First published in The Herald on 12 October, 2016
Scandinavian Scotland. Nordic Scotland. I’m not talking 8th-century Viking raids or 15th century Norwegian earldoms in Orkney and Shetland. I’m talking the political zeitgeist of now — that handsome notion of aligning ourselves north-eastward with progressive social democracies advocating egalitarianism, high taxes, higher welfare. The argument gained new urgency after the Brexit vote: how to avoid isolation as a small nation outwith the EU? In July the Icelandic legal expert Katrin Oddsdottir — among those elected to draft a new Icelandic social contract after her country’s financial collapse — suggested that an independent Scotland should join the inter-parliamentary Nordic Council and that Scotland should “look further north towards Reykjavik and Oslo rather than Brussels”. Now it’s not just a case of how to be more like our Nordic neighbours, but how to actively participate in their pan-Nordic networks and institutions.
Same goes in the arts. Last week I attended a festival of new music called Nordic Music Days — a roving programme run loosely by the Council of Nordic Composers (note the scope of that organisation) and hosted each year by a different member-country’s society of composers. This year the autumnal gathering was in Reykjavik, at the city’s spectacular waterfront concert hall Harpa, where I heard music by Finnish, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic and Greenlandic composers. “The network is totally essential,” says Gudny Gudmundsdottir, artistic director of Nordic Music Days. “An arts community in a tiny country trying to operate without connections outside our borders? Creatively, financially, socially, in every way we would implode.”
It is clear from the off that Nordic Music Days doesn’t have much time for romantic notions of what sort of sounds should made by composers living in The North. During my three days in Reykjavik I hear no overt musical references to winter or cold or northern lights or darkness or tundra or depression or booze. Instead what seems to link these composers, musicians and promoters is the practical experience of working in the culture sectors of small, northern-European nations. The opening event is a panel debate on gender balance in contemporary music. (The festival programme has 50-50 male/female composer representation.) The closing event is a four-hour chamber concert to which Bjork turns up as an ordinary punter.
“Ideas aren’t generated individually,” says Thorunn Greta Sigurdardottir, chairwoman of the Icelandic Composers Society. “Ideas are a product of everything around us. How can an artist work in isolation?” As an example she points to the Icelandic pop music scene — “respected,” she tells me, “because what’s mainstream here is not what would be mainstream elsewhere. And that’s because if you’re a musician in Iceland you have to do everything. A bass player in a pop band will also do session work with the symphony orchestra, and will come to this festival to hear cutting edge contemporary music, and that all filters back into her pop band.”
Sigurdardottir’s point about the default versatility and open ears of Icelandic musicians might well account for the mind-boggling amount of creative talent emerging from a country of 300,000. But what’s also worth considering is how visible that talent is made, both inside and outside Iceland. Every fortnight I receive an email from an organisation called Iceland Music Export: recent bulletins included new tracks from ‘Iceland’s ultimate party band’ FM Belfast, a Reykjavik Festival in Los Angeles hosted by conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a new Icelandic experimental arts initiative called Mengi setting up in Berlin. And so on.
Granted, the emphasis here is on indie rock, and when I make that point to Iceland Music Export director Sigtryggur Baldursson (erstwhile drummer of The Sugarcubes), he shrugs and replies that indie audiences are the major international consumers for brand Iceland. In a country now relying on 2 million tourists per year to prop up its post-crash economy, “pragmatism is essential,” he smiles. (By the same tourism ratio, Scotland would be hosting roughly 30 million tourists per year — that’s double our current tally. Just imagine walking down the Royal Mile in August.)
What’s pertinent to Scotland is how Iceland’s cultural infrastructure is able to promote its artists so well, and how that infrastructure ties in with meta Nordic institutions. Take NOMEX — a pan-Nordic platform owned by the five music export offices in the Nordic region (Export Music Sweden, Music Export Denmark, Music Finland, Music Norway and Iceland Music Export). Or the Nordic Culture Fund, which finances much of the above, founded 50 years ago this month. For its director Benny Marcel, cross-border collaboration in the arts is essential to the survival of social democracy. “The Nordic region, like the rest of the world, is currently undergoing radical change,” he writes, “and society faces major challenges. Strong nationalist tendencies have put down roots in the Nordic countries, leading to exclusionary ways of thinking and working. When people in such circles invoke Nordic values, they do so in a way that is contrary to everything the Fund stands for — namely, culture that breaks boundaries.”
Everyone I speak to at Nordic Music Days agrees that their country’s cultural institutions are only as good as the connections they make outside their borders. “Thanks to our links, we have an influence on the politics of the north,” Sigtryggur Baldursson tells me. “We are able to do a lot with a little.” And if it’s possible in Iceland, why not in Scotland? This is not a money thing: since the financial crash, Icelandic artists have been working on a shoestring (Gudny Gudmundsdottir is emphatic about that point) yet the outward-looking vibrancy lives on.
Scotland had a composers’ society once, co-founded by Thomas Wilson in the 1960s but fizzled out by the 1990s when it was absorbed into the Scottish Music Information Centre. What the SMIC aims to do, according to its website, is “to champion the wealth of talent that abounds in Scotland’s musical community by actively promoting music locally, nationally and internationally”. In reality it functions mainly as a sheet music archive and as support for unpublished composers.
Given that every Nordic nation has an Music Export office (or equivalent) as well as a composers’ society as well as a Music Information Centre, it’s bizarre that Scotland doesn’t. It would be wrong not to mention New Music Scotland at this point — a young and industrious initiative that aims “to connect, enable and support makers of innovative and experimental new music”. There is also Showcase Scotland, which promotes traditional music to delegates at Celtic Connections and recently launched an endeavour called Showcase Scotland Expo — its £150,000 pilot project in 2013-14 targeted promoters in France, Germany, Australia, New Zealand and North America and (according to a report commissioned by Showcase Scotland) resulted in £705,000 income for the Scottish arts sector. For director Lisa Wytock, the implications of that figure are clear: “what Showcase Scotland Expo has achieved clearly illustrates that an export strategy works,” she told me. “It is definitely our hope that a fully fledged Music Export office can be established in the future.”
Scotland needs its equivalent of Iceland Music Export. This is not the same thing as a Scottish Music Information Centre, nor of Creative Scotland, nor New Music Scotland, nor Showcase Scotland. If we are to avoid parochialism, tokenism, mono-culturalism, nepotism, any of the potential pitfalls of small nations aiming to assert identity through culture, our new Music Export team must be willing and able to champion all of Scotland’s musics. It must support the industry at home and, crucially, ensure that we’re open and connected to the world in a post-Brexit era.
And could Scotland join those Nordic networks? Could our composers be represented at the next Nordic Music Days? “Why not!” grins Gudny Gudmundsdottir. “We would love to welcome our Scottish cousins.” Everyone I ask in Reykjavik responds with great enthusiasm. Sigtryggur Baldursson laughs — “move your government to Shetland, then we can make a proper case for Scotland as a Nordic country!” But he shakes his head. “One thing you learn as an Icelandic artist? If you want to make something happen, you can find a way to make it happen.”