norðurljós, tónlist og kjötsúpa: október/nóvember

Suddenly it is mid-December, I just wrote my last final, I’ve finished my third semester studying in Iceland, and I’ve barely written anything since the school year started. The rhythm of life is different every semester here, every season, with the coming and going of both people and daylight hours. Compared to last fall, life has been fuller and happier, the health problems that followed me to Iceland finally behind me as well as the stress of adapting to life in a new place. Along with the stress and anxiety go some of the joy and surprise of new discoveries, but they’ve been replaced with richer experiences and deeper friendships. Another thing that’s disappeared? My desire to document everything in photographs. My words will have to carry more weight this time around, with fewer photos to support them.

So, what have I been up to the last few months? Here are a few snapshots from October and the first half of November.

October

I got the house to myself. My Icelandic family was in Greece for three weeks, from mid-September to early October, so I took advantage of having the house to myself to do more cooking than usual and invite friends over. One such lovely occasion was taco night with KSF friends Anna, Samúel, Colin and Hulda, which ended with northern lights hunting in the first snowfall of the season. We didn’t find them, but it was a lovely evening nonetheless.


 

I went to a concert. I went with Anna, my dearest KSF friend, to see Tina Dico and Helgi Hrafn Jónsson in concert. Tina Dico is a Danish singer-songwriter who married an Icelandic musician a few years ago. They live in Seltjarnarnes, the town just west of Reykjavík on the peninsula of the same name, and tour regularly in Europe, but have hardly played in Iceland since she moved here. In September, they announced two shows at a community center in their current town, and Anna was kind enough to tag along with me, having never heard their music. It was a small, beautiful show and lovely to enjoy it in good company.


 

I celebrated winter with free soup. While many major holidays are the same in the US and Iceland, there are several uniquely Icelandic holidays, and some are tied to the old Icelandic calendar. One such holiday is Vetrardagurinn fyrsti, the first day of winter according to the old calendar. On this day, several restaurants set up booths outside on Skólavörðustígur and offer free íslenskt kjötsúpa (Icelandic lamb stew) to locals and visitors alike. Last year, I arrived to the party too late and all the soup was gone, so this year I made sure to arrive nice and early. A few friends and I met and got our first bowl of kjötsúpa, enjoying it in the appropriately chilly winter air.

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Adela, Alasdair and Katleen excited for free soup!
1st soup
1st soup

Then some more friends appeared, and more, and we got second helpings, this time from the booth in front of the prison (did you know there’s an actual working prison on Skólavörðustígur? Well, there is). The prison soup was a bit too salty, but hey, free food!

hungry throng queuing for prison soup
hungry throng queuing for prison soup
Apparently no one else knew this photo was being taken
Apparently no one else knew this photo was being taken

Eventually we were 8 or 10 people and ended up back at my house for board games and conversation, and, later that night, a pile of frozen pizzas. It was the kind of impromptu get-together that gives me the warm and fuzzies, not to mention makes me incredibly grateful for Ásta Sól and Addi and their willingness to let me spontaneously invite 8 friends home.  ❤


 

I played the piano. I made new friends and got an opportunity to play the piano when I got involved with KSF (Kristilegt Stúdentafélag). I went to a couple meetings last year but didn’t really get into the groove before they stopped meeting for the summer. Besides my family and friends, I think the thing I’ve always missed the most when I move away from home is my piano. When I saw the beautiful baby grand piano at our meeting place, I commented to my friend Anna that I would be happy to play some time if they ever needed another pianist. As it turns out, they only had one pianist playing regularly, and he didn’t want to play every week, so my offer was immediately accepted. I only played a few times this semester, and it was a bit stressful; I haven’t played in quite some time, let alone with others, and beyond that, there’s the language factor. My brain kept getting confused, hearing the melody to a song I know but with lyrics in a different language, plus I hadn’t ever built up a music-related vocabulary in Icelandic before. But my fellow musicians were gracious and my hands and heart were happy to play again.

 


November, part 1

I off-venued at Iceland Airwaves. Of course the biggest musical event of the year here is Iceland Airwaves, which takes over downtown Reykjavík for about a week at the end of October / beginning of November. Last year, I did my best to avoid the long lines and crowds, but this year, I decided to embrace the opportunity to see some free off-venue shows (which make up more and more of the schedule every year). On Friday, I saw Svavar Knútur at the Laundromat, Morning Bear (a Denver-based duo) at Bókakaffi, Myrra Rós and Johnny and the Rest at Icewear, Rebekka Sif at IÐA, and Ylja at Slippbarinn. On Saturday, I tried to see some more shows, but with locals off work for the weekend, the crowds and long lines destroyed my positive attitude and I gave up for the day. I did make an effort to see one more artist on Sunday, though – Axel Flóvent at Landsbanki. I heard his song “Forest Fires” in a TV show that I had to watch for class, fell in love with it, listened obsessively to it on YouTube, and then discovered that he was playing a free off-venue show a few days later. Only in Iceland.


 

I met some wonderful tourists. One Friday during our regular language meet-up at Bókakaffi, a woman who was sitting by herself at a nearby table turned around, apologized for eavesdropping, and asked us what it’s like to learn Icelandic. She introduced herself as Adela from Germany, and we struck up a conversation and got along swimmingly, so the next day I met up with her for an adventure at Kolaportið and then she joined us for kjötsúpa. It was the kind of meeting I like to have when traveling, if I’m brave enough to strike up a conversation with a stranger. (This was actually in October, which is why Adela appears in the soup day photos, but oh well.)

I also met Brendan, a fellow Washingtonian who came here for Airwaves. We have a mutual acquaintance, an Icelandic woman who teaches Icelandic in Seattle. She put us in touch and encouraged us to meet up if we could, so Brendan and I met up for coffee and talked about Iceland and our beloved evergreen state and all sorts of things. He ended up coming to a couple language meetups and we did some off-venuing before he left to return to Seattle after far too short a visit. I also did my best to help ensure that his visit was complete by accompanying him for his first trip to Bæjarins Beztu.


I’ve seen the northern lights. There have been times that the aurora forecast was high but I was too busy or lazy to go out, but other times I’ve lucked out. I went out one night to wander in search of northern lights with my friend Katleen, and we found them dancing over the university. They disappeared for a while, but my friend Victor and I kept wandering for a bit, and just when we reached Hallgrímskirkja, the lights returned, green and shimmery. We laid on the frozen grass and watched and for a while I forgot the bad and the scary and the uncertain and just marveled.


 

I went to Bókamessa, a sort of book fair celebrating new releases for the Christmas season, at City Hall. Vita, Katleen and I stopped at a table of children’s books and I commented about the cute cat on the cover of one (Hulda Vala dýravinur: TöfrahálsmenniðAmy Wild, Animal Talker: The Secret Necklace). We started chatting with the woman at the booth and told her we’re learning Icelandic, and before I knew it, she’d pressed a copy of the book into each of our hands. I started reading it, and it’s pretty riveting. I can’t wait to finish it over Christmas break.

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November and the first half of December have brought all sorts of other adventures but I will save them for a separate post. To be continued…

 

 

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Iceland/Germany, Mississippi/PDX

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Ólafur Arnalds live at Mississippi Studios in Portland.  If you’re not in the Northwest, you might not be aware that autumn came in with a gusting, rain-soaked roar this weekend.  There were downed power lines across the Portland metro area and lakes of standing water on many a road, and to be honest I seriously considered staying home in cozy pajamas and forfeiting my ticket.  I had to ford a few small lakes over the roadway, and I drove like a granny, irritating many drivers who seemed not to notice the less than ideal weather conditions, but I made it there and back safely, and as it turns out, I am so glad I went.

Mississippi Studios

Mississippi Studios is a small, cozy, intimate venue, with what my untrained ears would consider pretty great acoustics; in other words, perfect for artists like Ólafur Arnalds.  Back in the day, the space was home to a Baptist church.  Today, half of the place is a bar, the other half is used for shows.  The ceilings are high and the lighting is soft, two small chandeliers and a few shaded floor lamps in addition to the stage lights.  The major downsides?  Heat and seating.  It got stuffy really quickly with people packed into such a small space, and although there was a pretty powerful A/C unit on the ceiling, Ólafur disliked the noise it made and repeatedly pointed up at it and asked The Powers That Be to turn it off.  If I’m not mistaken, TPTB took every chance they could when the music got louder to turn it on.  Anyway, I’ll try not to hold it against you too much, Ólafur, but I was feeling a little ill from the heat by the end of the night.

As the name suggests, Mississippi Studios is also a recording studio, which means there is no fixed seating, just rows of straight-backed metal chairs (well, cushioned metal chairs, but does that really make a difference?), a few barstools, a small balcony, and some standing room for the unfortunate late arrivals.  Overall, though, a venue with great sound and atmosphere.

Nils Frahm

The opener was Ólafur’s Erased Tapes labelmate Nils Frahm.  Nils is a German pianist and composer who, despite this only being his second visit to Portland, already has the Northwest casual style down – he was sporting jeans rolled up to reveal striped socks, a t-shirt, and a grey hoodie.  I really have no idea how to describe his music.  Within the same piece, it ranges from minimalistic (as in, the same note struck over and over and over again) to complexly layered.  What I can describe is what a joy it was to watch him at the piano, which he clearly plays as if it is an extension of himself.

After Nils’ first piece, Ólafur sauntered up to the stage to join him on the piano.  I have no idea what the piece was called, but the guys’ hands were a blur as they pounded the piano keys.  It was clear that Nils and Ólafur are genuinely friends and, more than that, respect each other as musicians (although, perhaps they don’t respect each other’s property quite so much – Ólafur was appalled to see that Nils had left his cup of whiskey on the piano, so he got “rewenge,” as he pronounces it, by leaving his drink on Nils’ computer). Ólafur retreated while Nils played several more pieces.  I have to say, Nils was probably the most engaging opening act I’ve seen in recent days, and the audience seemed to agree.  There was a hush throughout his entire performance that was really remarkable for someone billed as an opening act.

Óli

When Ólafur reappeared and took his seat at the piano, he announced that this was his first time in Portland, although he has seen a certain show about Portland hipsters, and he is sure it is completely real (actually, not that far off the mark, from the looks of the audience last night).  I must say, I did not expect Ólafur to be so chatty and so funny.  He explained that he has been touring all around the world since April, and the highlight of the whole tour was meeting a koala bear in Australia.  Before he performed “Poland,” he talked about the inspiration for the song: a few years ago, he was on tour in Poland, where the roads are apparently not so good, and because no one could sleep on the tour bus, they decided to drink instead.  This turned out to backfire greatly the next day, when everyone felt understandably terrible.  It was then that he wrote “Poland.”  As he said, “not all sad songs are about heartbreak.”

Ólafur also said he was happy to be back on the road with Nils, who I gather has been a good friend and collaborator for quite some time.  The last time he and Nils were together, said Ólafur, was in Iceland, when the pair got lost on a mountain and ran out of food.  “No, really,” he said, ” we ran out of food, and we found an old man and he gave us crackers.”

I’m really not all that familiar with Ólafur’s music, but I’ve heard enough to expect simple but sweeping melodies and plenty of piano with a healthy dose of electronic toys.  In this I was not disappointed.  Ólafur was joined on stage only by a violinist and a cellist. As Ólafur explained, his latest album was recorded with a symphony of about 90 instrumentalists, so performing those songs in concert with just three musicians requires some creativity.  Enter Mr. Jobs, Ólafur’s name for his iPad, which he uses to loop and layer sound.  The result?  If your eyes were closed, you would never guess such a full, complex sound was coming from three musicians and one Mr. Jobs.

It’s a small, small, small, small world

The world of Icelandic music is a remarkably interconnected one, and that was on full display last night. Singer Arnór Dan joined the band for the title track from “For Now I Am Winter.”  Arnór also happens to be the lead singer of Agent Fresco, an Icelandic band that won the Músíktilraunir contest in 2008.  Ólafur’s violinist, Viktor Orri Árnason, is a member of the band Hjaltalín.

Encore

Ólafur, Arnór, Viktor, Ruben (the cellist), and Nils came out for an encore and whatever song they may or may not have had planned was scrapped when Ólafur suddenly looked at Nils and exclaimed, “Let’s do that F minor thing!”  Nils looked a bit bewildered, so Ólafur clarified, “You know, the YouTube thing!”  Still confused, Nils sat down at the piano anyway.  “We have no idea what’s about to happen,” said Ólafur.  What happened was a beautiful improvisation that was a testament to the caliber of musicianship on stage and was simply a joy to watch.

In summary

Seeing Ólafur Arnalds is an experience I will not soon forget.  Mississippi Studios is small and cozy enough that it almost felt as if Ólafur were playing for us in his living room.  I was not only struck by the intimacy of the venue, though, but also by the connection Ólafur clearly has to his music.  He seems to have incredible integrity as a musician – I cannot imagine him writing or performing anything with which he does not feel a deep connection.  Yes, his music is mostly quiet, mostly mellow, often meandering.  This is not music for the impatient.  You have to give it time, time to see where the song goes and time to enjoy how it gets there.

Takk fyrir tónlistina, Ólafur!

Attention pianists, violinists, cellists: I just discovered that Ólafur has sheet music for a number of pieces available for free download from his website.  Check it out here.

sigur/victory rós/rose

Over Memorial Day weekend, my sister and I took a road trip to Central Oregon to see Sigur Rós.  Neither one of us is really more than a casual fan at this point, but we figured they’d put on a good show and it was a great excuse for a road trip.  We were correct on both counts.

We started out Sunday morning and headed up the Gorge.  It was sunny and breezy when we made our first stop in Hood River for a little bookstore shopping and café snacking.  A little further east, then it was more or less a straight shot south to Bend.  The scenery along US 97 is lonely and striking, the deep greens and tall trees of the Gorge quickly giving way to the muted greens and browns of the high desert.  The quaint town of Maupin, sitting on a ridge overlooking the Deschutes River, was the only sign of civilization for a stretch of many miles.  Just south of Maupin, 97 winds back and forth sharply, clinging to the edge of the steep canyon wall.  Did I mention there are no guardrails?

We reached Bend mid-afternoon, checked into our hotel, and listened to the clerk’s glowing and lengthy description of the complimentary continental breakfast, then headed to the amphitheatre.  While walking from our car to the gate, the wind carried our tickets away and it may have taken me a minute or two to realize they were gone…  Luckily, there was a kindly security guard with good reflexes who caught them and, after a bit of teasing, returned them to us.

Despite a forecast of thunderstorms, it was sunny and warm.  We staked out a spot on the grass, got some grub from the row of food carts (definitely not the alligator meat, however), and waited.  And waited.  And waited.

Eventually, the opening act took the stage.  Julianna Barwick has a wispy, ethereal voice, and I’d like to say the performance was captivating, but… it was really just boring.  I honestly don’t know if there were lyrics to any of the songs.  In fact, I don’t know how many different songs she performed, because they all sounded the same.  That’s not to say they weren’t lovely, but they would have been a lot lovelier in a small, cozy venue rather than a huge outdoor amphitheatre.

During the intermission, we met up with cousin Davey.  Remember, I met him for the first time last autumn before his trip to Iceland?  He and my sister met for the first time, we met his girlfriend and a couple other friends, and we reminisced about our respective trips to Iceland.

After another long (but sunny) wait, Jónsi and co. finally took the stage.  Now, to be honest, I really didn’t know what to expect with this show.  I’ve never seen any artists remotely like Sigur Rós in concert.  In fact, I can’t even name any artists remotely like Sigur Rós.  If you’ve heard their music, you’ll know what I mean – it’s not exactly sing-along music (especially because it is entirely in Icelandic), and it’s not clap along music, and it’s certainly not mosh pit music.  It’s more like sit-back-and-let-it-wash-over-you music.

Several songs in, the sun was sinking and the temperature dropping and I decided to venture up front and shove my way into the standing-room crowd to get a closer look.  I squeezed through and found a little spot to stand, close enough to see the stripes on Jónsi’s signature jacket.  Whether it was the stage lights or just collective body heat, it was a lot warmer up there, which was nice, except that it also reeked of pot, which is not exactly my thing.  It was worth the shoving and the stink, though, because I happened to be up there when they played Hoppípolla, one of my favorite songs (and definitely one of their most well-known, as the opening elicited quite an enthusiastic response from the audience).

In an effort to spare my nose, lungs, and brain cells, I returned to my seat after Hoppípolla.  At one point Jónsi commented, “It’s so cold… it’s just like being in Iceland.”  And those were the only words he spoke all evening, save for a couple “takk fyrirs.”

I should probably mention the people sitting in front of us.  There was a couple, likely husband and wife, 30ish, and then a separate group of 5-6 adults.  They arrived separately, that is, but after discovering that a couple of them were from the same area of Nevada, they quickly became best friends.  Their friendship was further cemented by a shared bottle of red wine… and then five more.  About halfway through the concert, the young woman had become quite noisily drunk, prompting some other nearby concertgoers to shush her, which didn’t bother her in the least considering her euphoric state of mind.  She and one of the women from the other group became more and more demonstrative as the night went on, swaying to the music, intertwining their arms and holding cups of red wine to each other’s lips.  But perhaps my favorite moment was when the older lady asked the young man, in a loud drunk-whisper, “Do you think he’s singing in HIS NATIVE TOGUE?  Or is he just MAKING UP WORDS?”

The evening ended with the slow-building, sweeping Popplagið, a bow and a final “takk fyrir.”

Overall, I feel like I would have enjoyed the show more had I been more well-versed in the band’s discography; however, I also feel like it would be impossible not to enjoy a Sigur Rós concert.  Their music is haunting, Jónsi’s piercing voice is just as strong and pure live as it is recorded, and the band just has a strong but laid-back stage presence that draws you in and holds your attention.  As many a journalist has pointed out, it seems impossible to separate Sigur Rós from their homeland.  And it’s not just about the language.  There’s something about Iceland’s harsh, striking, bold, haunting beauty that seems to settle into every phrase.  Beauty that transcends language barriers and makes six hours in the car and numb fingers more than worth it.

postscript: The continental breakfast consisted of canned biscuits and gluey sausage gravy.  We declined.

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(I apologize for the lack of photos; I posted quite a few to Instagram but I can’t figure out how to transfer those here.)