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 their general musicality or artistry and how both of those things apply to each individual piece they perform.

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

A Brief History of Fengjastrútur

I was once interrupted when someone 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 names 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”.

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 that 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 and a shaman from Greenland was chanting and banging on a drum there. Looking around slowly with Dumitrescu and Avram it all 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.

New article in the Italian Webzine Percorsi Musicali

Ettore Garzia’s introduction to the article on sinfonia and my work in general for Percorsi Musicale

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.

Mimitabu 10 year anniversary

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

Na hör’n Sie mal: Ohren auf Island


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.

Vorlag/Sumarlag and Skartamannafélagið reviewed in the Sound Projector

“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.

Dark Music Days

The concert tonight

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.

Aesthetics for Birds

An ode to suburbia (a chamber symphony in 2 movements)

Caput Ensemble

November 2nd in Breiðholtskirkja the Caput Ensemble premiered my new piece Stífluhringurinn.

The Caput woodwing section: Þórunn Björnsdóttir bass recorder, Steinunn Vala Pálsdóttir Alto Flute, Guðni Franzson on Clarinet and all the way on the right, Emil Friðfinnsson, French Horn.

The piece works with screen scores or animated notation, as does most of my work. It is rhythm without pulse or music without measure. Lines such as glissando lines, are never straight, everything is always on the move. There are microtones in a sort of counterpoint. Harmonicas, banjo, mandolin, recorder, steel string guitars, harpsichord and electronics are blended in with the expected brass, strings and woodwinds of a more conventional chamber music or sinfonietta setting.

In the above video we can hear a moment in the middle of the first movement recorded in dress rehearsal in Breiðholtskirkja

The Caput string section keeping up with the big screen. Hildigunnur Halldórsdóttir, Herdís Anna and Sigurður Halldórsson.

The piece comes in 2 parts 1. Arabakki and 2. Klettabær. A piece by Lars Graugard was sandwiched in between them in the program, thereby encapsulating the event into one thing. Stífluhringurinn is a total of 35 minutes for 13 instruments and electronics.

Steef van Oosterhout owning it in Stifluhringurinn

In the below excerpt we see a moment from the dress rehearsal from the beginning of the first movement.

The piece takes its name from local lore. The Dam Circle – a path in a river valley between two Reykjavík Suburbs. It is a place where bikes, horses, geese, ducks, ponies and people walking by meet in an in between area. Once you cross the bridge on the dam you see the other side of the river.

Banjo seen in concert for the first time in the 30 + year history of the Caput Ensemble.

I’ve been working on the piece for one and a half year or so. I worked closely with members of the Caput Ensemble which I greatly admire and respect, as I’ve been attending their concerts since I was a teenager (last century). It was a joy working with them. This is the third project I do with them and they were kind enough to let me paint on an enormous canvas this time. The photos and videos were done by my dear wife Katelin Parsons

The composer of suburbia

Writings about digital notation

The Digital Score by Craig Vear

In “The Digital Score” Craig Vear explores various novel digital notation methods, with a broad scope. Screen scores, animated notation, live scores interactivity, algorithmic and also digital notations or score formations that are not necessarily visual. It came out earlier this year and seems like a very big moment for the subject.

He writes about my Kvartett no. 7 in one chapter. It was featured at a concert workshop given by the Ligeti String Quartet at the De Montfort University in Leicester not too long before the book was published. The event was organized by Craig Vear who is a professor there and he asked me a few questions and then sent me a draft of what he had written about my piece. Everything he wrote about my work is spot on and I couldn’t have said it better.

Sonic Writing by Thor Magnusson (or Þórhallur Magnússon)

Also, this book by Thor Magnusson came out recently. This one has a very broad scope. It does have a short chapter on animated notation, where the S.L.Á.T.U.R. collective gets an honorable mention. The cover even features a snapshot of a work by Ryan Ross Smith which uses animated notation. This book is a giant undertaking and full of interesting analyses.

Also, recently, singer María Sól Ingólfsdóttir wrote her B.A. about Einvaldsóður, with emphasis on audio notation, not animated notation per se, but digital notation anyhow. Very interesting account of the methods used in writing for singers in Einvaldsóður and the Whale Choir project in which see led the Reykjavík performance splendidly.

There are now plenty of academic writings and some conferences about the subject of experimental digital notation. This year I have participated in two events relating to the TENOR network one in the Open Circuit Festival in the University of Liverpool and the other was the Tenor conference in Monash University in Melbourne Australia in which I participated remotely. It is amazing how this is popping up everywhere now and seems almost mainstream – at least in Universities. I’ve ran into lots of people doing interesting things in this field that I hadn’t heard about until recently. I hope our methods will be more readily accepted, within the Universities or without.

Ensemble Adapter – September Tour

Ensemble Adapter has been touring with a Danish-Icelandic program on various festivals this month, the last one being tonight in Italy. Kvartett no. 7 has been on their program, which they have also done tremendously well on earlier occasions. Always an honor to have them play my music since they are amazing musicians and good people. These have been the tour dates so far, as well as the program:

September Tour
Music from Denmark & Iceland

Musik 21 Festival
Thu | 5. September | 20:00
Eisfabrik | Hannover (D)
www.musik 21niedersachsen.de

Open Days Festival
Sun | 15. September | 15:30
Utzon Center | Aalborg (DK)

Transart Festival
Tue | 24. September | 19:00
Vigilius Mountain Resort | Lana (IT)

Simon Steen-Andersen – History of my Instrument, Páll Ívan frá Eiðum – Þjóðlag, Jesper Pedersen – SOL50 Curiosity (WP), Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson – Kvartett 7, Haukur Þór Harðarson – I (WP), Simon Løffler – b