Monday, November 26, 2018

Modern Icelandic Fiction

Codex 1962
A trilogy by Sjón
Translated by Victoria Cribb
MCD, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018

Hotel Silence
A novel by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir
Translated by Brian FitzGibbon
Pushkin Press, 2018

Music isn’t the only Icelandic cultural import; 2018 is shaping up to be a banner year in translated Icelandic fiction. I reviewed Hallgímur Helgason’s incendiary Woman at 1000 Degrees and have now read two more recent works by Icelandic authors. These are pure literature, not genre works, and both are well worth reading.

Codex 1962 is by Sjón: author, poet, lyricist and unassuming literary giant of Modern Icelandic Fiction. The previous works I’ve read of his have been modest affairs—exquisite novellas—whereas this is a full-sized 500+ page novel that is densely packed with allusions to European and Icelandic culture (including Halldór Laxness); a narrative that covers seventy years and references that span centuries. Full of digressions, unreliable narrators and clever literary experiments; this novel will challenge even the most sophisticated reader.

Auður’s Hotel Silence, on the other hand, is a very tightly spun story told from the point of view of an unnamed narrator who, despairing of his life in Reykjavík, leaves everyting behind (except for his tools) and travels to a run-down hotel in a country that is still struggling with the aftermath of a horrendous civil war. He intends to commit suicide there, to avoid burdening his family, but instead becomes involved with the locals as a fix-it man in the resource-poor society trying to reestablish a sense of normality. The book slowly develops from a simple story about human failure into a great novel of ideas and compassion. Her previous novel, Butterflies in November, was a humorous satire of modern Iceland, this is in another class altogether.

A note on the translated editions: Victoria Cribb and Brian FitzGibbon are on a roll, with Cribb handling serious Icelandic literature and genre work (she also teaches Icelandic at two universities in England) and FitzGibbon a heavyweight as well. Both of these translations have been supported by the government-funded Icelandic Literature Center, an organization that promotes the translation of Icelandic literature into many languages.

NOTE: I’ve been given a temporary reprieve from my secret government mission, enabling me to have the time to write this post (the mission is still a secret.)

By Professor Batty

Comments: 3 

Monday, November 19, 2018

Iceland Airwaves Recap

The Song Remains the Same

                      Jofriður Ákadóttir, 2009                                                      Jofriður Ákadóttir, 2018

After having had a week to process the experience of the 2018 Iceland Airwaves, it is still impossible to come to any definitive conclusions about such a multifarious event. The wide assortment of musical styles presented has always been a feature of this most diverse musical festival. That said, times change; there were certainly more rap and hop-hop acts this year as well as, for the lack of a better word, “Swedish Style” glossy and formulaic pop music. There were fewer guitar-rock groups (I didn’t see a single Stratocaster!) and not quite as many singer-songwriter-troubadours as there were when I was there was in 2009. Even EDM seemed to be down—there was no main venue devoting a whole night to it as there once was.

A significant difference in the Airwaves Festival this year is the number of female acts. It has reached parity over all styles, a most welcome development. There seemed to be more string sections in use as well, even some of the acts performing in the small off-venues utilized them. They were all very good, although the quality of the arrangements varied. One tradition which has been upheld is the inclusion of carefully chosen new acts doing original music. This isn’t American Idol, where carefully groomed acts reenact hits of the past, but rather young (in some cases very young) musicians create something new and unshaped by the crushing effects of mass marketing. There were also numerous established but quirky “only in Iceland” acts singing in Icelandic—always a joy to behold—and the over-all level of musicianship has increased since I last attended ten years ago.

The past few Airwaves have lost boatloads of money, mostly due to the importation of big and expensive foreign acts. This year, under new management, reversed that trend, giving the locals a better representation and, hopefully, financial solvency. The festival organization was excellent, with well-trained and friendly staff making sure things ran smoothly. No late start times (in one case even early!) and the scheduling was arranged that there were not too many long lines. There were fewer off-venues this year, but the ones we attended were uniformly excellent, even transcendent at times.

A big thank-you has to go to the Icelandic musicians themselves, a close-knit community that is supportive and used to collaborating in various ways. In a festival situation that can backfire, but when it works it is simply magical. Jofriður Ákadóttir (JFDR), pictured above, was a great example of this, performing in at least five different shows. She is the most creative act in Iceland right now; her musical imagination is seemingly unlimited and she even has her own candy bar! To see her growth from humble beginnings in 2009 to today is remarkable, even for Iceland. Not a “one-trick-pony,” she transcends genres while remaining true to her central vision. I saw her backing the astounding Nini Julia Bang with three other performers (Liva Mo, Sóley, Áslaug Magnusdóttir) at the Nordic House playing to an audience of 25. She was just as into it then as she was a few days later when she played to a crowd of a thousand at Harpa.

There isn’t any really good way to sum up Airwaves, but I’ll end this with a list of some of the acts that I saw, where they played, and why I found them memorable:

Skúli Sverrisson og Bára Gísladóttir, KEX Hostel: a two bass hit!

Sóley and her father, Grund: the emotional high point of Airwaves.

Gróa, Ten Tónar: Teen-age rockers with unlimited potential.

Grúska Babúska, Húrra: Icelandic gypsy band: absolutely over-the-top fun.

Ateria, Húrra: Spooky teen-age Folk-Goth girls..

Reykjavíkurdætur, Art Museum: polished Feminist Rap collective.

Nini Julia Bang, Nordic House: voice artist, best act of the festival.

Vicky, Gaukurinn: hard rockers with no compromises.

Hugar, National Theatre: extremely disciplined ambient guitar/synth duo.

Högni, National Theatre: music, poetry, and theatrics perfectly combined.

Ólafur Arnalds, Nation Theatre: ambient/classical from the master.

Liva Mo, Nordic House: delightful singer, even better raconteur.

Bláskjár, Nordic House: songs from the heart, very touching.

Between Mountains, Gamla Bíó: yin/yang duo with unlimited potential.

Sólstafir, National Theatre: highly evolved metal, great spectacle.

Sóley, National Theatre: evocative electronica, Lynchian.

Hekla, Hitt Húsið: more music from the heart, very poignant and sincere.

Jóhanna Elísa, Hitt Húsið: very smooth pop with classical overtones, delightful.

Eivør, Harpa Flói: Faroese Valkyrie with a great drummer (Høgni Lisberg).

JFDR, Harpa Flói: bad venue, bad crowd, bad sound, still electrifying.

Looking back at this list it becomes pretty obvious that The National Theatre (Þjóðleikhúsið) was the premiere main venue, while The Nordic House (Norræna Húsið) was the best off-venue. Húrra had the best sound and Floí the worst. The most charming performance? A children’s choir at Fríkirkjan on Sunday (not an Airwaves event, but so worth it.)

Will I go back?

Never say never.

NOTE: I’m off on a “secret government mission.” FITK will be back in December.

By Professor Batty

Comments: 4 

Friday, November 16, 2018

Airwaves and Age

Audience, Grund senior residence, Reykjavík, November 7, 2018. Photo by Mummi Lu

Age is just a number, right?

I attended my first Iceland Airwaves 12 years ago, when I was 56. In another 12 years I’ll be 80, perhaps I’ll be in the wheelchair crowd then. A distinguishing feature of Iceland Airwaves is the wide diversity of ages in its audiences. The regular shows are limited to 18+ (although the performers were as young as 13), but the off-venues are open to all:

This age continuum is not an accident. Not only is the Icelandic culture more open and accepting of children, but the music education in schools encourages exploration and experimentation. There are showcases for young performers and even direct support for those who show promise.

The oldest Airwaves attendees are shown in the top picture (I’m on the right, just below the man standing in the green shirt), while the youngest were toddlers:

Audience, Norræna Husið, November 9, 2018

Airwaves wrap-up tomorrow…

By Professor Batty

Comments: 1 

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Airwaves and Gender

Jófríður Ákadóttir, Áslaug Magnúsdóttir, Nini Julia Bang, Norræna Husið, November 9, 2018

The overwhelming takeaway I got from the 2018 Airwaves is of its opening up of gender and sex roles. Half of the performers (240+ acts) (and half of the event staff) were women, and not just specialty acts either: neo-punk (Gróa), electronica (Sóley), Hard rock (Vicky), Folk-Goth (Ateria), Hard-core Feminist rap (Reykjavíkurdætur), Power-pop (Between Mountains), Eastern European (Gruska Babuska), Valkyrie warrior-women (Eivør), several neo-classical string sections and, of course, numerous singer/songwriters.

In this reactionary time in the United States, being at Airwaves was like stepping into a parallel reality. My blog pal Carrie Marshall was writing about gender suppression in her blog at the very same time that I was at Airwaves so I sent her a little note about how much I appreciated her analysis of the situation.

Being a fully-realized human being requires an inherent respect for other people. The world of musical performance has long been dominated by men, especially in the more technical genres. This is changing rapidly, no where is this more in evidence than in Iceland in general and Iceland Airwaves. It isn’t a utopia, by any means, but it is a start. There is always be shifting dynamics between people regardless of their gender or sexual orientation, it’s what makes us human, it is what makes life worthwhile.

Þjóðleikhúsið, November 9, 2018

By Professor Batty

Comments: 1 

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Iceland Airwaves Day Four

The final day of airwaves has come and gone. It was a day of subtle joys and a major disappointment. We spent the afternoon with DJ Cousin Mary and her husband Ken at the Hitt Husið, a community center for teens in downtown Reykjavík. The first performer was Hekla, not the thereminist that I had hoped for but, rather, an unassuming young woman singing songs of things important to her. It was a very sweet and honest, albeit shaky at times, performance:

Jóhanna Elísa led a six piece band with her fine playing and singing.
The string arrangements were superb:

We saw Between Mountains again, this was a much better venue for their emotional songs of the heart:

And we just had to stay to see Ateria again. They were in their element here, surrounded by friends and family. There are some very weird currents running through their music, who knows what darkness lurks in the minds of Icelandic teen-age girls?

After a break for dinner (monkfish, yum!), we went over to Floí,  a large multi-purpose room in the Harpa complex. The first act was the Faroese performer Eivør, an experienced veteran who sang, played guitar, and wielded a Celtic drum, all to great effect:
Not so great was the next act, Team Dreams: Sin Fang, Sóley & Örvar Smárason. In fact it was a disaster; quite possibly the worst musical performance of any kind I have ever endured. They announced that it would be their last gig. It sounded as if the band had already broken up  some time ago. An atrocious sound mix turned it into torture:

Finally, JFDR, who I've been wanting yearning to see perform again since I last saw her in Samaris in 2012:

The sound problems continued, almost destroying her set. She did fine when she was on her own—singing and playing guitar—but additional instruments were way out of balance. Various mid-bass and low-mid resonances made for a very unpleasant experience. Others told me that it wasn't as bad in the rear of the room, perhaps I was in a bad spot, although reviews in the Grapevine also mentioned the bad sound in Floí.

Here is a video of one of the songs of her performance:

Although Airwaves is over, I'll be back tomorrow with more

Yesterdays Airwaves coverage…

By Professor Batty

Comments: 3 

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Iceland Airwaves Day Three

Not quite so hectic today. After a brief stroll around town we spent a couple of hours in afternoon in the Nordic House; first up was the fine Danish singer/songwriter Liva Mo:

She had played with Nini Julia Bang the day before. Her song “Bad Blood” (about missing her period) was actually quite tasteful. The next act, Bláskjár, we had seen before as well, drumming for Gruska Babuska. Her very personal songs, including one dedicated to her mother who was sitting next to us were heartfelt and sincere; her piano chops were excellent:

We started off the evening’s festivities with the duo Between Mountains, their presentation was accomplished and effective:

Almost all of the acts we’ve seen so far have been women or girls, so to counteract this we took in the hyper-masculine Sólstafir:

They are supposed to be the top Metal Band in Iceland. I believe it.

For the evening’s finale we saw Sóley perform with a bassist and percussionist. She was still battling a cold, but gamely put on an exhibition of experimental music full of weird energy. At times it sounded like a David Lynch soundtrack:

She won the prize for the best outfit of the festival.

Tomorrow’s Airwaves coverage…

Yesterday’s Airwaves coverage…

By Professor Batty

Comments: 0 

Friday, November 09, 2018

Iceland Airwaves Day Two

Residence window display, Bergtaðastræti

We spent the day walking about; we spotted my old blog-pal Auður on the street, giving a tour. We didn’t interrupt her when she was working. The Weaver bought some wool and I went into 12 Tónar, picking up some CDs and the EP/Chocolate bar of JFDR’s:

I’d say that you’ve really made it when they make a personalized chocolate bar.

A mix of acts today we saw Petúr Ben and Nini Julia Bang at the Nordic House off-venue. Petúr was accomplished but Nina was supernatural, singing her spooky folk songs with help from JFDR and Sóley:

Petúr Ben

Nini Julia Bang

Nina’s performance was the highlight of the festival so far:

The evening was a bit of a blur, but here are some pix to give you an idea. The first act we saw was Vicky, I had seen them in 2009, they were a little older, but could rock just as hard now as they did then. The SiriusXM personality, Rolling Stone and Mojo journalist David Fricke was in attendance:


We went over to Iðno to see Ateria end their set, they were just as spooky as they were the night before:


We then bopped over to Fríkirkjan, a  nineteenth-century church that was featuring a young chamber orchestra playing divinely:

Gabriel Ólafs

Back to Iðno, where Gyða was playing with a string section, with the great Shahzad Ismaily on percussion:

Gyða with Shahzad Ismaily

Over at the National Theatre, the duo Hugar was doing some trippy things with guitar, synths and trombone:


The highlight of the evening was Högni. I had seen him play with Hjaltalin in 2009, this was a whole ’nother thing. A string quartet was, at times, “directed” by Högni from one of the boxes at the side of the auditorium. This gave way to a wild hipster-ish rant about life and time. Very theatrical and musical:


At midnight Ólafur Arnalds, neoclassical composer and conceptual artist, performed a series of ambitious pieces that somehow lacked focus for me. Pretty, though:

Ólafur Arnalds

Tomorrow’s Airwaves coverage…

By Professor Batty

Comments: 2 

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Airwaves: Wonderful Women of Wednesday

We started the day with a charming performance by Sóley at the Grund senior home:

Performing for a diverse crowd: hipsters, seniors, preschoolers, Sóley, fighting the flu, played a varied set (traditional, and new, and even some childrens music. The highlight was a duet she played with her father (on trombone) of a song her grandmother used to sing about Hawaii. The solo her pabbi took on it was simply gorgeous:

After the concert it was off to a local bakery for sustenance and then to city hall to pick up our wristbands:

We missed the cut in getting into seeing Ólafur Arnalds at the KEXP off-venue show, but that’s alright—its already on YouTube. After a short break we caught the great young trio Gróa at 12 Tónar:

After a break for supper we hit The Hard Rock Café Reykjavík to see Árný, a pop-oriented chanteuse:

Although her act was was polished, I didn’t care much for her eenheidsworst music. When we sat down at a booth I met Peter L Evans, a UK based Icelandic Music enthusiast. I soon figured out that he was the man behind the Radio Croydon broadcasts of Icelandic music awhile ago. He was most surprised when I told him that I had listened to it regularly. The night was still young so we bopped into Gamla Bio where THE VERY LOUD KIRIYAMA FAMILY was playing, the lead singer was very good, but it was just TOO DAMN LOUD:

We escaped with our hearing intact (what?) in time to catch a bit of Hildur and her Adele-wannabe-act at the Art Museum:

Wasn’t what we were looking for either but we did find it across the street at Húrra:

Grúska Babúska is a gypsy-rock band that was fantastic, all of them inventive and accomplished musicians. I wished they had played at our wedding!

After their set the very young trio Ateria performed:


They were a great find: mysterious and haunting, with original material suggesting a bright (or is that a “dark?”) future for this Folk-Goth band.

Due to a scheduling glitch, the 10-woman hard-core feminist rap group Reykjavíkurdætur was just wrapping up their set when we went got into the art museum to see them. They did not disappoint:

More Iceland Airwaves coverage tomorrow…

Yesterday’s Airwaves coverage…

By Professor Batty

Comments: 2 

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

KEXP Live Broadcast 6 November, 2018

Kevin Cole

Skúli Sverrisson og Bára Gísladóttir

Bára Gísladóttir

By Professor Batty

Comments: 0 

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