On Sinfonia (1st movement – History)

Fengjastrútur in Masterkey Studios

Sinfonia for Ensemble Fengjastrútur

Sinfonia is a symphony of sorts, written for the experimental music ensemble Fengjastrútur which is based in Reykjavík, Iceland. Fengjastrútur is an ensemble that specializes in experimental performance, experimental notation and experimental instrumentation. The musicians are not defined by the instrument that they are most comfortable with but rather their general musicality, artistry and how both of those things apply to each individual piece they perform.

Sinfonia is the result of a long-term collaboration with Fengjastrútur, as a composer, performer and organizer but only one of many people who have step into each of these roles.

A Brief History of Fengjastrútur

I was once interrupted when somebody overheard me saying that I had founded Fengjastrútur. It is disputed who founded Fengjastrútur. But we know it was founded in 2007. We performed a piece by Stine Sörlie at a festival and Fengjastrútur was to gradually form a long term collaboration with the S.L.Á.T.U.R. collective, Most memorarbly in the 2011 New Years Concert were several pieces were premiered that have since traveled widely (unexpectedly). 

Fengjastrútur started to appear in the Jaðarber concert series at the Reykjavík Art Museum where the Ensemble got a chance to collaborate with the likes of Gerhards Stäbler, Kunsu Shim and the late great Pauline Oliveros. Through S.L.Á.T.U.R. the ensemble got better and better acquainted with animated notation and eventually would perform music by non-Icelandic artists as well, such as Ryan Ross Smith, Sean McKenna and many others.

In the spring of 2011 I was introduced to a fellow who told me that he was going to be the principal conductor of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra in the next season. The following season was going to be a big deal for Iceland in general and the orchestra in particular because it was going to happen in the new and splendorous Harpa concert hall. This luxurious building was subject to much debate, being finished so shortly after a huge economic recession. None of us experimental composers and musicians, Fengjastrútur, S.L.Á.T.U.R. etc. thought we would ever have anything to do with that building. It was for someone else.

A very Fengjastrútur moment

The soon to be principal conductor claimed that he was going to have a festival of experimental music hosted by the orchestra. He mentioned the possibility of people like Christian Wolff, Alvin Lucier and many more of our favorites possibly coming to Iceland in this festival that was going to happen with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. I was awestruck, nodded politely and then thought to myself: “Yeah right, don’t get your hopes up buddy”.

At the time the Jaðarber concert series was about the only place for this type of highly experimental historical pieces. Music with experimental notation for instance was not commonly programmed in Iceland outside this series and perhaps S.L.Á.T.U.R. events. All of these events were very  simple and low budget and usually held in any house that one could get for free which was sometimes art museums and sometimes private houses, cafes and artist workspaces.

Quite unexpectedly Harpa was to become a quite regular hang out for many of us and mostly through this conductor, whose name is Ilan Volkov, S.L.Á.T.U.R. and Fengjastrútur found their way into Harpa and all these famous people that he mentioned would eventually turn up here.

The first year Fengjastrútur did Burdocks, the following year, we worked with Christian Wolff himself. Then Alvin Lucier and several other international composers would collaborate with the ensemble over those years. 

The wind section of Fengjastrútur in Masterkey Studios

When I got fired

Þráinn Hjálmarsson had become the managing director of Fengjastrútur around the time when Alvin Lucier came to town (Tectonics 2014). He was organizing rehearsals and as it was hard to make everyone’s schedules fit, so he had to “fire” some people. I was one of those that got sacked (for the time being at least). As things turned out however, I’m happy I did.

The next day Ilan Volkov sent out an email to see if anyone in the Fengjastrútur network was free the following day to take the two other big avant-celebrities of this year’s Tectonics festivals for an Icelandic sightseeing. Fengjastrútur was rehearsing on that specific day, but I was free. I borrowed a car from my parents so that I could take Iancu Dumitrescu and Ana-Maria Avram on a “Golden Circle” around Gullfoss and Geysir and other famous tourist attractions in Iceland.

Svanur Vilbergsson

On our first stop at Almannagjá a shaman from Greenland was chanting and banging on a drum there. Looking around slowly with Dumitrescu and Avram it all seemed seemed so natural. I’m a huge fan of their work and had a lot to ask them. We talked about many things and they were very kind. They encouraged me to visit them, I should spend a week and bring my wife along etc. I told them maybe I could figure out a way to come next year to Romania, but they were very firm that I should come “this year” (2014) because who knows how long anyone will live.

We drove to Gullfoss and we were all very happy and nourished by the immense presence of this popular waterfall. Suddenly Ana-Maria Avram asked me: “are you a vegetarian”. I said no, because I wasn’t back then. “Good” she said. I asked why she asked. “Well, for cooking when you come to visit us”. In other words it was already decided that we would visit Romania, this year not the next one.

Later that year me and my wife spent a week in the beautiful countryside of Romania with Ana-Maria Avram and Iancu Dumitrescu and they taught me about Celibedachean phenomenology, Brancusi, Emil Cioran and other interesting things while eating fresh plums and grapes from their land. It was a wonderful time and I learned a lot from them.

I was very saddened when I heard about the passing of Ana-Maria Avram unexpectedly in (2017) and I thought about this wonderful time we had in Romania. Sinfonia is dedicated to her memory. I’m pretty certain she’s doing well wherever she is now and her music will still be influential for many years to come.

In his article on this record in Percorsi Musicali, Ettore Garzia, traces some connections with Ana-Maria Avram in a poetic way as far as I can tell from my limited Italian. I had never thought of this piece in direct relation with her music, which makes it an interesting read for me and a reason to re-visit some of her vivid and energetic recordings which there, fortunately, are a plenty of.