Making It Happen with Nordic Viola in Iceland

March 30, 2020 in awards 2020 blog, featured by mwhiteside

Hard to imagine in the times we’re living through just now but exactly a year ago I was in Iceland with my Nordic Viola project for eleven days. Nordic Viola forms musical connections across the North Atlantic region from Scotland to Greenland via the Faroes and Iceland with an emphasis on contemporary music and its relationship to traditional forms. It is a very flexible ensemble driven by repertoire and can be anything from just me on solo viola up to the six musicians we’d like to take on tour in the autumn. In Iceland I was working with two musicians with a strong Scottish connection: pianist Arnhildur Valgarðsdóttir, a graduate of the RSAMD as it was then, and Scottish composer-violist Charles Ross who has been resident in Iceland for many years and who is perhaps best known here for his partnerships with Ilan Volkov.

Landing in Reykjavik felt a little like coming home. I’d spent a month in Iceland and the Faroes in 2016 and Reykjavik was my launch pad to Greenland in 2017. I soon eased back into my routine of a morning swim outdoors in the thermal baths, the bitter cold wind on my face invigorating me. I was eased in gently musically too. Although Arnhildur and I know each other well, it was actually the first time we’d played together, so we took the chance to play informally for the older parishioners’ lunch at Fella- og Hólakirkja. Our main concert took place at the end of the week with a programme that included British composer Adrian Vernon Fish’s “Qaanaq” Sonata, a 25 minute piece influenced by Adrian’s travels in the far north of Greenland and “Kvinnan Fróma”, a set of variations on an Icelandic folk tune by Oliver Kentish, another Briton with long-term residency in Iceland.

The main event, however, was a concert with Charles Ross in Mengi, a venue created and managed by artists in Reykjavik that hosts diverse art events, releases music by some of the nation’s most ambitious musicians and operates an art and record store. And it was then that the weather took a turn for the worse. Halfway through the afternoon Charles rang saying that he was stuck on the ground in East Iceland (where all was calm) and that he might not make it! Suddenly I was faced with the prospect of an hour’s solo free improvisation. The weather was crazy in Reykjavik – huge, hefty convective snow showers, crazy swirling winds. One minute pale blue skies with towering cumulus, the next a wall of steel-blue-grey clouds loaded with hailstones. I wasn’t optimistic but at 5pm Charles phoned to say that he would arrive shortly before Mengi’s doors would open. We hadn’t improvised together for two and a half years: it was going to be an exciting gig and yet I felt curiously calm, remembering how natural it had felt to work together in Seyðisfjörður, East Iceland back in 2016. Live improvisation can be a nerve-wracking experience but for me, its reward is that it is all-absorbing. Your whole being is focused in the moment, there’s a freedom and a freshness to your music-making. 5 minutes to formulate a rough plan and we were off – a few scribbled motifs, a few concepts to work with and a solo set each.

In many ways we’re quite different musicians: I tend to work around melodic motifs whereas Charles is an absolute master of timbre. I have never known anyone make such a variety of sounds from a viola and his resourcefulness is something to behold. Flying with just hand luggage he had an amplifier consisting of the pick-up from an old-fashioned telephone placed on his viola wired up to something that looked like an old transistor radio, just enough to pick up the sound from a viola prepared with cotton wool, bow hairs tied round the string and a feather. Yes, I know, but it worked! You can hear the results, together with an explanation from Charles, here. With little time to prepare, I went into the final set knowing no more than that a computer was involved. To my surprise and delight, my sound started coming back at me, stretched in time and I got to dovetail with my own sound. This was the little spark that fed a new curiosity for working with electronic sound.

There is much to enjoy in Reykjavik but I’m not a city animal, so it was with much anticipation and a slight sense of relief that I hopped on the plane to Egilsstaðir, the main administrative town in the East with 2000 inhabitants where Charles has been based  for many years. Egilsstaðir is further north than Nuuk, the capital of Greenland and the vistas are wide and bleak in late winter. When I’d last visited in autumn 2016, there was a wealth of colour – blue skies, green larches, yellow birches, red blueberry leaves. This time the vegetation was yellow-brown, the igneous rocks black with snow on the mountains. The Lagarfljót (lake) was grey-green with pressure ice washed up on its shore. In autumn the geese were gathering to migrate, now it was eerily lifeless. The ravens, a constant in winters of the Far North, were there though. This scene was to inspire my first piece of music experimenting with recorded sound from Iceland, processed viola sound and live improvisation, “Lagarfljót.”

After playing for the senior citizens of Reykjavik, the focus was on young people in Egilsstaðir with a masterclass for Charles’ violin and viola pupils – some were old friends from 2016 but there were some new faces. This group are amongst the most generous and open-minded young people I’ve worked with, keen to learn and supportive of each other.

Some of them joined us for our second concert in the “Slátarhusið”, the old slaughterhouse converted to an arts venue. Actually, this time I felt a little less like a lamb to the slaughterhouse as we had time to rehearse and prepare some tracks. As Charles was on his home patch, we also had more instruments to play with. I’d put in a special request to bring his Siberian Fiddle. I love improvising alongside this tiny, delicate instrument, matching its timbres, looking for the high harmonics, taking care to enhance and not overpower its sound with the more powerful viola.

I have an unbroken tradition of always seeing the Northern Lights after I’ve performed in the Far North. My own little bit of magic. I thought my luck was out, but just before bedtime they appeared. I didn’t sleep that last night out East – it was too beautiful to miss – first the stars and the Northern Lights and then the very slow encroachment of a pale blue dawn from the east leading to long shadows in the golden sunlight at 6am. The sun rises early after the equinox – winter with a touch of sun.

A Challenge from the Faroes

Those days in Iceland seem a world away now, all transport to the Far North severed by the virus. But the link is still there as, in my practice I’m inspired by a new release from the Faroe Islands – Sunleif Rasmussen’s five movement Viola Sonata performed on Da Capo records by its dedicatee, Jákup Lützen from the Copenhagen Philharmonic. According to the composer, “the instrument makes the form of the piece” frequently climbing from the depths of the C-string through the entire range of the instrument before dropping back again. Sunleif draws a wealth of colour from the viola, exploring different points of contact with the bow, asking the violist to sing along as he plays in a ghostly manner in the third movement, the extraordinarily animalistic col legno fourth movement and the wide ranging arpeggios of the last movement, before the voice again joins in. It’s an immense work requiring strong hands and a lot of stamina, not to mention a virtuosic technique. Not a piece I’d have time to learn alongside my RSNO work, but now, finally, time is one thing I do have at my disposal!


Pictures of Katherine Wren and Charles Ross ©Justin Batchelor