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.

The Magnetic Tapes of Iðunn


Image result for Segulbönd iðunnar  

For those that don’t know, Iðunn is the goddess of poetry in the old Norse mythology. The Iðunn rímur song society has recently published a large collection of notations, along with recordings, of traditional Icelandic folk songs in the genre known as kvæðalög, or the melodies used to perform this form of traditional Icelandic epic poetry. It so happens that the 160 transcriptions in the book were done by yours truly (during a precisely 10 year period). Which is not to say that it wasn’t edited and redone and labored over by several people.


Nevertheless, I think the outcome is fantastic, and the book is a highly collectible object, an independent sequel to Silfurplötur Iðunnar (a similar publication from 15 years earlier). I hope it does justice to the people who supplied the material for this collection of recordings.          

Scandal in the Church of Árbær

Atli Ingólfsson - Wikipedia
Professor Atli Ingólfsson

        Atli Ingólfsson, composer and professor at the Iceland Academy of the Arts recently published a lengthy article in Icelandic about my chamber opera Einvaldsóður. It appeared in the 3rd issue of the online music journal Þræðir. The title of this post is a translation of his title for the article. The article reflects my work Einvaldsóður not just in length but also in form.      
One of the performers, in the role of a priest, elaborates on theological issues to the congregation, outside the church after the “sermon”.
  The title of my opera, Einvaldsóður, means literally and Ode to Monarchy (or even absolutism or the rule of one), a perennially controversial topic. In both the article and the piece there is twist in the title you only discover towards the end.   The 2 performances took place last year in an old traditional sod house church in an open air museum in the outskirts of Reykjavík. Again, here’s a link to the article:     https://lhi.is/tolublad-3-skandall-i-arbaejarkirkju

Whale Choir

This is a drill of the whale sounds choir of visual artist Marina Rees. She asked me to compose a number using this vocal technique which I did and which is not the one here above but I believe it was premiered on July 3rd in the Old Low Light Heritage Centre somewhere in the North of England, marking the opening of her exhibition and the culmination of her residency there. Apperently this “opening act” and its rehearsals got some media attention locally and internationally with interviews with her along with whale choir sounds appearing in BBC television and the Reuters website, to name a few. Quite astonishing actually. We want to try to get the piece performed by other choirs soon.    

Krákulán released on VauxesFlores

Travis Johns, sound artist and artisan boutique gadget maker runs has released my record Krákulán on his label Vauxesflores recently.

This is a collection of electronic pieces written in the summer of 2016. They experiment with various types of midi controlled just intonation and is charecterized (as often is the case) by sharp percussive sounds and elastic rhythms.    

Lárviður Release Concert in Mengi

Fersteinn is celebrating this album coming out in Mengi, Reykjavík, tonight. It is released by Traktorinn. We will play old and new material. The oldest piece will be Lardipésa and the newest are two Hörkvartetts.

We are happy about this amazing cover made by Sam Rees. The record is available both digitally and physically from here. The previous record from Traktorinn will also be for sale. So, release concert in Mengi 21:00 tonight, 2000 kr entrance.

Field//// premiers The Loft

The Canadian improvising quartet field//// asked me to do a “grid” for them after our collaboration in 2015. What that means is a chart for a structured improvisation. Each of the writes a grid which only indicates time, what people are playing, and which instrument they play. No other information is allowed. No Italian.


So my grid is called “The Loft” and will be premiered at the Graffiti Gallery in Winnipeg, September 22nd. The concert will also include other grids by the members. Should be an interesting show.

Toyen fil og klafferi premiers Leyfðu barninu on Ultima Festival.

Tomorrow Toyen, fil og klafferi will premier my new piece Leyfðu barninu for bass clarinet, bassoon, viola and cello. It forms a pair of pieces with Leyfðu hjólinu which the same ensemble premiered and performed earlier this year in different parts of Norway, Sweden and Iceland.

The concert starts at noon at Sentralen, and is part of the Ultima Festival 2017. The concert will include pieces by Hafdís Bjarnadóttir, Bergrún Snæbjörnsdóttir, Lars Skoglund and the clarinetist of the group Kristine Tjögersen.