At the height of the Icelandic winter, when the skies still bear little light, the Harpa concert hall in Reykjavik plays host to Dark Music Days, an annual festival of contemporary and new music. In its own words, the festival aims ‘to brighten up the mood of the audience and the participants in the winter darkness’.
In truth by the end of January in Reykjavik the days are already much lighter than they were a month ago, the few minutes of daylight which Icelanders might blink and miss at the winter solstice rapidly expanding to encompass around six hours. But while Reykjavik is never dull – especially Harpa, clad in colourful glass, and looking out over the Faxaflói bay and towards the mountain range Esjan – the days remain dark all the same, and with temperatures routinely in the minus, it would be pleasant enough simply to get indoors, yet Dark Music Days offers an especially enticing array of artists.
Among those who feature this year are the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra; the quartet Dans les arbres, who have released two albums on ECM Records and performed alongside the likes of Yumiko Tanaka, Otomo Yoshihide, and Jim O´Rourke; Nordic Affect, who combine strings with electronics for a sound somewhere between 18th century chamber music and 21st century ambient experimentation, the ensemble’s latest record Clockworking released by Sono Luminus last July; and the violinist Hlíf Sigurjónsdóttir, whose Dialogus was named ‘CD of the Year 2015’ by Maria Nockin, a critic for Fanfare music magazine.
The programme covers a span of more than a hundred years – some of the earliest pieces performed during the three days of the festival include Arnold Schoenberg’s Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, published in 1913, and Claude Debussy’s Études, written in 1915 – but the emphasis is on new Icelandic composers. Dark Music Days was established back in 1980 by the Society of Icelandic Composers, making it one of the country’s oldest music festivals.