A Country In Musical Infancy

Until the 20th century, musical instruments were largely non-existent in Iceland, due to poverty and geographic isolation. As a result, Iceland’s musical history is quite distinct, founded upon untraceable native a cappella and folk songs originating from nearby European countries.

Conductor and composer Daníel Bjarnason is a world-class musician known for pursuing classical music with an experimental bent. He describes the country’s musical infancy, saying, “There was no playing of instruments to speak of in Iceland, until the last century, and our musical history is very short. In some ways, I think this is a good thing, because we are not weighed down by it, and we don’t feel that we need to continue any tradition of a certain music. So, there is freedom!”

Historically, much of Iceland’s folk music is associated with religion. As with most Nordic countries, though, the population of Iceland in the 21st century is fairly secular. A study conducted by sociologist Paul Froese in 2001 identifies 23% of the island’s inhabitants as either agnostic or atheist. Yet choirs are present in schools, churches, and communities, but the relationship of folk music and churches seems to persist more out of habit than religious devotion.

“You don’t have to be very religious to be singing in a church choir…” says Magnússon, of Hljóðaklettar. “It’s more of a cultural thing.”

Much of Iceland’s creative history can also be attributed to written works. Though it is often assumed that Old Norse literature comes from Norway, most was actually first documented in Iceland and date as far back as the 13th century. In the 14th century came a series of traditional rhyming poems, known as rímur. Much like the relationship between singing and churches, these alliterative, metered poetic verses maintain a level of symbolic cultural importance to this day.

“There is still a choir that sings traditional rímur. And if you’ve seen the Sigur Rós DVD, Heima, you can see Steindór Andersen performing a couple of them, along with the band playing, ” says Snævar Albertsson, who produces music under the moniker, DAD ROCKS!. “But, in general, it’s not a very overt source of inspiration, but more a point of common cultural identification.”

“First, you need to look at what you can do to help, and the community responds accordingly.”
— Pétur Ben

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