Looking back: Notes From Tectonics Festival…

10 Mar

Last Wednesday, i was at Kaffibarinn taking in some of the Extreme Chill night after watching the Icelandic gangster movie, “Svartur Á leik”. I ended up talking with a friend about last weeks Tectonics Music festival where he noted that he went on the first night only. When I told him i was there the whole weekend, he simply went, “Jesus! i would never have lasted an entire weekend of that stuff!”

This stuff he meant was 3 days of some very interesting contemporary, classical and electronic music that you don’t often get that much of in Iceland. There should be some reviews and interview popping up in the Grapevine over the coming week,and i was considering hawking a full review to some outside publications, but alas i simply haven´t had the time. But until it all comes out, now here’s some of my thoughts on hoe the weekend went.

Harpa – Bigger on the outside?

So Tectonics would be my first time proper at the Harpa concert hall to see what 27 Billion ISK looks like form the inside. I have to say that while most of it looked really nice and modernist in places (the foyer especially), the main Eldborg concert hall was a lot smaller than i was led to believe from the numerous pictures i had seen. But the sound quality in there was not too bad actually. And the red balconies and walls added a nice Gothic touch to the ambience. The beer was bloody expensive though…


I was reviewing Thursday so i won’t go into it in too much detail, but this was John Cage night. No mean feat to get your head around his music, especially since only a week before the festival, i had only ever heard… ooh, one of his pieces. And i have to say that the night was overall a bit of a success. The starting piece of “fifty-Eight” with a large school brass band creating a very paranoid soundscape that was very well realised in the main foyer, and set the tone for some serious sound bending skills. Out of all the main John Cage pieces that were featured that evening, i would have to say that “Improvisation III” and “Experiences No.2” had the biggest effect, the first for it’s truly haunting use of sound, tape playing noise and the silent ambience of the auditorium, the second for its sheer melodic simplicity. Having the main lights of the experimental electronics scenen perform it also was a bit of a boost as well.

By the end of the night though i was pretty much fucked. Most of Cage’s music is “difficult” at the best of times, and you really had to listen actively to get the most out of it all. Most people really aren’t that trained at such deep listening for long periods of time, so it felt at the end like i had just done 8 rounds with the most dangerous black metal band in the world. Was glad for the workout though.

The main focus piece outside of Cage was definitely Oren Ambarchi’s improvised piece with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra. Man that thing BOOMED with clanging bells on it. Interestingly enough, when i spoke to a couple of people afterwards they noted that it was indeed loud, but it could have been a lot louder, so that it more like a Sunn O))) track.I think it was loud enough to be honest. Any more volume and it would have been a mess.


For me the big plus on Friday was getting to meet both Oren Ambarchi and pianist John Tilbury. I was supposed to be meeting Oren at 5pm at Harpa to do an interview, but 5pm came and went and the bastard didn’t show up! I was just about to leave and go to the pub at 5.25 when he came running in. Turns out he fell asleep in his hotel room. He then asked if i wanted to meet John and his wife, which of course i said yes. We all ended up having dinner at KEX with some fo the lads from Gogoyoko. John was a great person to meet. He’s a communist of the old school and we spent most of the time talking about the plight of Rangers FC and the evils of capitalism in modern football and society in general. And i managed to do my interview with Oren, which should hopefully come out soon, so again won’t go into it in too much detail.

As for the music, Friday was given over to works composed and inspired by Icelandic composer Magnus Blöndal. The first section i saw was his orchestral pieces. Now i was aware of Blöndal’s electronic music and his work with Musique Concreté, but his symphony music was a bit of a revelation. Personally, i think it´s a scandal that his music isn’t played more often in Iceland. “Adagio” was especially moving. It ha a strong cinematic feel and bore a musical similarity to the film “Close Encounter Of The 3rd Kind”. Since the piece was written in 1980, a few years after the film came out, I’m sure that this was some kind of influence on the piece itself.

The rest of the music I saw was given new electronic music pieces that were inspired by the Ideas of Blöndal himself. We were first treated to his two seminal works, “Elektrónisk Stúdia” and “Samstirni”, both of wich had been reworked and remastered from the original tapes. It was pretty clear to hear the leap in craft and ideas between “Stúdia”, which came out in 1959 and “Samstirni” which was premiered a year later. Shades of Radiophonic sounds and tape loops. I was told later that night that the music critic for Morgunblaðið at the time called Samstirni, “Apocalypse Music” and not in a good way, meaning that if this was music, then it was the end of culture. It kind of proves my theory that Iceland in the past was run by complete idiots.

Of the other pieces that were played, the best was “Liðan III”, which was one of the filthiest pieces of music i´Ve ever heard in my life. Lots of vocal sounds such as popping, slurping. licking sucking that were warped and slathered in sleaze. Pure contemporary electroporn. The best performance was from Auxpan, who did some nice tape noise manipulation before destroying all his tapes and equipment in the end. The weakest price was from Kira Kira. It was poorly mixed and bad realised and was totally lacking in energy. The lukewarm aplause at the end spoke volumes.


The final day saw me spend the afternoon writing my live reviews and drinking beer and watching rugby. But in the evening i managed to grab probably one of the best concert symphony performances I’ve ever seen in my life. Benedict Mason’s “Third Music for a European Concert Hall” was truly astounding in the way that like Grant Morrison in “Animal Man” or the closing scenes in “Blazing Saddles”, they broke the 4th wall of the space that separates the orchestra from the concertgoer. Starts off like a Orwellian example of control. there is no conductor, only TV screens that show a conductors hands and the number of bars that been counted. Strong elements of Kraftwerk style man machine music. Then some kind of metaphysical computer virus is uploaded and slowly but surely, each player breaks their programming and they literally go haywire as they establish their individual music freedom from the collective and seem to go off and do their own thing. It was brilliant. Like hearing and seeing the story of a film such as the Matrix or THX-1138 being set to music.

Later on that evening we were treated to some subatomic minimalist music, from John Tilbury playing Morton Feldman’s “Palais De Mari”, followed by a improvised piece with Oren Ambarchi. some lovely notes and sounds based on very little indeed. S.L.A.T.U.R premiered new works from their collective of composers. The first piece had a strong energy to it with lots of martial drumming and pulsing rhythms (the conductor music must have listened to a lot of Test Dept while writing the piece). Meanwhile the second piece was an interesting chunk of lounge jazz with trip hop beats. However the rest of the pieces didn’t hold my attention so i went to the bar. The festival ended with a massive piece conducted in the foyer with 4 full high school bands from local areas playing different pieces at the same time. It all looked and sounded like organised chaos.

There was a final soiree at the art museum where Ghostigital was playing some stuff, but it was all stilted and boring, so i downed a lot of wine and went to Gaukurinn and slamdanced to Muck instead and almost dislocated my knee and convinced Aðalsteinn to come with me to London to see SLAYER in May.

So overall i thought that Tectonics was a definite success in the first year. the music was challenging and provoking, the quality of playing was exceptional and (what was really shocking) was that it was all highly organised and the proceedings went along almost smoothly with nay a complaint from the performers, which for an Icelandic fesitval was surely a first that I’ve seen.

If you’re looking at where Tectonics could progress to in terms of stature over the coming year, then you should take a gander at Unsound, Europe’s biggest contemporary music festival. There, you have composers rubbing shoulders with the likes of Earth, Demdike Stare, Kode 9 and Lustmord. It’s this type of music that i would be crying out for to be booked and performed here in Iceland, Many acts, such as Raime and Umberto, in the past I’ve lobbied to be booked for festivals such as Iceland Airwaves but with no success. However, they would surely be a better fit at a place like Tectonics.  Indeed, I’m hoping for Tectonics 2012, Ilan Volkov will go the whole hog and book Sunn O))) or something similarly cool!

Note – Edited for the 215 spelling mistakes…

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Posted by on March 10, 2012 in Iceland, live music, music


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