Þorrablót 2014

Well hello there, blog!  Long time no see.  We have a lot to catch up on, but I figured I would start with the most recent happenings and work my way backward.

This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend my first Þorrablót celebration.  Þorrablót, for the uninitiated, is not just a really odd-sounding word, but also an Icelandic mid-winter feast usually celebrated with large quantities of traditional (and mostly disgusting) Icelandic foods, drink, dancing, and general merriment.  The Icelandic Club of Greater Seattle hosted this year’s event at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Ballard.

I drove up to Seattle on Saturday afternoon, and despite my GPS system’s best efforts to thwart me, safely arrived at the museum with plenty of time to spare.  I sat at a table you could call “Snorris and Friends,” if you felt the need to give the table a dorky name (which I kind of do).  Our company included myself; my fellow 2012 Snorri Amanda and her mom, who was visiting from Hawaii; my Snorri Plus friend David; Greg, an Iceland Airwaves enthusiast/addict and KEXP volunteer; Crys, aspiring 2014 Snorri, and her friend Annea; and Rúnar and Guðrún, an Icelandic couple visiting Seattle for the first time.  Greg and I chatted about Icelandic music and discovered we had been at a couple of the same concerts last year (Sigur Rós in Bend and Ólafur Arnalds in PDX).  I also spent a lot of time talking to Rúnar, who is an author, translator, and professor of creative writing at the University of Iceland.  He and Guðrún are both from the Westfjords.  Áfram Vestfirðir!

As mentioned previously, the vast Þorramatur spread included a number of foods that are really best described as disgusting, many of which I tried in Iceland, including hrútspungar (those tasty soured ram’s testicles), hákarl (the infamous fermented shark), and sviðasulta (sheep’s head jam).  Having tried these foods once, and having a distinct memory of walking up and down Óðinsgata after our Taste of Iceland dinner feeling extremely unwell, I felt no inclination to partake in the soured-meat-eating portion of the evening.  I maintained a vegetarian (read: safe and non-stinky) plate, including salad, veggies, potatoes, mashed rutabagas, rúgbrauð með smjör, and pickled red cabbage.

Those who tried the hákarl reported that it really wasn’t bad at all.  This leads me to conclude that all rotten sharks are not rotted alike, because I am still a bit haunted by the sheer strength of the smell that emanated from our little container of hákarl cubes in Iceland.

Dessert was much safer – pönnukökur með rjóma and skyr with blueberries.  And coffee – of course, coffee.

But the part of the evening I was most excited about was the music.  Several months ago, I got an email from David telling me about some of the plans for Þorrablót.  I was reading this email in my car (I was at a red light, promise!) and I just barely glanced at a sentence that said something about a hip Icelandic band coming to play at Þorrablót.  The thought immediately flashed into my mind – wouldn’t that be crazy if it was Ylja coming to Seattle?  Ylja is the band I saw play at my beloved kaffihús in Patreksfjörður.  After I returned from Iceland, they released an album and rapidly gained popularity.  Well, what do you know, when I had safely parked my car and could finish reading the email, I was surprised and excited to see that it really was Ylja coming to play at Þorrablót!

The first song Ylja played was my very favorite song (Á Rauðum Sandi) about one of my very favorite places in Iceland (Rauðasandur).  It took me right back to July 2012 and made me so incredibly homesick for that time and place.

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Ylja played a great (if a bit short) set of songs from their album, plus a cover and one or two new tunes.  Then they led the crowd in a singalong of a few traditional Icelandic songs (only one of which I vaguely knew – Ó María, Mig Langar Heim, which one of the locals sang at our kvöldvaka in Hofsós).

After that, the DJ started spinning some classic dance tunes (Billie Jean, Love Shack, Dancing Queen – you get the picture) and a couple dozen attendees, inhibitions loosened by the Brennivín, perhaps, took the action to the dance floor.  What surprised and entertained me the most was that the dancing crowd was not exactly composed of the younger adults in attendance.  Hey, more power to them!

Anyway, it is always a joy to spend time with my Icelandic family, friends new and old who love Iceland as much as I do.  Big thanks to the Icelandic Club of Greater Seattle for throwing a great event, to my tablemates for the great conversation, to Chef Kristín Ósk Gestsdóttir for the food, and to Ylja for a beautiful glimpse back at a time and place I miss so much and cherish so dearly.

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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.)

Íslenk Tónlist: Day of Icelandic Music

The powers that be (AKA a slew of Facebook posts by similarly Iceland-obsessed friends) inform me that today is Icelandic Music Day.  I have no idea who began this tradition or for what purpose, but apparently the national radio stations played three songs simultaneously  at 11:15 local time and Icelanders were encouraged to sing along (to one, or two, or all three?  I don’t know).  The three songs were:

I learned (er, attempted to mumble-sing) Á Sprengisandi during our kvöldvaka at Hofsós this summer.  Anyway, Icelandic Music Day seems like a good excuse to celebrate some of my favorite Icelandic artists.  Some are well-known and predictable choices, others (at least I hope) are lesser-known gems:

Of Monsters and Men

We might as well start it off with something highly predictable.  If you haven’t heard about Of Monsters and Men, you have probably been living under a rock (or you are an amenities-shunning, turtle-catching hermit who lives in a shack in the Kentucky backcountry and showers in a barrel of rainwater).  Arguably Iceland’s biggest crossover success since Sigur Rós.  They sing almost entirely in English, but watch or listen to an interview and you’ll know without a doubt that they are Icelandic.  Incidentally, lead singer Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir is my ninth cousin, a fact of which I’m sure she is acutely aware.

Favorite songs: Mountain Sound, Dirty Paws

Links:

Official site

Facebook

Twitter

Ásgeir Trausti

A young, up-and-coming singer-songwriter.  I first heard about him because he performed at A Taste of Iceland in Seattle back in October.  I didn’t get to see him then, but I’ve spent hours listening to his music on YouTube.

Favorite song: Dýrð í dauðaþögn (translates roughly to “Glory in Stillness” or something like that).

Links:

Facebook

Twitter

YouTube

Ylja

A folksy band that I had the pleasure of seeing in concert at the Stúkuhúsið in Patreksfjörður this summer (at least one of the members is from Patró).  Just saw that their single Út is #11 on the RÁS 2 charts.  Til hamingju!

Favorite songs: Dúmdaralara, Á Rauðum Sandi (this one is about Rauðisandur, a beautiful red sand beach near Patró and one of my favorite places in Iceland)

Links:

Facebook

YouTube

Svavar Knútur

A wonderfully friendly and talented fellow who writes his own songs and also brings old Icelandic folk songs to life with new musical settings – basically a troubadour in a lopapeysa.  He played a few songs for the Snorri group and taught us a little about Icelandic music history.

Favorite songs: Yfir hóla og yfir hæðir, While the World Burns (both of which he played for us); Baby Will You Marry Me (a duet with Marketa Irglova, of “Once” fame).

Links:

Official Site

Facebook

Twitter

SoundCloud

Bandcamp

YouTube

Sigur Rós

Goes without saying.

Favorite songs: Inni Mér Syngur Vitleysingur, Hoppipolla

Links:

Official Site

Facebook

Twitter

YouTube

Jónsi

The frontman of Sigur Rós is also a splendid solo artist.

Favorite Songs: Go Do, Sinking Friendships

Links:

Official Site

Facebook

Twitter

There are, of course, many more Icelandic artists of varying fame, but these are my favorites at the moment.  I wrote about Lay Low, Without Gravity, Sykur, and others in this blog post from long ago.

So, reader who may or may not actually exist, did you celebrate Icelandic Music Day?  Do you have a favorite Icelandic artist or song?