or stimmung, voice or tuning) is sometimes roughly translated to “tune” or “song”. In the approach taken this definition doesn’t quite cover it. It’s like saying: “Raga means scale”.

Anyhow, a melody is varied in time based on the meter, it reacts to the poetry but does small quasi improvisatory variations so that the song never fully stays the same and there is no one absolute version of it necessarily. On top of that it can expand and contract in the size of intervals it uses, and yet maintain the same contour or number of pitches.

This I mapped onto fixed just intonation variants which evolve in its own way during the performance (instruments have fixed pitches the voices have more flexibility).

This way I was able to combine an instrument I developed based on old descriptions of a now extinct instrument. I have a 36 tone just intonation system where each tone has a “complement” within the other half of the scale, in other words, the whole scale mirrors around the center. This was reflected by the movable bridges in the design of this instrument, playing pitches on either side of each string, demonstrating just intonation in its most elemental form. Halldór Úlfarsson helped me design these, and I also use his famous Halldorophone in this piece. I also use another “recent” Icelandic instrument, the Thranophone, both of which use feedback in acoustic interaction.

The other instruments approximate the same intervals by either scordatura or 1/6th tones, the 36 notes are somewhat evenly spread. This is notated by the Maneri/Ellis notation or an adaptation of it, I find that some more common kinds of writing 1/6th tones recently don’t differentiate visually enough between 1/6th tones and 1/8th tones. On the other hand I only use one type of microtone in the notation. This way, every chromatic pitch can go a little bit up or a little bit down.

The evolution of the poem and the stemma determines the instrumental accompaniment rather than the other way around, emphasizing the voices and their expression (which may seem flat and reserved by people of non-Lutheran background).

The notation is the same old, same old. Animated notation for all the 6 instrumentalists watching the same video file on different screens. Notes and objects on traditional 5 line staves moving from right to left and hitting a vertical line. I’m very happy these days to find so simple and user friendly methods, using standard video files and nothing fancy.

The video includes 4 audio tracks, 2 of which are electronic sounds and two of which are audio instructions for the vocalists. They get the main pitches and starting points of each couplet in each stanza, plus the last syllable of each stanza, traditionally know as the seimur.

As one can see in the videos the setting was very low key. The costumes reflected the time of the narrative and the time of writing while the instruments reflected on all of these times plus the time since. The theatrical parts are very minimal but the location does most of the acting. It’s a very old church in an open air museum, people had to walk a bit to get there, the closest restrooms were not so close and there was mostly natural lighting. When the performance was over it was dark because there were no street lights that were very close and car noises felt somewhat distant despite the fact that we were technically still within city limits. This place is just a kilometer from where I grew up.

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