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.