The Sunday Edition

Why tiny Iceland is a global giant in the field of music

Kjartan Olafsson, professor of composition and theory at the Iceland Academy of the Arts, is our guide to who's who among Iceland's current generation of music prodigies, and how they are making their mark.
Icelandic musician Johann Johannsson performs an electro-acoustic orchestra under the theme 'Towards the Islands — Sounds Across the Sea' as part of the 23rd annual Tokyo Summer Festival in Tokyo, on July 10, 2007. (Yuriko Nakao/Reuters)
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Iceland is a singular country, one whose global cultural impact far outweighs the size of its population. And at the moment, this chilly island nation that sits just below the Arctic Circle might just be the hottest thing in the world of contemporary classical music.

The pianist Vikingur Olafsson has released two of the most critically acclaimed classical albums of the past couple of years. The composer-musician Olafur Arnalds has toured classical concert halls and alternative music festivals around the world and topped the classical music charts. Johann Johannsson released several classical albums — and was nominated for two Academy Awards for his film scores — before his untimely death at the age of 48 last year.

And Anna Thorvaldsdottir, who has been called the biggest thing in Icelandic music since Bjork, has risen to the top ranks of classical music. Her music has been performed by some of the world's most prestigious orchestras, she's won the New York Philharmonic Kravis Emerging Composer Award, and she's currently a composer-in-residence at the Royal Academy of Music in London. 

Aequilibria, a piece from Thorvaldsdottir's recent collection of chamber music, called AEQUA, was one of three works by Icelandic composers and musicians to make the New York Times' list of the 25 best classical music tracks of 2018.

Not bad for a country of about 340,000 people — less than one one-hundredth of the population of Canada.

Sounds of the landscape

A volcano erupts near Eyjafjallajokull, Iceland, in 2010. Professor Kjartan Olafsson says Iceland's musicians are deeply influenced by the natural world around them. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Like the work of many other Icelandic composers, Thorvaldsdottir's music has been described as the sound of the Icelandic landscape itself: volcanoes erupting, glaciers heaving across the land, hot springs bubbling, the wind howling.

According to Kjartan Olafsson, the chair of the Society of Icelandic Composers and a professor of music composition and theory at the Iceland Academy of the Arts, Iceland's musical community is profoundly influenced by the forces of the natural world.

Artists are travelling around the world and getting influenced by different cultures, and merging those influences with their own musical creation.- Kjartan Olafsson , professor

"We are very close to nature," Olafsson told The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright.

"We are living very close to active volcanoes and earthquakes — I think it's about 300 earthquakes a day here in Iceland, so we are very close to it. Especially in the early days — the middle of the last century — artists and composers like Jon Leifs were very concerned with nature. And I think nature is affecting music today."

However, it's the world around Iceland — regions like Europe, and America — that Olaffson says influence Icelanders the most.

"Usually, we do our studies in Iceland and, after the basic study, we go abroad and get further studies all over the world and then bring that influence back," he said.

"Artists are travelling around the world and getting influenced by different cultures, and merging those influences with their own musical creation. And that is very important for a small island with a small population."

A mixed bag of musical influences

Another factor in the development of Iceland's prolific and unique contemporary classical scene is its openness to influences from genres well outside the classical world.

Unlike the musical culture of many other nations, Iceland's composers do not occupy a rarefied realm sealed off from the contaminating influence of more popular forms of music.

Icelandic band Sigur Ros performs on stage during the Positivus music festival in Salacgriva, Latvia, on July 20, 2013. The band, which mixes rock and classical music, is known for its ethereal sound. (Ints Kalnins/Reuters)

The music professor has himself played in heavy metal bands. Johannsson played in noisy rock bands. Arnalds writes soundtracks, classical music, pop and electronic music, and he's played punk rock on the side.

"Our musicians today are doing all kinds of music, and many members of the [Iceland] Symphony Orchestra are playing in different bands. They are playing very old music, and they are playing rock music. I think this diversity for a musician and composer and performing artists is important today," said Olaffson.

"For twenty or thirty years in Iceland, people would play in the symphony orchestra and nothing else. But now, they're playing in the evening in the symphony and then after midnight, they're playing in other places. It is creating more diversity than ever."

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