Review: New Icelandic Voices

First published in the Guardian on 6 October, 2014

It’s tenuous to describe a country’s contemporary music ‘sound’ – most likely there are umpteen – and even more tenuous to ascribe that sound to landscape. But this BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra concert of new Icelandic works revealed a pronounced shared aesthetic among some, at least, of the country’s rising young composers. And call me prescriptive, but with their expansive vistas, subterranean rumbles, pale textures and chilly microtonal clusters, images of geysers and icy tundra were never far from the imagination.

Conductor Ilan Volkov got to know the Reykjavik composers’ collective SLATUR during his recent stint as music director of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra; clearly their playful, DIY, communication-focused ethos struck a chord. In Gudmundur Steinn Gunnarsson’s Sporgyla, players gathered around large digitised graphic scores for a happy, chatty rendering of Iceland’s ancient parliament. In Hlynur Adils Vilmarsson’s bd, a violinist broke a string but didn’t bother going offstage to mend it: the piece is full of unfussy slides and percussive tapping.

The biggest name of the bill – and the only non-SLATUR composer – was Anna Thorvaldsdottir, whose Aeriality was the most assured piece and in some ways the most traditional. Out of carefully layered blankets of white sounds and gurgling interludes came a big, sweeping melody, hints of Jon Leifs. David Brynjar Franzson’s on Matter and Materiality was a strikingly static score whose solo cellist (here Severine Ballon) hovers around a plaintive note and occasionally plummets to earth. Thrainn Hjalmarsson’s As Heard Across a Room is similarly finespun but more fun: sounds of somebody sorting through a cupboard, gently clattering about.

The longest work was His Master’s Voice by Charles Ross, a Scots-born Iceland resident. Ideas are established and doggedly repeated – it’s a wilfully bullish score, a test of nerves. Whether the best use of 25 minutes and a full orchestra I’m not sure.