Professional music making for this small community only began to flourish in the 20th century
In most interviews I am asked the question, ‘What is going on in Reykjavík that produces so many successful musicians and artists?’ I don’t believe there is one comprehensive answer to that question, but rather a mosaic of reasons which may add up to an explanation of the situation.
Iceland has a very short history of professional music making compared to its European neighbors. There were hardly any musical instruments in the country until the mid 19th century. Singing was the pre-dominant form of musical expression. The so-called ‘rímur’ (rhymes) songs were a prominent folk music tradition and a popular activity in homes and at gatherings. People would recite long poems and stories in verse to some simple tunes and this was in essence our chamber music. Through the 20th century Icelandic society developed rapidly from being a relatively poor nation of farmers and fishermen, into a modern, diversified and wealthy society. Cultural activity and educational opportunities increased in proportion to the growing economy and subsequent social change. The first music school was founded in 1930 and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra in 1950. The first Icelandic professional composers were, in a sense, missionaries, preaching the gospel of what our Nobel Prize-winning author, Halldór Laxness, rather condescendingly called ‘an Icelandic version of the Danish understanding of German romanticism’. Jón Leifs was the first composer to write music that, although very personal and sometimes single-minded, could be said to have a truly Icelandic identity.
To make a long story short, music education in Iceland flourished in the second half of the 20th century, not least because of the influx of foreign musicians (many of whom were escaping the perils of war in their home countries). They brought with them European traditions and were an absolute godsend for the cultural life in Iceland.
Iceland now has a relatively strong and broad music education system, which is a solid foundation, not only for classical music, but for all types of music. Many of my friends from music school are now in bands. Completely self-taught pop or rock musicians are now perhaps more an exception than a rule. And often young musicians have such a high level of knowledge of electronic instruments and music software that it becomes a form of virtuosity in itself.
Another thing that people tend to notice about the art life in Iceland is that there seems to be a lot of overlap or fusion between and within art-forms. I think this is mostly down to size and proximity; there are only 200,000 people living in the greater Reykjavík area. The music community is a relatively tight group; odds are that you either went to school with a given individual, have family relations with him or her, or you have common friends. This can obviously be both a negative and a positive thing. There is a danger of family and friendship taking first place over quality and professionalism. At every level of society we still struggle with this issue. But on the other hand you have a very direct access into all spheres of society. This, combined with an unrealistic but quite refreshing mentality, makes it easy for things to happen. People just tend to believe that everything will work out somehow and that everything is possible. This can be naïve and, sometimes, plain stupid, but occasionally it is preferable to the endless cutting through red tape and jumping through bureaucratic hoops needed to realise most projects today. And collaborations seem to happen naturally all the time and things overlap and merge into something new. I may have a morning session conducting recordings of a new orchestral piece with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and then in the evening I will record with many of the same people but this time some string arrangements for Sigur Rós. It all works together and it’s all interconnected. Because we are so few, the same people tend to float through very different situations. Everybody wears a number of hats. This breeds an open mindedness and willingness to collaborate across genres; it’s not an effort, it just happens naturally and out of necessity.
Despite the geographical isolation of the country there is a strong feeling of being part of an international community. This is, of course, partly because of globalization, but since Björk’s rise to fame there has been a tangible interest from abroad in the Icelandic music scene. This has given confidence to musicians and artists in Iceland.
How things develop in the future remains to be seen but perhaps the most important thing is that we keep believing that anything is possible.