There are not too many famous Icelandic musicians getting airtime, which
makes generalizing about the country's music scene easy. Of course there's Sigur
Res, the powerhouse quartet already installed in the hipster hall of fame;
there's Bjork, the queen of strange dance (and not so dance) music; and Mam, the
pop-experimentalists best known for their 2002 album, Finally We Are No
One. This trio makes up the truly recognizable acts from that chilly, little
island west of Norway and north of Ireland, and in almost any review of their
material you will find references not just to their country of origin, but its
glaciers, its long sunless winters, its pallid, moonlit landscape, and so on.
Many assume that if a group is from Iceland it possesses The Icelandic Sound: a combination of wispiness, ethereality and catharsis. "It's become this heritage," says Solron Sumarlioadottir, cellist for the Icelandic band, Amina. "If you're Icelandic and you're making music then it's something you have to deal with." With such cultural stereotypes about their island's music, "The only thing we can do is give interviews saying we are not solely inspired by glaciers and Iceland," sighs Sumarlioadottir. And so it seems all the more necessary that the Worker's Institute, a Los Angeles label still in its infancy, exists.
The nascent label, founded in early 2005 by Los Angeles musician Ann Ritchey-Mark, has only three releases under its belt -- all by or including Icelandic musicians. While vacationing with her husband in Reykjavik six years ago, Ritchey-Mark says, "we were introduced to the beautiful and rare music that was being put out by Icelandic bands [and] it was clear that the rest of the world needed to hear it." Ritchey-Mark is so passionate about her label's releases that she fulfills her WI duties on top of her responsibilities as the mother of a three year-old and the course-load of a full time music student.
Ritchey-Mark first conceived of the Worker's Institute when she discovered that Johann Johannsson, one of her favorite Icelandic composers, did not have American distribution for his latest release Das, the soundtrack for an Icelandic coming-of-age film of the same name. "I heard Johann's first solo record playing in a record store in Reykjavik called 12 Tonar," she recalls. "They were playing it one rainy evening and it struck me as some of the most beautiful music I had ever heard." Johannsson made a lasting impression on Ritchey-Mark and decided to put out his album herself.
For Das, Johannsson says he wanted to attain a tone that captured "the
zeitgeist of early 21st century Reykjavik" and set his sights on producing "a
strange sort of melancholy, almost naive bubble-gum pop." Although his former
work leaned towards the classical -- string quartets, brass orchestras,
glockenspiels -- he has long maintained a fascination with electronic music,
which is played out on Dis, an album that Air would be proud to have
made. Lofty as Johannsson's ambitions were in creating Dis, it succeeds
marvelously as a pop collection while also managing to maintain an elegant
maturity and nostalgia uncommon in contemporary electronic popular music,
Icelandic or not.
Although Johannsson inspired the founding of the label, the WI's first release was actually a four-song EP by the classically-trained string quartet Amina. Although best known as Sigur Ras's string section, they had originally gotten together during music school to make their own brand of improvisatory music -- which emphasizes strings but also crystal glasses filled with water, mallet instruments, and bowed saws. "We're drawn to instruments that we think are beautiful," says the group's cellist, Sumarlioadottir. "It's almost as important that [instruments] are as pleasing to the eye as they are pleasing to the ear."
After finishing their 2004 tour with Sigur Ras, Amina recorded an EP, AnimaaminA, during the summer of the same year. The four women found going solo and working with the WI extremely liberating. "As an accompanying quartet, you're kind of moving within the space of someone else," says Sumarlioadottir. Amina's music could be described as classically-tinged, slightly ambient, and possibly hypnotic-words that could also be used to describe their associates, Sigur Ras. Upon first listen, however, one notices immediately that certain key factors -- a knack for understatement, a shying away from pop song structures, a preference for texture over LAYERING -- put Amina in its own category. Sigur Ras may be a good listen on a rainy day, but Amina actually sounds like the drizzling grayness of that afternoon. The WI is releasing Amina's full-length debut early in 2006.
An Icelandic musician who rarely finds himself faced with pigeonholing is Skuli Sverisson. The New York-based musician has worked with everyone from Blonde Redhead and Laurie Anderson to Ryuichi Sakomoto and Fennesz, and the WI recently released an album of his work with bass clarinetist Anthony Burr called A Thousand Incidents Arise. As a figure in the avant-garde jazz scene inspired by minimalist classical music (he lists Giacinto Scelsi and Morton Feldman as current infatuations), Sverisson's own music has little in common with his popular Icelandic peers beyond his method of bowing guitars.
Though rarely described as prototypically "Icelandic" himself, Sverisson understands why other Icelandic musicians are. "A lot of the music that's been coming out of Iceland is very intuitive," he says. "Whenever music becomes that intuitive, it brings in influences like the landscape and the environment that you're in -- I think that's absolutely happening." Unlike Icelandic music, explains Sverisson, "American music has a very deep root in history -- jazz, blues... But in Iceland, we don't really have a great musical history, so people feel free to make things up."
Indeed, what might link together these musicians is their shared lack of historical precedent. Despite what the media has led us to believe, says Johannsson, "When you really study the Icelandic scene, I think people will find that it's really very varied. I think that's due to the size -- it's quite small and it's not big enough to sustain a whole scene of bands that sound exactly like Sigur Ras. There's nobody else in Iceland that sounds like Sigur Ras -- it's just them." With these three acts serving only as a preview to the WI's upcoming roster of Icelandic acts, Americans will soon be enjoying a wide range of the chilly little island's musical fruits.