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.

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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage