Friday Night at Harpa Kaldalón was an eclectic mix of instrumental sets, quiet songwriters, and the sexiest lounge act since Julie Cruz. Across the board this night had a bit of something for everyone.
Opening the evening was the highly acclaimed Nordic Affect, a string trio of violin, cello and viola. Their set shared the stage with a triptych of new films featuring the composition of Hugi Guðmundsson. Between the three videos they also performed two live works of fluttering string arrangements. Quickly setting a reflective tone, the film accompaniment offered a possibly deeper layer into experiencing the already fascinating music. While the live performance was quite good, the dreamlike images of New York via the sonic lens of Guðmundsson became for me the focal point of the set. It left me wondering what would have happened if the films would have been scored live as well… ah wishful thinking.
New York based violist Nadia Sirota took the stage next with the first of two appearances from the label Bedroom Community. Accompanied by Valgeir Sigurðsson manipulating electronics and piano, and Daníel Bjarnason also on piano, her performance lived immediately up to her reputation as one of the most striking forces in her field. Opening with Nico Muhly’s “Etude 3”, the complex intensity of her opening attack was physical, intuitive, and breathtaking. She moved next into work from Sigurðsson’s groundbreaking 2012 release “The Architecture of Loss.” Her playing challenged the intricacies of electronic technology while simultaneously, moving as one with it. Her crushing dynamics articulated a sonic world, microscopically infinite, and brought Bjanason’s “Sleep Variations” to a powerful conclusion of the set.
Highly anticipated Swedish songwriter Sumie Nagano’s set could best be described as haunted. Stunning grainy, black and white projections provided an otherworldly backdrop to her sparsely arranged songs. Artfully dusted with electric guitar and and trumpet, these quiet fingerpicked works were songs on the brink of darkness. This is also however the only point of criticism I would have: Let the darkness fall. While the set and performance was gorgeous, it fell just short of the gravity that seemed to loom just beyond each note. Calling to mind the 2009 release “Life On Earth,” by Seattle songwriter Tiny Vipers in its quiet chill, I was left hoping for her to dive further into the void of these songs. A far cry from being disappointed, I look forward to watching the development of Nagano’s vast and quiet world with her debut release coming in December.
Iceland’s sweetheart sister duo Pascal Pinon brought warmth back to Kaldalón with their lilting vocal harmonies, and organic songs. Moving between guitar, piano, and minimal electronics they had the audience hanging on every breath. The gorgeous line “so sacred and so plain,” floated into the air mid-set and seemed a fitting description of their work. While the musical accomplishment of these sisters by such a young age must be noted, the age unfortunately stung the ending of their show with a rather silly love song to Kanye West. Nothing against Mr. West, I would just prefer to see these two push their talent beyond the realm of cute. They are more than capable and at all other points deeply introspective.
Rökkurró continued the theme of introspective beauty, but also brought a much welcomed rush of energy to the night with the first full band set up. Described as melancholic, I found there set to be lighter than expected. Very tight and polished this band swept through the evening smoothly. Warm in presence, eager fans got everything they could hope for.
How do you set up an orchestra in twenty minutes? I watched it happen and still am not sure how it was pulled off exactly. Performing with the Reykjavík Symphonia, Daníel Bjarnason showcased work from his most recent release on Bedroom Community: “Over Light Earth.” Joined again by afore mentioned BC friends, this work was massive and a true joy to witness live. The continual re-defining of of classical music is characteristic of Bjarnason and this performance was no exception. Playing piano, while simultaneously conducting, each piece vibrantly shined with the amazing musicianship gathered on stage. A guest appearance from Miriam Wallentin, also know as Miriam the Believer, brought the house to rapt attention with lines like: “the stars sang in their sockets through the night, blow bright, blow bright.” Bjarnason is currently working on new music for the L.A. Philharmonic this evening afforded the audience intimate access to one of the most exciting, thoughtful and inspired composers working today.
Then, for something completely different, there was Montreal-based crooner(?) Sean Nicholas Savage. His set made everything you never thought you would like so cool that you didn’t know why it was not cool to begin with. Confused? So was I at first but this performance quickly won me over as one of the most original things I have seen at this years festival. Savage is a bizarre, twisted, silly, infectious freak and he owns it. Throw David Lynch, most of the 1980s, a karaoke bar, and that really steamy scene from Cocktail into a blender, mix it up with the beautifully spastic scene in Montreal, and throw it back like a mediocre martini. More people need more of this in their lives. It helps to remind us that even after the after-party, beyond the hangover, somewhere in that post wild night of dancing haze, there is still even more beauty out there. And it is worth writing songs about. “When I hear that music playing I want to make you hear it.”
So let this be your soundtrack to the after-party. As I began this review I was not entirely sure how to put it all together and to be honest, I am not sure that I entirely do now. Yet somehow this night all worked amazingly well. Shifting transient sonic architecture and ping ponging around the fringe, every artist featured truly made this a memorable, unique and exciting night. Even Kanye got a little love, right?