Saturday, August 25, 2012

Reykjavík Blues

If more proof were needed that the best things often turn up by accident, during a brief ride on a passenger ferry in Reykjavík the captain switched on a recording of what was, as far as I could tell, someone singing the old Don Gibson country tune "Oh Lonesome Me" in Icelandic. When the boat docked, several tunes later, and I went to ask the what the record was, someone had already beat me to the punch, and the captain gave us both an introduction to Kristján Kristjánsson, better known as KK (pronounced "Cow Cow"), and his frequent collaborator Magnús Eiríksson, who usually goes by Maggi Eiríks or just plain Maggi.

22 Ferðalög, the CD that was playing on the boat, includes Icelandic-language versions of a number of old pop and folk chestnuts, including "Freight Train," "Daisy Bell" ("A Bicycle Built for Two"), and "Baby Face," as well as some songs I recognize but can't put a name on. As far as I can tell (knowing virtually no Icelandic), none of the melodies are new, and the "translated" lyrics may have at best only a rough fidelity to the original. The songs range in style from Tin Pan Alley to country to calypso to Hawaiian, and all are played with deft, swinging arrangements on two guitars. KK, who has the better voice, takes most of the vocals, with Maggi apparently playing the lead lines on guitar. The record was reportedly a big success in Iceland, and has led to two sequels (which I haven't heard), Fleiri ferðalög and Langferðalög. If I'm not mistaken, "ferðalög" means travelogue, and the record is, in fact, perfect traveling music, ingratiating without ever being sappy.

I didn't actually catch up with 22 Ferðalög (via download) until I got home, but before I left I did find a copy of Þrefaldur ("Triple"), a relatively inexpensive set that includes three earlier CDs by the pair, Ómissandi fólk, Kóngur einn dag, and the live album Lifað og leikið, dating from 1996 to 2000, and displaying a harder, more rock-oriented side to their work. Except for some American blues covers on the third CD (sung in English), most of the songs here seem to be originals, and good ones at that. Again, it's hard to judge songs without knowing the language, but the tunes and musicianship are first-rate. The live CD is more of a mixed bag stylistically than the first two discs, but it includes two of KK's best songs, the lovely road song "Vegbúi" and the haunting "Grand Hótel," as well as an eight-minute version of "Everyday I Have the Blues" that lets Maggi air it out on guitar.

KK (on the right in both photos) was born in Minnesota in 1956, though his parents were evidently Icelanders and the family moved back to Iceland when he was ten. He later studied music in Sweden. I haven't found much information on Magnus Eiríkson. It appears to be very difficult to obtain the pair's CDs in the US (and I don't know whether they ever tour here), but their music can be downloaded as mp3s from There are a few YouTube videos of KK out there, with or without Magnús, but the sound quality on most isn't great, though this version of a song called "Dalakofinn" seems to have been taken directly from a CD.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

In Suðarsveit

Thórbergur Thórdarson, or Þórbergur Þórðarson to use the Icelandic form of his name, was born in 1888 on a turf farmstead named Hali in Suðarsveit, an isolated district on the southeast coast of Iceland. Said to be too frail for farm work, he moved to Reykjavík, where he tried his hand at various occupations before taking up the pen. He eventually became one of Iceland's most important modern writers, though his name is scarcely recognized outside of the country. The Stones Speak, a memoir of his childhood, which has been published this year in an English-language translation by Julian Meldon D'Arcy, suggests that he deserves to be more widely known.

The Stone Speaks begins with the stranding of a French schooner in 1886, a momentous event in local history which provided local farmsteads with an unaccustomed bounty of such luxuries as French bread, red wine, and cognac, as well as more utilitarian items like fishing tackle, rope, and nails. It proceeds to the wedding of his parents shortly after, and his difficult birth two years later, and then examines in detail the farm buildings, livestock, and the rugged but beautiful terrain, caught between the sea and the glaciers and volcanoes of the hinterland. If the book were only that it would be of great historical and anthropological interest, for the precarious way of life of the farmers and fisher folk of the southeast coast had in many ways remained all but unchanged for centuries. In a region where supplies of wood were limited to what washed up on the shore and where horticulture was marginal at best, the inhabitants of Suðarsveit lived in houses constructed from turf and stone, cooked and heated with dung, relied on midwives and herbal remedies for medical care, and ate whatever their livestock provided or what they could harvest from the sea.

It quickly becomes evident, however, that Thórbergur is no mere documentarian, but a vivid and imaginative recreator of his own childhood self in all its idiosyncracies. (An Esperantist, socialist, and occasional nudist, Thórbergur was accounted a great eccentric by his contemporaries.) He captures not only the strange otherworldliness that was part and parcel of rural life, including a belief in the active presence of ghosts, "hidden people," and other supernatural entities, but also what Joseph Campbell called "the spontaneous animism of childhood," in which not just farm animals but natural features of the landscape and even everyday objects were seen as possessing souls and characters of their own, and in which personal names and even ordinary nouns and adjectives held potent and uncanny visual associations:
With the adjective 'mad,' an elliptical stone used for weighing appeared hanging in thin air before me, but with the adjective 'crazy' there appeared a sheep's head with horse-shoe shaped horns on a living sheep butting its right horn under something, a bar in a gate for example, with its head leaning over a little to the right. When someone was said to be 'mad and crazy,' the weight first appeared and then the sheep's head immediately after. A rather large sheep's head with horse-shoe-shaped horns also appeared in association with the man's name Ari, but then the sheep didn't butt anything. It stood still, or was moving, and I saw its face from the front at an oblique angle.
The Stones Speak is only the first of four volumes, collectively entitled Í Suðursveit, which Thórbergur devoted to memories of his childhood; the remaining three are as yet untranslated. As far as I can tell, the only other of Thórbergur's books to have been translated into English, long out-of-print but not difficult to obtain second-hand, is In Search of My Beloved, which is an abridgement of Íslenzkur aðall. There is also a slender volume, which I haven't seen, called In the Footsteps of a Storyteller, comprising excerpts from his writings (mostly, I think, from The Stones Speak), accompanied by photographs. Though the text is in English and German, it is, like The Stones Speak, barely obtainable outside of Iceland.

There is now a museum at Hali devoted to Thórbergur; its dramatic exterior wall takes the form of a uniform edition of his writings. The district is no longer as isolated as it was in the past, as Iceland's ring road now runs through it, and there are guesthouses as Hali and nearby farms. An evocative if somewhat romanticized video shows scenes from Suðarsveit today.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Artist unknown (Views of Iceland)

The Listasafns Íslands (National Gallery of Iceland) is currently exhibiting a group of some fifteen paintings by an unknown artist or artists, possibly done in Denmark before 1785, and purporting to depict the volcanoes and other natural features of Iceland. The paintings are rarely shown and appear not to have been reproduced in any form except for the single image above, which is taken from the museum's website. They are part of an excellent small exhibition called Inspired by Iceland, which includes everything from 19th-century landscapes by recognized Icelandic masters to contemporary video and multimedia presentations.

According to information available at the exhibit (but apparently not on the museum's website or anywhere else), the canvases were donated to the museum in 1928 by the heirs of Baron Tage Reedtz-Thott, who was prime minister of Denmark from 1894 to 1897. They were probably once owned by Count Otto Thott, a noted 18th-century antiquarian distinguished by a bequest of 200 Icelandic manuscripts to the Royal Library in Copenhagen.

Though the paintings are inscribed with identifying place-names, their topography doesn't correspond to the real world, and it is thought to be unlikely that the artist or artists ever actually set foot in Iceland at all. In addition to the fifteen pieces that are currently displayed, there are apparently nine others in the museum's collection; numbers inscribed in the corners suggest that they may have once been part of a series of 32 or more.

The example shown, while striking, is somewhat atypical in its use of livid red; its strangeness, however, is shared by the entire series. As in many or perhaps all of the others (I am working from memory so I can't be sure), some tiny human figures have been included, perhaps to provide scale, but most of these figures have their faces obscured or turned away. This may or may not have been because drawing faces was beyond the technical skills of the artist(s), but in any case the effect is distinctly uncanny. One of the more interesting examples shows three white conical forms, which seemingly spiral up like the Tower of Babel; I'm not even clear what these forms are supposed to be — ice mountains? giant stalagmites?.

The Listasafns has wisely shown great restraint in restoring the paintings, which are presented unframed. They are pockmarked and blemished here and there, and the canvas on some is frayed a bit where it attaches to the backing, but if anything these reminders of their age and previous neglect only increase the impact of the images. Pending further research (which is reportedly underway), it's too soon to classify these works with a facile label such as "naive art," but it's not too soon to declare that they are both very beautiful and very, very odd. Hopefully the entire series will be fully annotated and reproduced before too long.

Update (February 2013): Below are thumbnails of two other images in the group.

These two were taken from a document entitled "List of objects proposed for protection under Part 6 of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 (protection of cultural objects on loan)" prepared by the Compton Verney Art Gallery in preparation for an exhibition in 2010.