Tectonics Festival/Harpa

Harpa Concert Hall, Reykjavik.

From the black volcanic rock that gives the landscape its colouring, to earthquakes and active volcanos (and let's not even mention ash clouds), Iceland is a nation synonymous with tectonic activity. But seismic tremors of a very different kind have put Iceland in the news of late, ripping through the economy with spectacular destructive force. While the nation continues to suffer the aftershocks, signs of recovery are also emerging, and none with louder or more hopeful fanfare than Reykjavik's new Harpa concert hall.

Poised on the edge of the city's eastern harbour, Harpa is a glittering cuckoo in a city nest of low, functional buildings, designed to shield their occupants from the elements rather than command attention. Designed by Danish-Icelandic artist Ólafur Elíasson, this £90 million structure features four halls (the largest a 1,800-seater) built in consultation with American acoustic experts Artec, and will provide a full-time home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra - till now housed in an acoustic coffin of an ex-cinema.

Very nearly a casualty of the economic crisis, the Icelandic's government's decision to forge forward with Harpa was a brave one, and it's hard not to see the paradox at the core of a venue that is both cautionary tale - a vivid symbol of Iceland's former excesses - and a hopeful vision of the future - an investment in Iceland's long-term cultural and economic development.

The opening of Harpa last August marked a new era for the ISO, not only providing them with a new home but also with a new musical director in the form of Ilan Volkov. The youngest ever conductor of a BBC orchestra, Volkov first made waves in his role at the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (where he still holds a position as guest conductor), and it was here that he established not only his reputation for technical precision, but also his boldness in programme-making and willingness to take musical risks.

This young musical maverick is a natural fit for Iceland's progressive music scene, and for a hall that welcomes performances of Bjork as much as Beethoven. Striding around Harpa in jeans and a t-shirt, it's clear from Volkov's hands-on approach, as well as his first major project with the orchestra, that Reykjavik must get used to seismic tremors in their concert hall as well.

Cheekily christened "Tectonics", this three-day festival of contemporary music is set to be a fixture of Harpa's annual calendar. While many such festivals are banished to small or fringe venues, Volkov has placed it front and centre, taking over the entire building with musical events.

As we enter the main foyer (an Escher-like fantasy of angles and edges, whose glass-panelled walls seethe with light) we are immediately clutched by sound. Lining the offset galleries and staircases of the central foyer, rows of young musicians generate the musical Babel that is John Cage's Fifty-Eight. While each holds a flute, bassoon or horn, it is clear that it is the building itself that is being played - a giant instrument in whose resonant belly the audience are cradled. Later in the evening a performance of Christian Wolff's Burdocks lures us back to the foyer, this time to experience not so much a concert as a spatial dramatisation of music, which despite its harmonic and melodic abstractions both intrigues and draws laughter from the crowd of passing listeners.
Conventional concerts do take place during the festival, both in the magnificent main hall (christened Eldborg - "fire city" - for its glowing red interior) and the smaller "Northern Lights" auditorium, but it is these transitional events, and the sense of free-form music-making that spills out beyond the confines of traditional concert-structure, that best define this new festival.

Most musicians, Volkov explained to us, know of the work of iconic minimalist John Cage, but fewer have heard it directly. With this in mind, this year's festival balanced a day of Cage's music with another devoted to Iceland's own leading experimentalist Magnus Blondal, all culminating in a musical collage encompassing both living local Icelandic composers and international works, as well as a performance of Luciano Berio's mighty Accordo - here delivered by four separate brass bands.

It's programming at its most extreme, a hurled gauntlet of a festival that even saw the ISO stripped of both music and music stands, taking part in a 30-minute full orchestra improvisation. Responding to musical cells generated by electric guitarist Oren Ambarchi, Volkov led his musicians with a series of hand-gestures, trusting them not only to perform but to compose collectively.

Few conductors would dare take a risk like Tectonics, and still fewer venues would permit it. But judging by the number of curious attendees - some 800 for the main concert, a healthy audience for any contemporary music event, let alone in a country of just 3000,000 citizens - Iceland is a nation ready for a challenge, ready to explore the new. It bodes well for the future of Tectonics in Reykjavik, though the real challenge will surely come in Volkov's plans to develop the festival with partner cities internationally, bringing this difficult, inscrutable music initially to Glasgow in 2013 and then beyond.

The people of Iceland might be used to volcanic disturbances, but in Ilan Volkov and his Tectonics festival, they have gained a force of nature - a musician willing to realign the plates of musical history, risking destruction in order to a forge a new classical landscape.

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

JAMIE KINGHAM/MILLENNIUM
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Snakebites and body parts

The city at the edge of an apocalypse: a love letter to Los Angeles.

I was emailing with Kenneth Anger, the film-maker, when the coyotes across the street in Griffith Park started howling.

That’s partially true.

I was emailing him to ask if he’d direct a music video for me. Maybe Lucifer Rising 2.0. Or anything.

Just him in the kitchen making tea, as recorded on his iPhone.

Kenneth Anger is alive and well in Santa Monica, so why not ask him to direct a video for me? Hopefully, he’ll respond. We’ve never met, so I sent an email to him, not with him. That’s the partial truth.

But the coyotes did start howling.

It’s the single best sound in Los Angeles, or any city. Is there another city where you can email an 89-year-old devotee of Aleister Crowley while listening to a few dozen coyotes screaming and howling and ripping the night into little pieces?

No. Just here. This oddness by the sea and an inch from a billion acres of Arrakis.

I never thought I’d end up living in Los Angeles, but I’ve ended up living in Los Angeles. This dirtiest, strangest paradise.

Yesterday I went hiking in a two-million-acre state park that’s 30 minutes from my house. A state park bigger than all of New York City. And it’s 30 minutes away. With no people. Just bears and pumas and coyotes and snakes.

And other things. Abandoned bridges. An observatory where Albert Einstein used to go to watch space.

What a strange city.

A perfect city. Perfect for humans at the edge of this strangely unfolding apocalypse. A gentle apocalypse with trade winds and Santa Ana winds and the biannual vicious storm that rips eucalyptus trees up by their roots.

What a strange city. And it’s my home.

Today I hiked to the back of the Hollywood sign. This was before Kenneth Anger and the coyotes.

The tourists were dropping like flies on the long, hot mountain trail, not aware that this isn’t a city with the safe European ­infrastructure that keeps them happy
and/or alive.

Every now and then, a tourist dies in the hills, bitten by a snake or lost at night. The emergency rooms are full of tourists with snakebites and heatstroke.

Where are the European safeguards?

Fuck us if we need safeguards. Go live in a place like this gentle wasteland where you’re not at the top of the food chain. If you’re not in danger of being eaten at some point in the day, you’re probably not breathing right.

I hope Kenneth Anger writes back.

 

22 May

I drove some friends around my neighbourhood. They want to live here. Why wouldn’t they? Pee-wee Herman and Thom Yorke live up the street.

David Fincher lives a block away. It’s blocks and blocks of jasmine-scented name-
dropping.

It’s warm in the winter and it’s weird all year round.

And there’s a Frank Lloyd Wright that looks like a lunatic Mayan spaceship.

And there go the coyotes again, howling like adorable delegates of death.

They’re so smart, I wish they would make me their king.

You hate Los Angeles? Who cares? You made a mistake, you judged it like you’d judge a city. Where’s the centre?

There’s no centre. You want a centre? The centre cannot hold. Slouching towards Bethlehem. Things fall apart.

Amazing how many titles can come from one poem. What’s a gyre?

Yeats and Kenneth Anger and Aleister Crowley. All these patterns.

Then we had brunch in my art deco pine-tree-themed restaurant, which used to sell cars and now sells organic white tea and things.

The centre cannot hold. I still have no idea what a gyre is.

Maybe something Irish or Celtic.

It’s nice that they asked me to write this journal.

Things fall apart.

So you hate Los Angeles? Ha. It still loves you, like the sandy golden retriever it is. Tell me again how you hate the city loved by David Lynch and where David Bowie made his best album? Listen to LA Woman by the Doors and watch Lynch’s Lost Highway and read some Joan Didion – and maybe for fun watch Nightcrawler – and tell me again how you hate LA.

I fucking love this sprawling inchoate pile of everything.

Even at its worst, it’s hiding something baffling or remarkable.

Ironic that the city of the notoriously ­vapid is the city of deceiving appearance.

After brunch, we went hiking.

Am I a cliché? Yes. I hike. I do yoga. I’m a vegan. I even meditate. As far as clichés go, I prefer this to the hungover, cynical, ruined, sad, grey cliché I was a decade ago.

“You’re not going to live for ever.”

Of course not.

But why not have a few bouncy decades that otherwise would’ve been spent in a hospital or trailing an oxygen tank through a damp supermarket?

 

24 May

A friend said: “The last time I had sex, it was warm and sunny.”

Well, that’s helpful.

October? June? February?

No kidding, the coyotes are howling again. I still love them. Have you ever heard a pack of howling coyotes?

Imagine a gaggle of drunk college girls who also happened to be canine demons. Screaming with blood on their teeth.

It’s such a beautiful sound but it also kind of makes you want to hide in a closet.

No Kenneth Anger.

Maybe I’m spam.

Vegan spam.

Come on, Kenneth, just make a video for me, OK?

I’ll take anything.

Even three minutes of a plant on a radiator.

I just received the hardcover copy of my autobiography, Porcelain. And, like anyone, I skimmed the pictures. I’m so classy, eating an old sandwich in my underpants.

A friend’s dad had got an advance copy and was reading it. I had to issue the cautious caveat: “Well, I hope he’s not too freaked out by me dancing in my own semen while surrounded by a roomful of cross-dressing Stevie Nicks-es.”

If I ever have kids, I might have one simple rule. Or a few simple rules.

Dear future children of mine:

1) Don’t vote Republican.

2) Don’t get facial tattoos.

3) Don’t read my memoir.

I don’t need my currently unmade children to be reading about their dear dad during his brief foray into the world of professional dominatrixing, even if it was brief.

The first poem I loved was by Yeats: “When You Are Old”. I sent it to my high-school non-girlfriend. The girl I longed for, unrequitedly. I’m guessing I’m not the first person to have sent “When You Are Old” to an unrequited love.

Today the sky was so strangely clear. I mean, the sky is almost always clear. We live in a desert. But today it felt strangely clear, like something was missing. The sun felt magnified.

And then, at dusk, I noticed the gold light slanting through some oak trees and hitting the green sides of the mountains (they were green as we actually had rain over the winter). The wild flowers catch the slanting gold light and you wonder, this is a city? What the fuck is this baffling place?

I add the “fuck” for street cred. Or trail cred, as I’m probably hiking. As I’m a cliché.

You hike, or I hike, in the middle of a city of almost 20 million people and you’re alone. Just the crows and the spiralling hawks and the slanting gold light touching the oak trees and the soon-to-go-away
wild flowers.

The end of the world just feels closer here, but it’s nice, somehow. Maybe the actual end of the world won’t be so nice but the temporal proximity can be OK. In the slanting gold light. You have to see it, the canyons in shadow and the tops of the hills in one last soft glow.

What a strange non-city.

 

25 May

They asked for only four journal entries, so here’s the last one.

And why is # a “hashtag”?

Hash? Like weird meat or weird marijuana? Tag, like the game?

At least “blog” has an etymology, even if, as a word, it sounds like a fat clog in a drain.

A friend who works in an emergency room had a patient delivered to her who had a croquet ball in his lower intestine. I guess there’s a lesson there: always have friends who work in emergency rooms, as they have the best stories.

No coyotes tonight. But there’s a long, lonesome, faraway train whistle or horn. Where?

Where in LA would there be a long, lonesome, faraway train whistle or horn?

It’s such a faraway sound. Lonesome hoboes watching the desert from an empty train car. Going where?

I met a woman recently who found human body parts in some bags while she
was hiking.

Technically, her dogs found them.

Then she found the dogs.

And then the sky was full of helicopters, as even in LA it’s unusual to have human hands and things left in bags near a hiking trail a few hundred yards from Brad Pitt’s house.

What is this place?

When I used to visit LA, I marvelled at the simple things, like gas stations and guest bedrooms.

I was a New Yorker.

And the gas stations took credit cards. At. The. Pumps.

What was this magic?

And people had Donald Judd beds in their living rooms, just slightly too small for actual sleeping – but, still, there’s your Donald Judd bed. In your living room at the top of the hill somewhere, with an ocean a dozen miles away but so clear you can see Catalina.

They drained the reservoir and now don’t know what to do with it.

Good old LA, confused by things like empty reservoirs in the middle of the city.

Maybe that’s where the lonesome train lives. And it only comes out at night, to make the sound of a lonesome train whistle, echoing from the empty concrete reservoir that’s left the city nonplussed.

“We’ve never had an empty reservoir in the city before.”

So . . . Do something great with it. I know, it’s a burden being given a huge gift of ­empty real estate in the middle of the city.

Tomorrow I’m meeting some more friends who’ve moved here from New York.

“We have a guest bedroom!” they crow.

A century ago, the Griffith Park planners planted redwoods across the street. And now the moon is waning but shining, far away but soft, through the redwoods.

No coyotes, but a waning moon through some towering redwoods is still really OK. As it’s a city that isn’t a city, and it’s my home.

Goodnight.

Moby’s memoir, “Porcelain”, is published by Faber & Faber

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad