Nýló, the Icelandic Sound-Poem Choir, 13 Feb 2009

Last night was the Winter Lights Festival in Reykjavík, with the museums open till late and all kinds of things going on in cafes, galleries, libraries, and so on. I went to see the Icelandic Sound-Poem Choir in a back room of the Museum of Modern Art…or at least that’s how it was billed. I found the address, Laugavegur 26, and there was Skífan (a big music store), an optician’s, a Swedish brasserie, but no museum, until I noticed the sign ‘nýttlist safn’ (something like that anyway) pointing down a back alley. It looked more like an art college, or maybe a storage room, than an actual museum, with stuff heaped up in piles all over the place and nothing visibly on display. There did appear to be a museum shop at the entrance though, so I’m not really sure what it was.

The room was packed with people, and we were all perched on tiny folding chairs, our big winter coats rubbing against one another and holding us all securely in place, like tadpoles in a pond. It was a real choir, about twenty people, and this alone was impressive enough; how often do you come across people doing sound poetry, let alone a whole choir full of them! The first piece began with the gentle collective inhalation and exhalation of breath, building up a soothing rhythm that was reminiscent both of the body and of the sea. This then formed the backdrop to a poem read by a swarthy male poet – he could just about have been a fisherman himself (maybe I’m romanticising a bit) – who had to peer closely at his notes to remember what he was about to say. I don’t know what he was saying (my Icelandic’s not that good yet – I can just about work out what cashiers are saying when they tell me the price), but it didn’t seem to matter.

Later on the choir was joined by scratchy sounds from a double-bassist, a woman playing a theramine-like instrument that made a wailing soprano sound, two girls with bird whistles, an opera singer, and a conductor who occasionally picked up a megaphone and sounded like a German commander spitting out orders in a second world-war film. There was a lot of movement, including three performers parading about in a kind of pantomime-horse formation; but what struck me most was when the choir was split into two sets of rows stomping mechanically back and forth across the stage – it reminded me of the movement of the enemy units in 1980s computer games like Space Invaders, slowly but relentlessly making their advance.

Overall it was pretty chaotic and over-the-top in a way that definitely reminded me of the recording I have of Kurt Schwitters’s Ur Sonata. The Ur Sonata at times makes you smile because it sounds like a parody of operatic style; the Icelandic Sound-Poem Choir had me smiling because it felt – not like a parody – but like a circus: it was fun, exuberant, mad. At the same time, however, it did feel a bit artless, and the circus seems like a dead-end place to take sound poetry to me. It highlights the novelty, but next time I go to see them (and I will go) I will be looking for some subtlety too.

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