Why Iceland? L.A. Phil's Reykjavik Festival highlights amazing music coming from an unlikely place

Icelandic people enjoy bending the rules. This is bad if you’re a banker but great if you’re an artist, says Sigtryggur “Siggi” Baldursson, former drummer of the seminal Icelandic alt-rock band the Sugarcubes, which catapulted vocalist Björk to international stardom in the late 1980s.

The cataclysmic financial meltdown that decimated the Icelandic króna in 2008 did nothing to dampen the rich musical culture that had been blossoming in the remote Nordic island for decades. But now the country with a population of a little more than 300,000 boasts such a thriving music and arts scene that the Los Angeles Philharmonic is hosting the 17-day Reykjavík Festival at Walt Disney Concert Hall, beginning April 1.

The festival, curated by Icelandic composer and conductor Daníel Bjarnason and L.A. Phil conductor laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen, features an eclectic mix of classical, contemporary, choral, chamber, symphonic, pop, experimental and electronic music, including a three-night stand by the influential post-rock band Sigur Rós accompanied by the L.A. Phil. The festival will showcase the work of 50 composers and more than 60 musicians and artists, with 18 world premieres, three art installations and more than 24 hours of music.

FULL COVERAGE: Spring arts guide 2017

Björk will make her Disney Hall debut May 30 in what the L.A. Phil is calling a special extension to the Reykjavík Festival. She will perform with an orchestra, timed with the “Björk Digital” exhibition at the Magic Box at the Reef opening May 19.

Taken as a whole, Bjarnason says, the festival represents a compelling snapshot of the country’s unique musical landscape — one that first caught the eye of L.A. Phil Chief Operating Officer Chad Smith about five years ago, when he heard a Bjarnason piece for multiple cellos performed during the L.A. Phil’s Green Umbrella new music series.

The composition was one of the most extraordinarily fresh pieces of music Smith had heard. It prompted him and L.A. Phil President Deborah Borda to begin visiting Iceland to learn more about the musical environment from which it came.

What they found was a tightknit community of artists unbound by convention and devoted to a genre-bending DIY culture. Composers writing music for orchestras and string quartets worked in recording studios with pop and electronica artists at night. Rock ’n’ rollers also played in string ensembles and sang backup on tours with multiple bands. The fluidity extended from the front of the stage to the back of the house to studio isolation booths and beyond.

“The incredible depth and breadth of live and new music happening on stages and in recording venues across Reykjavík was eye-opening,” Smith says. “For a few days in April, L.A. is going to have in its midst some of the most interesting artists in Iceland — not just some, an impressive collection of them.”

In addition to Bjarnason and Sigur Rós, highlights include a concert by one of Iceland’s most prominent record labels and collectives, Bedroom Community, founded by Valgeir Sigurdsson with Nico Muhly and Ben Frost. Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (“The Theory of Everything,” “Arrival”) will be in concert with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble. Ambient electronic band Múm will perform in the U.S. for the first time in eight years as part of an immersive opening night extravaganza programmed in partnership with the Sugarcubes’ Baldursson that includes amiina, JFDR, dj. flugvél og geimskip, and Skúli Sverrisson + Ólöf Arnalds, as well as the work of visual artists Shoplifter (Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir) and Siggi Eggertsson. The event will include the U.S. premiere of the four-hour, single-take film “Driving at the Speed of the Nordic Sun” by Xárene Eskandar with music by Bjarnason.

Festival musicians, most speaking from Iceland, attributed the extraordinary flourishing of music on the island to three things: the diminutive population, the country’s relatively short musical history and something intangible about the land itself — that unknowable sense of place and culture that contributes to most notable artistic scenes.

It’s in the air you breathe and the images outside your window when you wake up, says Bedroom Community’s Sigurdsson. It’s in the quality of the light — the long, dark winters and the bright, endless summer nights. The weather is a big part of it too, he says. It changes fast, like turning a page in a book.

“Musically, we’re young,” says Sigur Rós bassist Georg Hólm, echoing a point raised by Bjarnason, who mentioned that the country’s symphony orchestra wasn’t founded until 1950. “When you begin with nothing, you just start creating and there’s great freedom in that.”

And because there are so few people, everyone has to collaborate in order to survive, adds Johannsson, who curated a series of concerts in 1999 called Kitchen Motors that invited artists from differing backgrounds and disciplines to join forces.

“There’s a really strong sense of community within musical circles, we’re very supportive of each other,” says Örvar Póreyjarson Smárason, a founding member of Múm. “If you’re an Icelandic musician or artist you never need to focus on just one thing, there are just too few people to do that. You can do pretty much whatever you like.”

The success of Björk served as a huge catalyst as well, says Bjarnason. It changed the way Icelandic music saw itself.

“There was a sudden focus on Reykjavík and the music that came out of here,” he says. “All of a sudden bands were thinking about an international audience instead of a local one, and that persists today.”

Says Johannsson, “We are few and we seem to punch above our weight somewhat culturally.”

“In the ’90s there were maybe one or two bands that could dream of playing somewhere outside of Iceland,” says Smárason, who formed Múm in 1997. “Around now we’ve lost count. You could never dream of making a list. Even this amazing festival doesn’t cover one-fourth.”

Baldursson says the defining characteristic of all the bands is a desire to make music on their own terms, rather than trying to chase an established ideal.

“It’s not a sound, it’s an attitude,” he says of Icelandic music in general. “In small societies people diversify more than they do in bigger societies. There are pros and cons, we’re not all geniuses, we make mistakes as well.”

Holm shares Baldursson’s self-deprecating humor, especially when he talks about Sigur Rós’ performance with the L.A. Phil.

“It’s either going to be a huge success or a massive failure,” he jokes, adding that performing with an orchestra on this scale is a complicated undertaking. “This is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime thing for Sigur Rós.”

Holm, in his summer country house with his wife and children, recalls driving home recently while listening to a radio show about the Icelandic national character. At one point it was mentioned that when Icelanders are abroad, they always want to come back home.

This is something Holm, a man who has toured the world many times with his band, can relate to.

“Nobody seems to have accurately pinpointed why there is so much music and creativity here, but this whole island is so inspiring and beautiful,” he says. “You always feel at home when you’re in Iceland. You feel the warmth in the coldness.”

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Reykjavík Festival

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

When: April 1-17

Tickets: $25 and up

Information: (323) 850-2000, www.laphil.org

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