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)

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

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.

Einvaldsóður – opera, coming out on recording soon

Soon it will be released online and on a double CD the opera Einvaldsóður, which was premiered in 2017 in an old turf house church in Árbær Open Air Museum. 
The soprano
The tenor (priest)
The wind section
wind section #2
The string section
the altar
The Halldorophone
in an old country church

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:

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.