Larger-scale works featured in several Dark Music Days events. One of the toughest to engage with was given by Caput Ensemble, a concert marred by the yawningly awful Polo by Simon Mawhinney, a quarter of an hour’s worth of relentless, faceless, arbitrary blarney. Veronique Vaka‘s Holos was marginally more interesting, though its placid, peaceful warmth (ironic, considering the piece was inspired by glaciers) drifted too close and too often to a kind of wallpaper music. The most interesting work on the programme was Haukur Tómasson‘s Loftmynd – Air Sculptured, which was at some remove from the composer’s usual infatuation with boisterous rhythmic patterns. Instead, pianissimo, mostly unpitched formations suggested not so much the air itself as its frictional effect, creating whistles and sibilance, glissandi and tremulous tappings. Even when the music became more chordal and its dynamic expanded, Loftmynd remained elusive and unstable, ultimately evaporating into glistening wisps.
One of two concerts given by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, both conducted by Nathanaël Iselin, showcased music by Bára Gísladóttir. The twin aspects that seem to typify Bára’s music, complex drones and sonorist structures, were both strongly in evidence in Hringla, completed last year. Earlier in the work, everything was in relation to heavily accented sustained pitches, continuously coloured by tremolandos, vibrato, harmonics and trills, yet over time things became less clear. Was the fundamental pitch actually changing or only appearing to? It felt almost stupid not to be sure, yet the work’s convolution was such that certainties weren’t possible, even more so as the piece ventured ever further into a textured world including dirty brass drones, big messy octave unison surges and live electronics sufficiently subtle that it was often hard to hear where the orchestra ended and they began. The one false note in the piece was the solo double bass part performed by Bára herself, which seemed rather pointless in this context, rarely contributing anything worthwhile and not representing either a focal point or a catalyst for the orchestra or electronics.
Her 2016 work VAPE, while demonstrating many of the same qualities, proved both more conclusive and more compelling. Edgy and agitated from the outset, its sonorist approach was concerned less with blocks of material than with a continual – sometimes sudden – process of evolution. This process led to a situation where the ear was constantly being drawn to its wealth of inner detail and filigree, much of it at the cusp of tangibility, just beyond what was possible to resolve. All of it inhabited a world not merely disinterested with outdated notions of ‘beautiful’ or ‘ugly’ but entirely separate from them. Briefly suggesting something tumultuous toward its close, VAPE instead went the other way, fizzling into nothingness; it was a superbly exciting performance.
More emotionally neutral was James Tenney‘s In a Large Open Space, performed by the combined forces of Skerpla, an ensemble based at Iceland University of the Arts, and the Bozzini Quartet. Living up to the work’s title, the players were dispersed across all four floors of the Harpa concert hall’s vast vestibule. As such, it was absolutely vital to move around, though this raised the first of many questions about what we were hearing: were the apparent changes in the make-up of Tenney’s huge floating chord due to actual changes or merely the result of moving throughout the space? Beyond this, it was fascinating to hear again the way large-scale drones seem to absorb everything, such that all sonic ephemera not part of the performance somehow became assimilated and integrated into the total musical fabric. (One of the most prevalent of these sounds, which i thought was a recurring phone ping from a surprisingly unobservant listener, turned out to be the sound of Harpa’s lifts, which themselves became a component part of Tenney’s drone.)
It was particularly impressive how, despite being constructed from disparate players arranged across four levels, the result was a translucent but cohesive sonic totality, its verticality not corresponding to a conventional low-high continuum, underdoing a steady but capricious process of adjusting, shifting, tilting and transforming of its inner structure. Though ostensibly dynamically flat, its longer-term reality was anything but, both in terms of actual or imagined small-scale fluctuations as well as the palpable sense that what we were hearing was a vibrant, living organism, flowing with vitality and lifeforce, such that nothing about it felt remotely flat.
The best large-scale music i heard at Dark Music Days 2023 came in the Iceland Symphony Orchestra’s first concert and one given by the Reykjavík Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Christian Eggen. It’s worth mentioning in passing that both events – unusually for this festival – included some truly egregious stuff. For ISO Áskell Másson, one of Iceland’s older generation composers, had decided to write a piece featuring himself playing a darabuka. Relentless, plodding, with no dynamic variation and only the most rudimentary notion of invention (despite having three other soloists at his disposal), his Capriccio was an abject failure made yet worse by the absurd sight of the composer vaguely tapping his instrument as if he’d only started learning it the previous week. Honestly, it beggared belief. The nadir of the RCO concert was Daníel Bjarnason‘s All sounds to silence come, a tedious exercise in classic Faberian cliché, sounding like the kind of thing Thomas Adès was doing back in the early 1990s, all punchy rhythms, octave-doubled spiky accents and abrupt lurches into faux-lyricism. Hackneyed, dated, superficial rubbish.
In the same concert, fairing much better, was AUX, a new bass clarinet concerto from Hugi Guðmundsson featuring soloist Rúnar Óskarsson. Though initially the relationship seemed uncertain – the bass clarinet practically driving its line through the orchestra’s volatile environment – it didn’t take long for things to turn more cantabile and playful. The soloist proved to be the instigator of ideas, which spread out and developed all around him. Far from being concerned with struggle, AUX was more interested in lyricism expressed through varying temperatures and intensities, at times becoming surprisingly weightless, as if the bass clarinet were being borne aloft on a fluttering instrumental bed. It was an unpredictable ride, though, ending up in an unexpected place of high shrillness.
By far the most outstanding orchestral music was by Ingibjörg Ýr Skarphéðinsdóttir, who was happily featured in both of these concerts. Pons papilloma, performed by ISO, displayed an edgy heat, passing through cycling surging patterns and an extensive piccolo line that brought intimacy, before becoming a wild cavalcade of intense energy. One of its most engaging aspects was its particular kind of lyricism, combining warmth with darkness.
Best of all, though, was her new work Balaena, receiving its première by RCO. Though it had at its heart inspiration of whales in oceanic depths, this was rendered as a dazzling simultaneous mix of evocation and abstraction. Its most memorable sequence came a few minutes in, when the opening granular texture (containing a myriad pitched things within) suddenly opened out into the most beautifully askew melody, made all the more haunting by its emotional complexity, simultaneously remote yet immediate, and surprisingly moving. The work was a masterclass in orchestrational ingenuity and brilliance, moving fluidly between a focus on particular ideas and dissolving into textural episodes littered with sparse fragments, sighs, chirps, drones and floating half-phrases. As spell-binding as it was just rapturously gorgeous, it made it abundantly clear that Ingibjörg is a composer deserving much wider appreciation.