Ensemble Fengjastrútur on the evening of March 8th 2019 premier and the recording session two days later, consisted (as usually) of an eclectic combination of very talented individuals, each with an interesting and wide background.
Each one of them is a great artist and it was a truly wonderful experience to work with them. Only a tiny little aspect of each performer is present on this recording because there is so much to say about each one of them:
Þórunn Björnsdóttir is a multidisciplinary artist. She studied Sound & Vision in the Hague, has published poetry done various types of compositions and performance pieces but is also a serious recorder player and teacher. She has been a member of Fengjastrútur since the very beginning. She has also written pieces for Fengjastrútur on other occasions.
Páll Ivan frá Eiðum is also a multidisciplinary artist. He is a composer, for instance of works with animated notation and has written many for Fengjastrútur for instance. He’s a painter, a “pop” musician, a video artist, a sound artist and a political satirist of sorts. He is also a very talented multi-instrumentalist with a great ear and very dynamic in all kinds of ensemble interactions. We’ve been very much together on this journey since 2002.
Björn Davíð Kristjánsson is a flautist of a higher order. He taught my sister how to play the flute (yeah, Iceland) and he is an overall very likeable human being. He has performed with the Icelandic Flute Choir since the beginning and countless other groups and ensembles.
Ásthildur Ákadóttir is a pianist, a composer and a multi-disciplinary everything like many others in this group. She was in Pascal Pinon, which was a successful indie rock band which toured the world a few times couple of years ago. Like many other people performing in this group she could probably have been in any role and done it equally well.
Gunnar Grímsson is the only member of Fengjastrútur to have met John Cage. He studied electronic music in Utrecht in the 80’s. He has been a primus motor in Fengjastrútur since the beginning and I can’t remember any Fengjastrútur performance that he wasn’t in. He has also been important in the Reykjavík improvised and electronic music scene and has been part of the group Jói á hakanum. He’s also a web developer and an activist.
Andrés Þór Þorvarðarson is a composer and a percussionist and has been in various bands such as Milkhouse and has been active in the Reykjavík arts collective Post-dreifing. When I met him for the first time in many years I was trying to remember where I knew him from. He greeted me with an apology and reminded my that he had been in the most difficult class I ever knew when I was teaching music theory in Hafnarfjörður music school. Interesting! I don’t know how many teachers, including ones in higher education deserve my apology, feel free to remind me, anyone. Anyhow, this consummate gentleman put the dishes in the dishwasher in the studio and turned it on – unasked. I think that was a great contribution to the studio owner saying: “you guys can come back anytime”. Thanks Andrés.
Hafdís Bjarnadóttir is a composer, jazz guitarist and painter. She has written for orchestras and ensembles and has also been an active performer in Fengjastrútur and many other groups and ensembles. She has released several albums that reflect her eclectic nature as an artist. And yes, she also knits and knitting patterns sometimes find their way into her compositions.
Svanur Vilbergsson is a highly esteemed classical guitarist. He studied in Escola Luthier in Barcelona and in the conservatories in Hague and Maastricht. He has been a driving force in the ensemble Stirni and The Icelandic Guitar Trio. Also he has performed with The Caput Ensemble and done plenty of solo and duo concerts both locally and abroad.
Hallvarður Ásgeirsson is a composer and improviser. His output spans the broad spectrum between contemporary composition – free jazz and rock. He also performs with the Mantra band. We played together in the Bulgarian folk music group Stórsveit Nix Noltes. He has been active in Fengjastrútur throughout the years, yet another great example of the ecclecticism in the ensemble in particular and Icelandic music life in general. I have been performing with him all kinds of things, improvised or otherwise since last century. He brought me into the free improvisation at a young age.
The Engineering/Production team
Jesper Pedersen just released a record on his own. Read my liner notes about him there. He has been an integral part of “my sound” (so to speak) since Horpma I. He works with modular synths, animated notation etc and has been very active in S.L.Á.T.U.R. / Fengjastrútur and all this since his transmigration from Denmark to Iceland in 2009, although he was probably actively participating in all of this earlier.
Katrín Helga Ólafsdóttir or K.óla, like Andrés is a part of the Post-dreifing collective. She is a composer, singer, producer, engineer and well – performance artist. She is a rising star on the Icelandic omni-arts scene but on this record she was mostly on the buttons and using her very precise ears.
So a very talented and ecclectic group full of multi-talents and flexible musicianship. I have worked quite frequently with Fengjastrútur throughout this last decade and as I say I have worked closely with a lot of these people for a long time. Therefore there are a lot of unwritten things in the score that go without saying. They understand my aesthetic. It was remarkably easy. We had a very nice and quick professional recording session in Masterkey Studios in Seltjarnarnes. The group sat in a circle, just like Buena Vista Social Club, there was good atmosphere and they were tight.
The concert in Mengi two days earlier was also an adventure. There is a cat that frequents concerts at Mengi. According to co-ordinator Ragnheiður Elísabet Þuríðardóttir, the premier was the first time the cat sat through a whole concert.
The Worcestershirean artist Sam T. Rees and I have worked together for a few years and we’ve made some record covers together. Well, it’s his record covers, I only make the sound part. He does his best work unobstructed (like most artists). The artwork is Art Work or works of art.
He is an enthusiast of print, ink and obscure old, rare DIY methods that never really caught on. He has an eclectic collection of obsolete printers, digital, analog, non-electrical, gelatinous or fully vegan. Some date back more than a 100 years, others (the one we use the most for instance) only 70. He appeared on Icelandic television once:
3d design indeed. I came into his studio one day discussing the prospect of the sinfonia project. He already had some ideas. He showed me anonymous 70 to a 100 year old drawings that he had ordered on ebay for less than 10 quid each. We wondered if they are faked or if they could be, if they are actually that old. They did a good job of making them look old so we figured that if somebody went through all the trouble to fake them, a) they did a good job and b) they would probably want to make more money off of them.
Why he bought these items in the first place I don’t know but they had this strange aura, like going to somebody else’s great grandparents drawers to find embarrassing doodles that were never meant to be seen publicly perhaps. I feel a bit guilty now that I say that. Nevertheless, the artists are anonymous to us as they are to the potential buyers of our record.
The elephant man on the front cover is such a drawing. I love it. Additionally there are trains and a princess of some sort. We both have a love of trains, and so does my son. Old obsolete train tickets have featured on our CDs before.
Up until now we’ve mostly done CDs but this time we’re doing vinyl for the first time. It is quite pricey but each “copy” is entirely unique, both the covers and the records themselves as each is recorded individually and everything is done by hand in Iceland – there is no getting things from overseas and sending them to overseas etc. The cover the records, the cd’s and everything are made by artisans and artists in Iceland (and yes Sam is usually based in Iceland but is currently trapped in England).
Me and Sam both agreed of the success of Lárviður by my band Fersteinn, the whole record inside and out.
But I find Sinfónía to be a high point of our collaboration so far as it is the result of a long-term collaboration.
His artworks are very unique, prints and dystopian installations of various robotized found objects etc. A sense of a dark but humorous but creepy eerie-ness seems to cloud everything he does, which might give one a totally different perception of what a consummate gentleman he is in person.
He works a lot with re-used materials – as a matter of fact, the vinyl covers themselves, are re-used. If you look inside each sleeve, you will find which record this sleeve used to cover, before it was inverted.
The Fengjastrútur concert in Mengi was going to have several older pieces and maybe one or two new ones. The new one grew into a symphony of sorts. Consequently there wasn’t room for anything else on the program. As is the case with many other recent works of mine, this one deals with four elements, sequentially and/or simultaneously.
For most of my concert music animated notation is a de facto thing. It has become my vehicle to express the kind of rhythmic elasticity that the music needs. There really is no other way and it is a thing of its own. Off course the music has grown in symbiosis with it as is the case with any form of notation – years of trial and error have guided me figuring out what is realistic within this medium. The score is a video file. It is fixed. The musicians and I are the only people who get to see it usually, unless you search for the scores online at home. As an audience you cannot see them in concert. The presentation is simple, almost traditional.
Everybody (the 9 musicians that is) is sitting around a table. There is a variety of instruments, 3 groups of 3. Flutes/recorders, plucked strings/harmonicas, percussion and everyone has some other sound making devices as well. The plucked strings are tuned 1/6th of a whole-tone (33cents) apart (very small intervals). The same is true for the harmonicas although they and the bottles are the only instruments that play in the strict just intonation version of the 36 note in an octave scheme (imagine a piano with 3 times the amount of notes if your unfamiliar with this kind of talk). So many notes spread narrowly, not exactly evenly and not exactly not. The recorders and flutes approximate according to 1/6th tone symbols.
Back in 2006 my backpack was stolen from a hotel room in Denmark. It contained two important things. My first laptop (which luckily did have the most important stuff backed up elsewhere) and the Ratio Book, which I had borrowed from Áki Ásgeirsson and never seen a copy of anywhere since. The book was about ratios and music with the proceedings from some conference in The Hague or something like that. There was an article by James Tenney which opened up my ears and mind to the two-sided nature of note relationships – the relationships of short notes vs. the relationships of long notes, as I see it. In other words, the ear is more specific when it has more time and more vague when it has less time. When it has little time it likes to recognize the contour and rounds things of to the simplest common denominator (or simplest similar ratio) but with more time you get higher resolution and a more specific and subtler sense of, well, harmonicity.
A mind blowing discovery for me. I had started reading Partch at 20. It was kind of him to write Genesis of a Music for that exact purpose, as he himself said, so that one wouldn’t have to start from scratch like he did. Back to Denmark in 2006, I heard a lecture by Tristan Murail where he played a fake piano sound, based on sine-waves, rounded off to 1/8th of a tone as is a common practice in France nowadays. It sounded right to me. Confirmed what had Tenney said.
This opened me for the possibility that intonation is first and foremost a practice, not just a relationship of fixed entities. My inquiries into traditional Icelandic rímur folk song only strengthened my conviction. The hotel lobby had a internet machine for customers. I had to use it to check my email. A friend had sent out an email saying that James Tenney had just passed away. I was deeply saddened even though I never met the guy, such an enormous everything, great composer, theorist and many other things.
Tenney had guided my view a little further. Intonation is a practice. Just intonation is a moving target or that is to say physical instruments are moving targets. The longer the notes the more relevant it is. Are the Harmonicas therefore not tuned the same as the guitars in Sinfonia? What about the flute and recorders? It depends on how hard you blow into the harmonica, where exactly, and how hard you press the string on the fretboard. Your embrochure and fingering on a wind instrument will vary, as will the instrument. The performers are asked to listen and find a soft landing spot somewhere around there, if they don’t hit the just intonation target, they will hit one of its neighbors. Growing up in a culture that had no resonant spaces for centuries makes one think of pitch as a continuum and rightly so because there is no fixed point in space.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Percorsi Musicali wrote a somewhat lengthy article about my upcoming record on Carrier Records, Sinfonia in general and my music in particular. This is an honor. I find the article insightful and poetic. It includes a long quote in English from my conversation with Ettore Garzia, editor of Percorsi Musicali. Check it.
Ensemble Mimitabu in Gothenburg, Sweden will celebrate its 10 year anniversary in April. I will participate and my present to them is my new piece Hótel Natúra, written for this very occasion. The concert will take place at Alantale, Gothenburg on the 18th of April. It will include classics from the ensemble’s repertoire, including works by Ylva Lund Bergner, Esaias Järnegard, Johan Svenson, Lina Järnegard and Martin Rane Bauck. Should be excting, I’m excited.
UPDATE-delayed due to covid
On March 6th notabu.ensemble will give a concert with an all Icelandic program in Tonhalle Düsseldorf under the title Ohren auf Island. It has been curated by Atli Ingólfsson and I’m happy to be part of it. They will perform my piece Spurningaleikur for 8 musicians as pieces by Hugi Guðmundsson, Hafdís Bjarnadóttir, Þráinn Hjálmarsson, Þuríður Jónsdóttir and Atli Ingólfsson’s double clarinet concerto Orgoras Speaks. It starts at 8pm (20:00). Come, don’t be shy.
“Every piece on Skartamannafelagid is a triumph of this deeply integrated way of composing; layers pulling in different directions, astonishingly novel textures and sounds. We have something that appears to effortlessly bypass many conventions of form, melody and rhythm.”
“A mesmerising set; absolutely gorgeous music.”
Read the whole thing here:
The Sound Projector recently reviewed two of my latest Traktorinn releases. This features also talks a little bit about my previous work and the Traktorinn label in general. The cover design of Sam Rees for instance. He also wrote recently about Charles Ross’ Stórval.
Myrkir Músíkdagar or Dark Music Days in Reykjavík are happnening as we speak. Tonight Heiða Árnadóttir will premier my piece Skrafað í skurði as well as pieces by Birgit Djupedal, Þóranna Björnsdóttir and Þórunn Björnsdóttir. She is the special featured artist of this years festival. She had another concert last year where my piece Laberico Narabida was premiered, a micro-opera in 4 movements simultaneously. The piece tonight is a sequel of sorts, or part of a 3 piece cycle which will culminate next year. The concert tonight will take place at Norræna húsið or the Nordic House at 8pm.
The following day, tomorrow, Tinna Þorsteinsdóttir will perform my piece Mamma pikkar á tölvu sumarið 1988 (or Mother writing on a computer, summer 1988) for toy piano. It will take place in Kaldalón, Harpa at 3pm tomorrow February 1st and it’s a children friendly concert, entitled Murky Kids – Toy Piano Story. Both Tinna and Heiða are fabulous performers – they are well worth seeing.