And beauty shall reign alone

photoCrouching with shoulders submerged I sprint like a pre-murderous slow-mo Pistorious through hot ice blue water, bitter winds driving sulfurous steam at 1000 miles per hour across the surface of the space lagoon. Zombie heads loom through the thick fog, glued together in pairs. I’m an invincible winged god racing through the clouds, my mercurial mission sprung from the silky mud beneath my feet.

This is Iceland’s famous Blue Lagoon, and I’m getting off on the trippy hyper-speed effect of billowing steam pouring over me whilst creeping about immersed in geothermal milk. The heads belong to desperate honeymooners already bored with each other who, like me, have smothered themselves with white silica mud in the hope of becoming younger, lovelier and better paid.

1557736_10152235837328591_3077848959385896109_nImagine my shock at emerging several hours later to discover deep cracks in my badly burnt viz, brillo pad hair and visible aging of at least fifteen years.

Kind friends insist this unflattering post lagoon selfie looks like a Liv Ullman masterpiece.

The landscape around this spot is truly off planet, as is most of the country I was soon to discover. Stark, savage, bleak, full of primal power.

Elements of which description could also be applied to the venue from the previous night’s show. In this remorseless white cube (below) under operating theatre lighting, I gave a perky performance of my camp cabaret romp Revue Z to a handful of polite but evidently perplexed Icelanders in more or less total silence. It was unnerving to say the least and further evidence that English humour doesn’t necessarily translate abroad.

The uncompromising space allotted for “Revue Z” at Reykjavik’s Listasafn Art Museum. 

photoWell, if they thought my show sucked, I LOVED the masterful Icelandic TV comedy series Naeturvaktin (Night Shift), set entirely in an after hours petrol station just outside Reykjavik. Petrol stations are social centres in Iceland, relaxed places to hang out and gossip over coffee rather than simply feed cars.

The show’s action revolves around the communist-dictatorship-style leadership of the station supervisor and the absolutely crap antics of his profoundly dysfunctional inferiors. The star of the show, Jón Gnarr, also happens to be the mayor of Reykjavik in real life. Something one simply can’t imagine happening in this country.

A complete political novice, Gnarr managed to sweep to victory in the 2010 elections following Iceland’s catastrophic financial collapse, the one which triggered the global economy to go tits up on such a staggering scale that even David Hare’s painstaking attempt to explain the evil suity causes in his play The Power of Yes left me at a loss to comprehend how such a tiny country could cause such mayhem.

And that’s before we even mention volcanic ash clouds.

imgresJón Gnarr as his Lenin-obsessed alter ego Georg Bjarnfreðarson (left) with Naeturvaktin co-stars. Essential viewing.

His election manifesto included promises of:

“free towels in all swimming pools, a polar bear for the Reykjavík zoo, all kinds of things for weaklings, the abolishment of debt and free access to the beautiful Hljómskálagarðurinn park.”

There was also talk of free rubber ducks for successful voters.

On being elected, Gnarr announced that he would not enter a coalition government with anyone who had not watched TV series The Wire, a sentiment I can now fully endorse having finally, secretly started to catch up with the rest of the world on this epic humanitarian drama.

If Breaking Bad is Macbeth, The Wire is War and Peace. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you have some serious homework to do.

urlThe tragi-beautiful features of gay, wise, philosophical serial murderer and thief Omar, the mayor of Reykjavik’s favorite Wire character. Couldn’t agree more, although developed a temporary crush on Stringer Bell in series one for obvious reasons.

Straight after my disconcerting Icelandic cabaret debut, we all sloped off to a nearby bar. Although no one mentioned the show, within seconds the conversation locked hard onto Eurovision, and there it stayed for the rest of the evening. It turns out that the entire country grinds to a halt every year for the show, and no self-respecting Icelander will even think about not knowing Eurovisual hits going back over many years.

Unlike me, who couldn’t give much of a toss.

imgres-1Struggling to claw back shreds of respect from the tatters of experimental cabaret and Eurovision-ignorance, I suddenly remembered that I had actually been on the UK jury for Eurovision 2009, the year Iceland came second. Ushered into the depths of the BBC in Shepherds Bush, a few record producers, DJs, TV presenters and token classical weirdo (me) sat in front of a huge telly hiding our mark sheets from each other and giggling along with Terry Wogan. It was a hoot, and in this crucial Icelandic inaugural instant, my social and ethical salvation.

The year Iceland came second. Eurovision blue fairy prizewinner Yohanna with Is it True. Had forgotten the white-trousered cellist situation in this performance until now.

Armed with this fact alone, I could now proceed with clear conscience in Iceland.

A fortnight later, just over a thousand souls showed up to hear our very own George Benjamin conduct the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, which, as he proudly told me, represents a considerable percentage of the entire population. The programme included La Mer, Hans Abrahamsen’s beautiful arrangement of Debussy’s Children’s Corner and Ligeti’s piano concerto played by fabulous and heavily pregnant Tamara Stefanovich who I bumped into the following week at the Aldeburgh Festival, playing Mozart double piano concerto with her partner – festival director Pierre Laurent Aimard – and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

photoHer sparkling and beautifully modulated Mozartian fleetness kept Aimard’s occasionally late 19th century rubati under control, creating a performance partnership of captivating charm in contrast with conductor Thomas Zehetmair, whose double-armed windmill tendencies put several distinctly earthbound stone on Midsummer Night’s Dream. Unlike Oliver Knussen’s bouncy Mendlessohn 1 with the same band a couple of days earlier.

Tamara Stefanovich. If you see that she’s playing anywhere near you, kill for tix. Actually, kill for tix even if she’s not that close by. It’s worth it.

Far out of his usual rep zone, Knussen allowed this spirited symphony a good old roister, giving the COE’s glorious wind section full song balanced with with ballsy string accompaniment whilst paying attention to all the strange angular accents and off-kilter phrasing that so often get airbrushed out.

Written when he was 15, Mendelssohn’s first symphony was cunningly programmed with Elliott Carter’s last piece Instances, a piece of vivid and muscular clarity written when he was 103. This highly attractive (to me anyway) programme also included Dallapiccolla’s haunting An Mathilde with text by Heinrich Heine (who knew Mendelssohn), Webern’s exquisite Symphony and Ligeti’s masterwork Melodien

urlPost show, everyone reconvened at Aldeburgh’s only worthwhile restaurant The Lighthouse, enlivened  by the presence of Julian Andersen, still flushed with the stonking success of his recent ENO operatic debut Thebans, and the spectacular late arrival of Tristan Murail who instantly dismissed the wine as “cocked” (he’s French) and turned out to be as spectral socially as musically, a combo that cancelled out even Zehetmair’s Austrian approach to humour.

Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Not sure how old he is here, but rather a beauty do admit. He has the kind of hair I’d be desperate to practice plaits on when I was little.

With Knussen’s X-ray ears and expressive precision at the helm, COE  gave a truly classy performance of this extremely tricky and unfamiliar (for them) rep. Let’s hope their PR team dares to venture again beyond standard COE Haydnesque fayre and let them loose on some more 20 and 21st century music. They are very good at it indeed.

Mention must also be made of hot new soprano on the block Katrien Baerts, who nailed the Dallapiccola with an instrumentalist’s (she used to be a violinist) rhythmic and pitched precision, as she did Birtwistle’s wildly vocally demanding Cantata, Monody for Corpus Christi and Four Poems by Jaan Kaplinski in a couple of recent Birtwistle 80th birthday concerts with ever-fabulous BCMG/Knussen combo, through which I nearly choked to death trying to suppress a sub-woofal bronchial cough acquired through excessive lounging about in hot geothermal pools in Iceland and subsequent violent detox.

imgres-2Meanwhile, back in Reykjavik…

Allowing a decent few days to elapse after the deafening silence following my cabaret show, I asked Iceland’s new music pianist Tinna Þorsteinsdóttir if there is much of an audience for contemporary music on the island.

“No.” she said.

Her thing at the moment is glass. Here she is (above) as decorative cover girl for this year’s Reykjavik Arts Festival with one of her deconstructed pianos. We’re plotting to do something with balloons at next year’s Dark Music Days festival, which might also give me a chance finally to see the aurora borealis, currently joint top of my must-see-before-snuff-it list along with Mexico’s Teotihuacan and Hawaii.

How she managed to stand on the beach in that skimpy dress without needing to be airlifted to safety in seconds is beyond me. You have NO idea how cold it is on those North Atlantic beaches.

The expression Icelanders use for suicide is:

“I’m just going into the sea”.

imgres-4Even though Iceland’s climate is supposed to be tempered by the Gulf Stream, the wind chill can reach minus 40, and lord, you know it. If you don’t like the weather, say the locals, wait 5 minutes. And it’s true – it’s a place of all weathers in one, which on any given day means you have to dress for everything from burning hot sun to arctic survival.

Nearly everyone wears a Sarah Lund sweater. The patterns, I’m told, are not just for decoration – the extra wool makes them warmer.

And forget umbrellas: within seconds they will be violently ripped from your grasp and swept off to the Barents Sea.

There is zero beach culture here except for the insane or desperate of whom, given the lack of sunlight and resulting chronic vitamin D deficiency, there are quite a few. Schizophrenia and depression are major problems in Iceland as are, one imagines, other mental and physical glitches brought about by the long dark winters and limited gene pool.

10302694_10152228634168591_1244141862278430312_nThere is an app here which tells you how closely related you are to the person you’re dating. The video artist I worked with later in the week told me that she was once invited round to a new boyfriend’s house only to see a photo of her own grandmother adorning the fireplace. It turned out they shared a great aunt or two. A little too close for connubial comfort methinks…

Although nothing to do with Icelandic dating apps, it’s time for you to see a pic of the breathtakingly beautiful Gullfoss waterfall.

The symphonic sounds it makes are as spectacular as the visuals.

Of the first ten people I met in Reykjavik, six were fully AA-ed-up alcoholics. Which made buying rounds much easier than I’d feared, given the mythological prices. As a rule Icelanders don’t, always a tad unnerving for us fiercely drink-reciprocal Brits to witness individuals solemnly buying single drinks for themselves.

imgres-8Although not much of a beer drinker I found the Icelandic stuff wonderful – Einstöck beer my fave – faintly fragrant, aromatic even, giving a chatty high rather than neurotic chemical freakout.

Fresh from choral premiere success at John Tavener’s memorial concert, composer Jack White (not as in White Stripes) was in town to hear his piece Ynysoedd (Islands) performed by the South Iceland Chamber Choir. He confessed over a beer that he simply couldn’t get used to the rounds thing, which must be truly out there for a Welshman.

He was recovering from a late night trip into the country with a few eccentric carrot-playing (sic) choir members to bathe in hot geothermic rivers under the midnight sun, clouds of steam creating rainbows in the twilight.

IMG_6839No wonder 10% of the population believe in trolls.

Slightly rude piccy of one of the fissures I spotted that pop up in geothermally active sites on the island. In some areas, people are obliged to keep empty basements under their houses just in case a new one decides to let off steam.

Presumably aware of the nation’s excessive tendencies, the government has limited the purchase of take-out alcohol to a few specially licensed shops with heavily restricted opening hours.

None of this seems to dull the town’s flourishing bar life, and come the weekend everyone goes bonkers and heads bar-wards, many not starting out until gone midnight. The atmo is incredibly affable and chilled until about 2.30am when the volume is pumped up by the in-house DJs and Reykjavik’s main drag turns into full battlefield zombie zone.

Unlike the new mu crowd.

imgres-6Audiences (except George Benjamin’s it would seem) are made up almost entirely of friends and family, and given that the entire population of Iceland is just over 320,000, one can guess that this doesn’t leave too many new music weirdos to anorak up avant-garde concert halls.

Speaking of which, check out Reykjavik’s spectacular new concert hall. It’s surely one of the world’s new architectural marvels, and would easily stand alongside the Sydney opera house were it not for one strange glitch: it faces the wrong way.

Perhaps one of the best views from any concert hall on the planet is given only to those backstage, whilst everyone else has to look back at the town. One can only imagine the post production moment when someone on the committee clocked the cockup…

10342924_10152221263158591_1600744216785756237_nReykjavik muso rumblings hint that the resident Icelandic Symphony Orch have had a somewhat stormy time with their new conductor Ilan Volkov, in my experience an extraordinarily gifted musician when it comes to new music, who has bravely set up his Tectonics contemporary music festival here. llan told me that in spite of the festival, or perhaps because of it, they’d still rather play Tchaik 5.

The unforgettable internal spaces of Reykjavik’s Harpa concert and conference building, designed by Henning Larsen architects and Danish Icelandic artist Ólafur Elíasson. As you can imagine, these semi-mirrored and delicately tinted windows constantly transform with the light. It’s absolutely stunning.

Whilst it’s easy to see how ISO’s musically comfy default setting and Ilan’s uncompromising Israeli temperament haven’t been the easiest of partnerships and that contemporary classical music still has a way to go in Iceland, the signs are that that sound art – that ever-questionable term – has a relatively healthy life here, as it seems to all over Scandinavia.

Amongst the small group of composers I met in Reykjavik, Darmstadt rules, Ferneyhough is God, technology king, harmony the enemy and conceptual multi-media collaboration sine qua non.

Much as in Denmark by the way, where I once heard Thomas Adés described as “that easy listening guy”.

Composer and festival director Þórunn Gréta Sigurðardóttir turned out to be a fellow Georges Apergis fan, and played me her sparky music theatre piece Flightened, a satirical setting of the air stewardness safety routine with accompanying video. I sense she’s quietly pushing the boat out with her ideas, and is one to watch in future.

Linguistic interlude

“Þ” is pronounced “Th” in Icelandic, as in “thong”. 

“ð” is also pronouned “th”, but long as in “swathe”.

Now try repeating “swathe thong swathe thong” as fast as possible.

photoThe Listasafn Art Museum white cube my cabaret bombed in was also the venue for the premiere of a piece for cello, live electronics and video I took part in called Makhana by composer Gunnar Karel Masson and visual artist María Dahlberg.

Gunnar at work on our show. Surely one of the best beards in new music.

I met Gunnar during my brilliantly titled 2012 Danish DIVA residency, and he features in an earlier Z blog post, then sporting a controversial half beard. He’s starting to make a name for himself with a wide range of compositions performed all over Europe, and for his new Copenhagen-based electronic music festival SONIC which kicks off in September this year, including a late night video/electronics ‘n’ me set.

Tensions ran high during the Makhana collaborative process as Gunnar and I tried to explain to María that our essentially improvisatory performance methods meant that the sound could never synch precisely to picture or be reproduced exactly for each show.

photoVideo artist María Dahlberg trying to figure out what we were doing to her video in rehearsal. She is interested in the heightened creative states of schizophrenics and is planning a feature film based on their view of the world.

The video was a trippy 25 minutes of transforming burning suns, an image María equates with psychological states peculiar to schizophrenia, interspersed with slowed down oily filter images of light flashing off water ripples. Here’s a video taster.

María’s whole family turned up to the gig and her grandmother (the one who featured in the fianceé/photo encounter) told me that our performance had made her feel the closest to God you can possibly get this side of the veil.

A refreshing response one so rarely encounters in new mu.

Having now temporarily run out of those two most precious of illusory commodities, time and space, I’ll leave you with some words by one of the 20th century’s greatest writers who also happens to be Icelandic, Nobel Prize winner Halldór Laxness. I’m going to chat more about him in a sequel to this post – I’m far from done with this extraordinary country and it’s exceptional people – but for now here’s an exquisite snippet from his novel World Light:

imgres-7“He continued on, on to the glacier, towards the dawn, from ridge to ridge, in deep, new-fallen snow, paying no heed to the storms that might pursue him.

As a child he had stood by the seashore at Ljósavík and watched the waves soughing in and out, but now he was heading away from the sea. “Think of me when you are in glorious sunshine.”

Soon the sun of the day of resurrection will shine on the bright paths where she awaits her poet. And beauty shall reign alone.” 

Until the next Z Blog, may your paths be bright.




  • Torbjörn

    Great as always. xT

    • zoemartlew

      zx

  • Torbjörn

    …and, I remember years ago on a cold windy January midday (dark of course) getting into a steamy Icelandic ‘warm’ spring. I was TOLD it’d be warm and it LOOKED warm… Once in: stuck! Having dived into the chilly water – it was steaming simply because it wasn’t quite as cold as the air above it – it seemed impossible to get out again, and impossible to stay in. I decided to get out and I lived to tell the tale (clearly). Having read your blog I now realise that all I needed to do was to wait five minutes… xT

    • zoemartlew

      OUCH! thanks so much T! X

  • Parsifalangel

    I have visions of hundreds of readers/followers all trying to say “swathe/thong” over and over again, ending up experts in Icellandic pronunciation. Then, on to “the Leith Police dismisseth us”.

    • zoemartlew

      well, you just never know when either of those phrases might come in handy. Best be prepared…

  • Zblogaddict

    re Grandma pic on mantelpiece, I’ve got a friend who went to a family wedding and saw the guy he’d sat next to in Maths all year, turned out they were cousins. ( Bolton, population 140,000) Didn’t shag though.

    • Z

      Yes can imagine Bolton a bit iffy on the incest front