Reykjavik - 2006
October 11 - Bewildered Batty
The e-mail triggered it. It was a note from the place where I had reserved an apartment while at the IcelandAirWaves music festival. I had been "bumped" into a better one, in a different location (Garðastræti 40), across from the Russian Embassy.
And then the wild thoughts began: "ohmygodimgoingtobethereinaweekandihaventgottenready
Snap out of it, Batty. You've done this trip twice before, with far less planning and still managed to have a great time. You can really be a real worry-wart, you know. Your travel gear is nearly ready, your clothes are set, just relax and enjoy it. Iceland is fabulous, you'll do just fine, and almost everybody there is Lutheran (excepting the pagans, of course.)
October 16 - A Fly on the Wall
Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow, comes its steady pace...
...not just any tomorrow, to be sure, FI656 will see to that. My return to Iceland, for the Airwaves music festival no less, is sure to hold its share of new experiences. One thing distressing about going to concerts here in Minnesota is that I'm usually the oldest person in attendance (excepting the symphony, when I'm one of the youngest.) Hopefully the audience will have a bit of an age mix- the acts I want to see probably won't attract the youngsters quite as much as the "latest things", whoever they may be. There will be some more mature performers, performers with some serious music credentials, doing more esoteric things. Not to say that any kind of music has more intrinsic value that another, it's just that I've experienced a variety of music, both as a participant and observer, and I think there are some new musical things (new to me at least) that I'd enjoy experiencing live. The descriptions of previous Airwaves, and seeing and hearing clips of some of these acts make me want to be there, a fly on the wall as it were, for no recording is quite the same as the "real" thing.
While I'll try to post a bit during the next two weeks, please bear with me- it will take a while to process all of it (I'm still trying to make sense of the trip of 2004!) If you've been to Iceland, you probably understand what I'm trying to say, if you haven't, you're welcome to come along on my ride, I will do my best to give you an accurate reflection.
And, for those of you who have faithfully given me insights into your great land and its good people, I hope to be seeing you soon!
October 17 - Yes it's Me and I'm in Love Again
Riding into Reykjavik on the Flybus in the dark, I wondered if I had made the right decision to come back to Iceland. I was able to get into my apartment just as the sun was rising—it was a glorious day— then walked downtown to pick up my festival pass and buy some food and I am again charmed out of my wits by this beautiful place and the beautiful people who live here!
Bye for now, I'm going swimming...
October 18 - "Good Morning, Welcome to Iceland"
Those crisply enunciated words greeted me as I answered the phone in a sleepy daze.
What place is this? What is this instrument that is in my hand which I picked up by some reflex action? There is someone talking to me? Such a professional voice- is it a recording? My jet-lagged mind was trying to get into gear, to make some sense of it all...
-"Kristín?" Good guess.
-"Yes, Would you like to get together sometime for coffee? I've got the car..."
-"Oh Yes! Any time, I'm free all day." ...I'm naked, both figuratively and literally...
-"Do you know the bookstore on Laugavegi, Máls og Menningar?"
-"Yes, the one with two floors, I know where it is." Thank goodness, someplace I've actually been.
-"There's a coffee shop on the second floor, met me there at ten o'clock, then?"
-"Yes, I'll be there." Now I am really awake.
-"Be seeing you."
-"Yes, good-bye..." Ten o'clock! It was already 9:20, I had better get myself together!
At the designated time, I was standing on the sidewalk of Laugavegur, idly studying the Icelandic novels on the remainder table in front of M&M books. I had met another blogger in person before, and now, as then, I found myself with that odd feeling, a mixture of high anticipation with just a touch of dread. The voice which I had heard on the phone reappeared, this time embodied in a woman of indefinite age, naturally attractive without make-up, and dressed in casual clothes. My fears evaporated. We went up to the coffee shop, she was having breakfast (Café Au Lait with some pastries) while my stomach, thinking it still 5 a.m., allowed me but a cup of coffee.
There are people whom I find hard to talk to. There are others that I warm up to slowly. And then there are those where the conversation doesn't really start, it just resumes as if you had only stepped out of the room for a minute. When it happens with a person that you've just met, it can be a most enjoyable feeling; it isn't a giddy rush, but it's rather a sense that the world is a good place, that people are good, that our lives can overlap, if only for an hour or two, with conversation and coffee. One problem of meeting a blogger that you've followed for several years is that you know him or her in a very curious way- through their own self-expression and whatever mental image of them you may have constructed for yourself. The rest of the picture- their speech, their manner and body language, is all new. In her case it all came together quite nicely, whereas I may have presented a more subdued persona than is usually exhibited here; I was not Professor Batty, I was only me.
After a couple of hours it was time for her to go, she had an appointment. We walked to her car, through the streets of her childhood, and as we walked she told stories about the houses there, and how she would like to move back into this neighborhood once again, into a "proper house for a family". Days later, as I wandered among these houses they now did not seem quite as foreign- not after hearing about them from someone who fondly called this place home. It was truly a fine welcome to Iceland.
October 19 - The Pragmatic Witch of Vesturgata
At the suggestion of an Icelandic correspondent, I made my way from my apartment to the end of Garðastræti to the Witch Shop on Vesturgata. Ordinarily I am not one to indulge in sorcery or the occult, but this tiny store, with its voodoo dolls and charms in the window, won me over. As I stepped in the dim room lit with candles and string-lights the mood was set. Gnarled birch branches were woven into a canopy, and bags of herbs (potions?) and jewelry and amulets were all round. I asked the proprietor about rune stones and she showed me a bag full, explaining their meaning. -"...and these are for sale then?"
I was still quite clueless about how the magick was supposed to work.
-"Well of course, that's why I opened this shop, to make a living, you see."
When we were interrupted by some other customers, she left me to ponder the rune's mysteries, which, in this quiet hideaway, was somehow calming. After they left, we resumed our talk, she spoke of the Vikings, how they would pick up pagan beliefs wherever they went and bring them back if they worked. She showed me an ancient rune that was similar to an African mask.
I bought some trinkets, but passed on the spells and herbs (I had enough trouble bringing Harðfiskur through customs!) This witch's charms certainly worked on me.
October 19 - Airwaves Day One
20:00 On my way to the venue Grand Rokk I run into Harrison Ford.
20:15 Múgsefjun took the stage. Lyric that says it all: "Why can't I be lonely all the time?"
21:00 Retro Stefson comes up. An eight piece teen-age combo with a charismatic Afro-Icelandic lead singer. A WHOLE LOTTA FUN. I think that's what music is supposed to be all about, right? With the crowd full of photographers and moleskine-toting journos, there may be more heard of from these kids in the future. I must confess that the bass player isn't really a teenager- he might be as young as TEN or ELEVEN. You have to love it. The kisses the band got from fans as they left the stage says something about how adorable (and good) they were.
21:45 Sprengjuhöllin: Power pop for the masses. When they started in on a song that seemed to come from an album intended for dim children, I had had enough. By that time the crowd was too dense to prohibit much movement- 'Comfortably Cozy'- one might say. I manage to escape somehow.
22:30 Out on the street, beside Gaukurinn, a bigger venue, with a line stretched down the block. It's a beautiful night, nice to have some fresh air...until I get inside.
The density of the crowd might be described as 'Coitally Close'. The American group We are Scientists were on, doing serviceable power trio riffs. Their last tune was the appropriately titled 'Making My Escape'. It is hard to imagine anybody moving, much less escaping, but the crowd does turn over after their set. I ooze to the front.
23:30 Ditka starts up, with songs of sensitive angst. When the lead singer starts channelling Kurt Cobain, I make my way back outside... there are four more nights to go and discretion is the better part of valor.
BEST MUSIC OF THE DAY: The speech of an Icelandic coquette in hot pot 3 at the Vesturbaejarlaug thermal pool (13:00). She was in an animated discussion (about working hours I believe), but all I could appreciate were the beautiful cadences and inflections of her voice.
Did I mention how much I enjoy being here?
October 20 - Airwaves Day Two
Art is the keyword for the day. I thought I would try a more highbrow approach to my music venues. After a morning of delightful conversation with a completely charming Icelandic blogger, and yet another glorious afternoon at the pool, I was ready for anything...
1900... The Reykjavik Art Museum. This venue is in the canvas domed courtyard of an old industrial building. A full stage with all the rock show features, light shows, massive subwoofers etc., the band Ske hits the stage and they are an experienced outfit, with everything you could want from an arena rock band. Good arrangements, a confident lead singer and some evocative lyrics...
...she doesn't drink wine, but if she's asked she'll take a glass... now she is wasted...A good start.
2000... Over to Iðno, the old Craftsmen hall. A beautifully restored auditorium, the Bedroom Community (group of artists) presented Egill Sæbjörnsson who started things off with some clever performance/video pieces including a most amusing animation. Very arty.
2100... Sam Amidon from the US- does a old folk music type act, with odd dance interludes. He began with a strange, dirge-like version of O Death. His voice could be described as fragile, or, more accurately, weak. He was joined by some Icelandic performers that fill out the sound nicely.
2200... Nico Muhly from New York- comes on with original piano compositions. He shares the stage with an Icelandic violinist for one tune. Stunning.
2300... Valgeir Sigurðsson performed next with a guitar, Echoplex and computer. He was joined by six other musicians, and with them, and his samplers, he created a wall of sound. If Sigur Rós didn't already exist, he would be quite the deal. Still, very impressive. An interesting line up overall:
0015... Over to the National Theatre's basement. A little gem of a room (think 50's nightclub) the Icelandic rockabilly group Langi Seli Og Skuggarnir held forth with a great take on the rockabilly style. The dancing was fervered, the mood was more roadhouse than art house. A lot of fun.
Best music of the day... Nico Muhly, Sonata for piano, violin and computer, no contest.
I can't wait for tonight.
October 21 - Airwaves Day Three
The day dawned bright and sunny again; positively balmy today... Simply can not get over how fortunate I've been with the weather...
22:00 Started off the night at the Reykjavik Art Museum again. Baggalútur, an eleven piece country swing band led off. With an accomplished vocal trio (singing in Icelandic) and a hot fiddler, this gives whole new meaning to the phrase 'country' music. Well, Iceland is a country, right? A complete joy.
20:45 Benni Hemm Hemm, an even bigger band with an eight piece brass section comes on like a freighter sailing through- oceans of sound. Their energy level threatened to take the roof off. I'm swept up in the crowd.
21:30 Islands, from Canada, with a pair of fiddlers, guitars-bass-drum-keyboards and an occasional bass clarinet(!), gave the younger crowd what they want in a tightly choreographed set, only to be cursed with a bad vocal mix.
22:15 Apparat Organ Quartet. Four mad scientists playing vintage keyboards with a drummer assisting. COMPLETELY INSANE! They whip the crowd into a frenzy with their demented aural assault. This was one of my must-sees, and they exceeded all expectations. GREAT! GREAT! GREAT!
23:00 Jakobínarína These kids had the highest energy of any stage show, with well played pop-punk aimed at the teens. Titles like I have a date with my television and Nice guys don't play good music should propel them to greater fame. Now that they've finished their secondary education, and have a recording contract, the world awaits. They started to run out of gas toward the end of the set; exiting, I made my way to the National Theater Basement.
The Northern Lights were dancing in the sky over Austurvöllur.
00:15 Kalli. His performance in a word: Tragic?- too strong. Anguished?- still not it. Heartbroken?- no. Sad?- not exactly. Whining?- that's it. Or, in two words: Just awful.
01:00 Shadow Parade. With a Jim Morrisonesque lead singer, and the whole band dressed in black, this was angst done right. Very effective, surprisingly soulful singing.
01:45 Trost, from Germany. The wild card of the night. This drunken rock-cabaret-little-girl-lost turned the nightclub atmosphere into something really quite decadent. In a good way. Weaving on and off the stage on 4 inch platform heels, you had to watch just to see if she would even make it through her set. A very clever four piece band was a perfect backdrop for her amusing, if sometimes incoherent, story-songs. This went on until almost three. A great way to end the night.
Best music of the night: Apparat. Simply smashing.
October 22 - Airwaves Day Four
Let´s get really crazy shall we? Start with the warmest day yet (sunbathing at the pool) and if 6 hours of music is not enough for you, how about starting things off at 17:00 in a century-old church (Fríkirkjan) by the pond with
Jóhann Jóhannsson of Apparat Organ Quartet fame. With his computers, piano, and a proper string quartet, he mixed classical and techno in a stunning fashion. An attentive crowd was transported into musical bliss. An hour later, I walked out into the twilight exhausted- and the night hadn't even begun! After a brief supper, (and a strong cup of coffee) it was back to Iðno for the Kitchen Motors (an artistic collective) night.
20:00 Siggi Ármann, a sensitive singer, verging on the precious, touched the small crowd with his sincere, emotional style.
20:45 Ólöf Arnalds, a young woman with an incredible voice and an accomplished instrumental style sings and plays tender ballads on guitar and charenga, a small lute-like instrument. Beautiful.
21:30 Kira Kira. The hall filled up with groups of friends and couples seated on the parquet floor, the atmosphere became more like a love-in. The five piece combo was led by an irrepressible woman on multiple instruments and computers. A lot of potential, the set was marred by technical problems.
22:15 Borko A quirky blend of samples and guitar rock, sounding a bit under-rehearsed.
23:00 Evil Madness. Jóhann Jóhannsson again, this time in a computer group (with a cellist) inspired by horror-movie soundtracks. Perfectly executed and scary. And people were dancing to it...This guy really gets around. GREAT STUFF!
00:00 Stórsveit Nix Noltes, a ten piece band of accomplished musicians playing eastern European-inspired music in a dynamic performance. Super high energy, the dancers got really into it. I'm running out of superlatives! Great ensemble playing and an excellent guitarist:
I finally give up at 01:00, my head still reeling. Earlier, I had talked with a music promoter from Brighton at the church and then met her again at Iðno. Later at Iðno I was speaking with a very nice young man about inkjet printing and inks. He asked if I liked Icelandic music, of course I started raving about Sigur Rós and Björk. He gave me a small smile and said "I am the lead singer of Sigur Rós."
And so he was.
October 23 - Airwaves Day Five
Whew! Another gorgeous day on the Riviera of the North. After a sunbath by the pool some high culture was in order. With my exhausted blog-pal Auður, I attended a modern production of Peer Gynt at the National Theatre. More about that later.
Sunday is sort of an extra day in the festival, only Gaukurinn had a festival listing, and they weren't checking passes when I entered.
20:00 Red Barnett, a singer songwriter, opened. He didn't make too much of an impression, or maybe I was still in shock from the theatre.
20:45 Hellvar, a trio and a drum machine, took a while to get into the groove, the lead singer didn't know if she should dance, sing, play, or do all three- when she did get it together at the end of the set it was very impressive. A little Bjork-like, but not derivative.
21:45 Buff, an American style club band. Seasoned performers, they could play anywhere in the US and not seem out of place at all.
22:00 Hjörvar An impassioned singer, he gave me sort of an 80's vibe.
23:00 Patrick Watson and the Canadian All-Stars To be honest, I was about to give up, but I'm glad I stayed. A complete band, playing fully-realized songs with finesse and joy, Mr. Watson and company had it all. They mixed meters and styles effectively, even covering Erik Satie (!) in a reggae style (!!) with help from the Islands bass clarinetist(!!!). Special note must be given to their great drummer. As far as popular music goes, the best was saved for last. They have real potential.
The music went on into the night, but I had had enough. I picked up some copies of Grapevine (local arts paper) and found myself in a crowd picture watching Jakobínarína Friday night and was referred to (in the Iðno account) as being in a group of "stern older men who looked as if they had lost their wives to buff young whalers"...I'll take that as a complement, I think.
October 26 - Intermission
In the lobby, we were discussing the first half of Pétur Gautur, a modern production of Ibsen's Peer Gynt, directed by Baltasar Kormákur, and performed by the Icelandic National Theatre company. My companion asked if I was getting much out of it- without understanding Icelandic. I told her that the emotional impact was there for me in many scenes, the actors' body language was very expressive. I had been affected by a scene with Pétur and his dying mother, having experienced that myself. Our conversation continued about the different stages of life that were now in. My companion spoke of a television interview she had seen with the oldest person in Iceland. In it, the 109-year old woman had simply stated that: "God has forgotten me."
In one critical scene, Pétur declares that, "I am an onion", and as he peels one he only finds more layers, with nothing at the core. His quandary, existential in nature, is the modern dilemma. Has God forgotten us? And if so, how shall we behave?
We returned to the theatre for the second half, and the play ended with the stage floor covered in blood, money, and ashes as the lights went out.
Images ~ Þjóðleikhúsið
October 27 - Water
"The water has memory, you see, the water has memory."
When a man who has spent his life on the ocean speaks poetically of water, I will give him due consideration. Sitting in a hot pot at the Vesturbæjarlaug Thermal pool, sharing water with a retired trawler captain, a Spaniard, and an elderly woman, the conversation was as warm as we were. It was another unseasonably fine October day in Reykjavík and I was taking a final visit to the neighborhood pool. The conversation swirled like the water in which we soaked; moving between politics, economics, wool, music and water. Always water, this rock in the North Atlantic, surrounded by water and the fish in it which generated wealth, the heat from the geothermal water making living comfortable here, and the electricity generated from the hydroelectric plants making modern life practical. I mentioned Halldór Laxness and his novel Kristnihald undir Jökli, wherein the "fallen" pastor Jón Primus declared his only theory: "...water is good...one doesn't even have to go by my theory unless one is thirsty." Everybody laughed. Water is good, especially when one is in it with congenial company. When I had finally become thoroughly cooked I reluctantly left.
Two days later the weather had turned colder, and it was time for me to return to my home in Minnesota where my "real" life awaited. I showered, smiling at the faint odor of sulfur from the hot water- after only a week I was beginning to take it for granted. I dressed and gathered my bags and headed out. I went down and walked along Tjarnargata, past the pond, where the water had frozen over during the night. A few brave souls waltzed over the thin ice, the birds had congregated down by the northern end where some of the water was still open. Geese flew in formation overhead, and as I walked the paths at the southern end of Tjörnin, I slowly scanned this beautiful city.
Suddenly there was more water, but this time salty. I turned away and headed up the hill to the bus depot. I didn't look back again.