Composer and Optimist

Interview med Icelandic composer
Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson

By Anders Beyer

AB: You were born in 1938 and have been a central figure in Icelandic music for more than forty years. How would you describe the musical establishment of which you have gradually become a part? How did it look at the beginning of the 1940s?

THS: I can only remember back to the middle of the 1940s. Musical life was good and active then. As one of its goals, the Reykjavík Music Society, founded in 1930, wanted to establish a music school. That became the Reykjavík Music School, the oldest one in the country. The Music Society also promoted the establishment of an orchestra. Of course they intended the music school to teach young musicians so that we could have a real orchestra in this country. In addition, the Music Society organized a concert series with foreign soloists and chamber musicians. That was during the war when a number of artists travelled to America. On their way they had to make a stop-over here in Iceland; people like Serkin and Busch, great international stars, gave some concerts here. It wasn’t easy to fly in one day and out the next, so they usually had a lengthy stay here in Reykjavík.

AB: Relatively late Jón Leifs took the initiative to set up STEF—the performing rights organization. How well-established was the musical milieu in Iceland in the 1940s?

THS: In 1944 Iceland became a Republic and only then did we have the basis for setting up new institutions. The Composers Union and STEF were founded fifty years ago. The National Theatre opened its doors in 1950 and became the permanent home of The Iceland Symphony Orchestra. So the music establishment here is relatively young.

The international outlook one finds here is a comparatively recent development. Although traditionally Icelandic composers travelled, especially to Central Europe, one could probably say that it wasn’t until the 1950s that Iceland embraced the outside world.

We benefited greatly from the fantastic teachers who came as refugees from Austria and Germany, such as Dr. Robert Abraham Ottosson, Dr. Heinz Edelstein and Dr. Victor Urbancic. Urbancic was an immigrant from Austria, an opera conductor and composer. The contribution of these men was like a vitamin shot for music at that time. Robert Ottosson had studied with Bruno Walter and was also a very fine pianist. Urbancic was the organist at the Catholic church. Edelstein was a cellist from Freiburg. He developed a new method for teaching, specialized in teaching children and taught solfège. I was fortunate to be one of his first students in preparatory school for the Reykjavík academy of music.

AB: You entered the Music School as an instrumentalist, not as a composer.

THS: My main instrument was the violin and I also played the piano. The reason that I ended up playing more and more piano was that my teacher at the Music School, Wilhelm Lanzky-Otto—the Danish pianist and horn player—encouraged me. His sons, Ib, who is a horn player in the Stockholm Philharmonic, and Per, who is an organist, were my schoolmates. Wilhelm said that Per was so lazy that he never practised, but if we played together it might work out. You might say that it was first and foremost in Wilhelm’s own interest to teach me to play the piano. I studied violin in school, but then I had an accident and broke one of the crucial fingers. After that, my instrument was the piano.

AB: While it has been traditional for Icelandic composers, such as Jón Leifs and the artists of today, to travel to Central Europe, your interest was directed toward America. That was where you had your first significant experiences.

THS: I suppose there is something to that. I went to the secondary school in Reykjavík and saw an advertisement in the paper in 1957 for a scholarship to study in America. I had composed music for use in high school—theatre pieces and that sort of thing. When I went to the American Embassy to apply they told me that the grant was primarily meant for people who were interested in science, not music or languages. But I was lucky and my application was accepted. So I went to a small ‘liberal arts’ college, Hamline University, in St. Paul, Minnesota, in fact, the oldest university in Minnesota, where there were only 1400 students. It was a one-year stipend and that suited me fine. I could learn a little English and continue to study the piano. There was a distinguished old lady who taught piano. The Music Department was very interested in new music, primarily because Ernst Křenek had taught there and some of his former students were now members of the faculty. I did well and when they asked me what I would be doing the following year and if I wanted to study for a degree, I said ‘Certainly’, and they renewed my grant for another year.

I also studied sociology, philosophy, English and literature. I earned a liberal arts degree, a Bachelor of Arts, and then I continued with music studies at the University of Illinois in Urbana. There was a composition teacher named Kenneth Gaburo, a student of Petrassi and, as you can imagine, serialism and 12-tone music were the subjects that fascinated me. On top of that the University of Illinois had one of the first electronic music studios and it was accessible to students. Of course it was rather primitive then.

AB: You spent a year and a half in Illinois?

THS: Yes, Lejaren A. Hiller was responsible for electronic music. I also studied musicology with Dr. Alexander Ringer, who is famous in the field. I was married in the USA, came home, and the next summer (1962) I went to Darmstadt and heard lectures by Stockhausen, Ligeti and Maderna.

AB: What did Darmstadt mean to you? Did it enhance your experiences in Illinois?

THS: Yes, you could say that, for there was indeed a very active music scene in Illinois. The University had a really good radio station with good programmes from new music festivals. I had already become familiar with Le Marteau sans maître in Minnesota. Webern’s music became available while I was there. As a matter of fact a set of four LPs of his music was released almost the day after I arrived in Minnesota. I bought it and listened enthusiastically. You could say that Darmstadt supplemented my experiences, for I was already familiar with a fair amount of new music from my stay in America.

AB: You also composed the first works that you still acknowledge in your worklist. Some composers reject their early works. How do you characterize your early style?

THS: First and foremost I have to say that I have never been dedicated to any particular direction. I have always been very curious and have listened to all kinds of music: ethnic music, music from India, Africa. That doesn’t mean that I like all kinds of music, but I have been curious, attended many different concerts and experienced many different attitudes and aesthetic directions. In those days I didn’t think of myself as a composer, ‘Now I am a composer’. It wasn’t like that wonderful little film about Carl Nielsen when as a youth he says goodbye to his mother with the line, ‘Now I am going to Copenhagen to become a composer’. I was a musician and I was generally interested in music, in music history. I played the piano and was very curious about new works for my instrument. I played chamber music—preferably new works.

AB: One understands when you describe these periods that the composer in you somehow developed out of practical necessity. You have talked about yourself as a composer using the phrase, ‘I compose works to fill out a programme’. The element of utility has been a decisive factor.

THS: There have been many occasions in the Musica Nova Society here in Reykjavík when we have said, ‘Our programme is ten minutes too short—what instruments are we using?’ And then I have composed something.

AB: You came back from the USA to a situation where Musica Nova was quite new. In Finland they have the Korvat Auki (Open Ears) Society and in Copenhagen there is the Young Composers Society (DUT). Musica Nova is also a group that introduces new music. Can you say something about its role in Iceland?

THS: From the beginning, the group had two goals: first, to present young musicians, that is, to be a kind of forum for newly-educated young musicians, and second, to present newer music. So it promoted not only the latest music, but also the youngest musicians. These young people also wanted to play the masters of our century—that is, Hindemith and Bartók, and so on. And that was fine, too.

The encounter with Ives’ music

AB: Moving into the 1960s it is evident that this was a break-through period for new ideas. When you go to the National Gallery in Reykjavík and look at the collection that was purchased at the time, you can see that there was a keen interest in the international avant garde. There was a very strong FLUXUS movement here in Reykjavík. Was it also the case in music that there was an interest in international directions? Did Paik perform in Iceland?

THS: Yes, Paik and Charlotte Moorman were here for a concert. Cage was here, but not as a musician. For many years Iceland Air had a route from New York to Luxembourg; it was the least expensive trip across the Atlantic—with the old-fashioned Skymaster and Cloudmaster. It took twelve hours to fly to New York, with refuelling in Goosebay, Labrador. David Tudor and John Cage, for example, often came here on their way to Europe and stayed while the planes were refuelling—or being repaired. We ‘knew’ these people and met them. I often happened to meet them by accident as they were on their way from Europe to the USA and stopping over here in Reykjavík. At that time, Iceland Air wasn’t out in Keflavík, but here.

AB: So they actually stayed here in the city?

THS: Yes, yes, they visited the city, walked the streets. Reykjavík was a lot smaller then than it is now. Eventually we invited Cage to be the guest of honour at the Reykjavík Festival in 1982.

AB: As for the contacts between Iceland and Denmark, you can see—again at the National Gallery—that there must have been a very close association with the Danish artists of the 1950s and 1960s. The entire Cobra Movement is represented at the museum, for example.

THS: Svavar Guðnardson was a member of the Cobra Movement. He was in Denmark for quite a few years, and the sculptor, Sigurjon Olafsson, was also known in Denmark.

AB: That is one side, but generally speaking one gets the impression that after 1944 the relationship with Denmark was not as cordial as it had been.

THS: I never experienced it that way, but I remember that older people from my grandmother’s generation in Reykjavík thought that the government in Copenhagen was at the root of all problems. That idea isn’t current in my generation. We have had Home Rule since 1918. It was the Second World War that caused Icelanders to travel to the USA instead of Europe. And we have had very good teachers here because fortunately most of the Icelanders who went abroad to study have returned. Gunnar Kvaran studied with Erling Blöndal Bengtsson in Copenhagen and lived in Denmark for some years. Now he has returned home. Hafliði Halgrimsson, who studied in Rome and England, now lives in Edinburgh. He only returns to visit.

AB: You said earlier that you were interested in musicology and the whole range of disciplines that you became familiar with in your first years in the USA. If you put on your musicology hat and look at some of your earlier works can you single out a particular one and describe it objectively?

THS: That is difficult, naturally. As I said before I was never interested in direct imitation—perhaps unconsciously, I don’t know. I really did like many different composers—Stravinsky, Ligeti, Penderecki and Schoenberg. And occasionally I was excited by Webern, though only for brief periods. But I was never inclined to say, ‘Now that was fantastic, I am going to try to do something like that’. I believe that my first reaction was, ‘What can I do with that? How can I react against or with it?’

AB: We could also approach this theme by asking, ‘What techniques did you use at that time? What instrumentation did you choose? What expression did you try to achieve? What were your goals and what means did you use to reach them?’

THS: It was very practical. It was music I played myself with my colleagues and I have always been interested in choral music, vocal music. Oh, I forgot to name someone who was a great influence: Charles Ives. It was precisely in those years that I heard the Concord Sonata, thanks to Jim Tenney. It was incomprehensible but very exciting. My teachers here had a German education and could easily understand the development or traditions of German music through romanticism, Brahms, Mahler, Schoenberg and Alban Berg. But they could not understand a personality like Charles Ives or Henry Cowell. They could identify the quote from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in the Concord Sonata but they could not fathom the meaning of the music at all. I can remember that I played one of his tone row pieces with a group. Very difficult. The piano part in Over the Pavement, that went against everything else, I found very interesting. It is fascinating music that takes place on many simultaneous rhythmic levels.

AB: Did these experiences leave an impression on your own music?

THS: It could be, I can’t exclude that. I have always been interested in polyrhythms and controlled aleatory.

AB: As in the Polish School?

THS: Yes. But I had already begun to use that technique before I heard any of those Polish pieces. I believe most of all it was because of what I had heard in works by Charles Ives.

AB: How did you notate the music at that time?

THS: The music was very carefully written out. I have never used graphic notation. Only very, very peripherally. I wrote precisely what every instrument should perform. But exactly when was not determined.

AB: Is that what you mean by the concept of controlled aleatory?

THS: Yes. There was a period during which I composed works like Flökt that was played at the ISCM Music Days in Amsterdam in 1963. Bruno Maderna conducted. He had Earle Brown’s score, Available Forms. I met him just before the rehearsal and he asked, ‘Do you know Earle Brown’? ‘No’. There was a place in Flökt that he thought was like Brown’s, an aleatoric passage, but that wasn’t something that I had been aware of beforehand. Nowadays you could say that it was a kind of Zeitgeist.

The next important phase for me was about ten years later, around 1970, when I became interested in Buckminster Fuller who said, ‘Do more with less’. I had read some of his books and he lectured at the University of Iceland. What he said conformed a great deal to what I wanted to hear in music. Making larger forms out of less material. Just three or four notes.

AB: How did your fascination with Fuller’s ideas of using limited material find expression in your own music?

THS: There was a competition here for the Reykjavík Festival that started in 1970. The entry requirement for the competition was an overture for the festival symphony orchestra to be conducted by Bohdan Wodiczko, a Polish conductor and a very stimulating personality. He was principal conductor here for several years. He was very positive and said to Atli Heimir Sveinsson, Jón Nordal and me: ‘Write! Write! It will be performed!’ And he encouraged me to take part in the competition. I said that I didn’t stand a chance. But then I had some ideas about this ‘Do more with less’ technique and it turned into a very optimistic overture. I believe only two works were submitted, and by sheer luck my overture won the prize; it has been played once or twice since then. A Finnish conductor said that it is the kind of music where you feel that you cannot change a single note. Everything has its place. So I thought that I had succeeded; that was encouraging.

AB: What is the name of the overture?

THS: Ys og Þys—Much Ado About Nothing. It was a very lively piece. Euridike, my concerto for flute, is written in the same style. It is based on a motif with a capital M. It is through-composed from the beginning to the end and goes through metamorphoses, transformations. You could say that I was interested in the idea of making everything that happened obvious. You shouldn’t have to look at the notes to see: ‘Oh, that’s what happened’.

AB: You have spoken of your interest in choral music. This implies some limitations in working out complexity. It’s necessary to simplify to make it suitable for voices.

THS: That’s right, and it has been a great experience for me to compose for youth choirs. What people used to think was very difficult is nowadays perceived as very easy. You can compose very demanding music even for amateurs. The standard is rising and you can write far more difficult choral music than you could thirty years ago.

AB: Is your choral music based on major-minor tonality?

THS: No, it’s modal. I have also composed hymns for the hymn book. I think it’s important to compose for amateurs and for children. I have written a considerable amount of music for children.

AB: Why is composition for amateurs so central to your work?

THS: I enjoy it. I think of my own childhood. What would it have been like for me to have had the opportunity in school as a nine- or ten-year-old to make music with a grown-up musician or composer? I think it is fun and I have received many letters from people who have found it to be a positive experience.

AB: It has been traditional in your family to study theology. Your father was a bishop and your younger brother is Bishop of Iceland. Has your church music been an expression of your faith?

THS: I have had difficulty establishing a definite faith, but a strong text, for instance a forceful psalm, inspires me. I have the feeling that it should be sung. Not just read. I would rather hear it as music than read it.

AB: Then you don’t compose music like Bach did—in glorification of God. Is it more the common humanity in the text that interests you?

THS: I don’t have any doubt that God exists—whatever that means—some kind of power over which we have no control and that we will never understand. Whether it is DNA or whatever, I don’t know. But you can celebrate that power. And you can call it God, why not? However, I wouldn’t like to stand up and profess a faith. My faith is so weak and insignificant. I could never preach. I don’t have the strength that it requires.

A feeling of completeness

AB: When we come to the 1970s we have a better opportunity to study your music because some of it is recorded on CD. I remember the first piece that made an impression on me—a piece for flute performed by Manuela Wiesler. It was called Kalaïs. This music from 1976 has a eruptive force and sometimes sounds as if it were a notated improvisation.

THS: Kalaïs was composed for Robert Aitken. We had scheduled a concert with Hafliði Halgrimsson who intended to write a new piece for the three of us, but he wasn’t able to finish it. And as the date of the concert got closer I realized, ‘My goodness, our programme is ten minutes too short’, and I rang Robert Aitken and asked him, ‘If I compose a flute piece for you, could you play it at the concert’? And that’s how it happened. He is a fantastic virtuoso, so I knew that I could write anything I wanted. I asked him if he had ever tried to play the flute without the head joint. He said, ‘No, you can’t do that’. At the time I was composing a trio for flute, cello and piano and wanted to have the flautist play without the head joint at the end, shakuhachi-style. Then he tried it and said, ‘Yes, it can be done even though it creates a peculiar mood’. But it sounded beautiful, if a little exotic.

AB: What was your thinking behind that piece?

THS: Well, it is flute music and has something to do with air, wind. That’s what I had in mind. Someone blows, and it becomes a sound that can change from the most tender expression to the most violent one. Sounds that only a flautist can produce. But it should not be like a catalogue: it should be complete. You should have the feeling of something that begins incredibly quietly and gradually grows with a kind of organic development. The flute is, of course, one of man’s oldest instruments; it’s almost like an extension of the voice. It is blowing air. And when I had begun to compose the piece this old myth about Kalaïs, the phenomenal musician in Greek mythology, suddenly came to me. He was the son of Boreas—the northern wind—so I thought, ‘Why not name this piece for Kalaïs, the son of the wind’? It is a celebration of the flute and the wind, of the techniques of blowing.

AB: Have you composed works that take as their starting points a specific mood inspired by nature like many other Nordic composers? Jón Leifs has used that as a programme.

THS: Yes, possibly. I composed a piece entitled Mistur—a light fog that you can see through. I thought that the notes were transparent. I didn’t say, ‘Now I am going to describe mist’, but it suited that kind of mood. And another piece is called Haflög (Melodies of the Sea) because there was a lot of movement in it and that reminded me somehow of the sea. Recently I composed a little piece Gletcherlied (Glacier Song), I can show it to you. (He gets the piece.) This is dedicated to my old friend, Vladimir Ashkenazy. I said, ‘It’s going to be a nocturne’. He said, ‘Well I don’t mind if it is a nocturne, but there has to be also something Icelandic about it’. So I said, ‘Yes, of course. “Night by the Glacier”, how about that’?

AB: Are titles important to you? Do they come before the piece is composed or during composition?

THS: Both. Naturally they come after, mid-way. One thinks: it reminds me of one thing or another. Of course it could be called opus 1 or opus 2, but that’s so impersonal. I think that the title is like a signature: ‘So, now I am finished with this’. That’s part of the work.

When I think about it, I don’t have the feeling that there has been a steady progression or development. I sit down and compose, compose, compose, and without any problem. Then suddenly there is a moment when you think . . . what now? . . . why? The only thing I work on is not repeating myself. I think a lot before I write a single note—I try to get the whole picture. Something has to come out of the earliest ideas. ‘Now’, I say to myself, ‘I have these three notes. What can I do with them’? But it is also possible that the first idea is a kind of complete thought, an atmosphere. ‘So’, I then ask, ‘how do I make something with this atmosphere’? Suppose I close my eyes and, for example, I assume that I am writing something for orchestra, . . . Now I am sitting in the auditorium, the orchestra is on stage and suddenly the sounds come forth and I have to get involved in this situation at one point or another in time. And how shall I begin to become part of the situation?

I don’t think abstractly and say, ‘I need an A-flat’. What’s that? Yes, it is a pitch, but without any expression. For myself I need some kind of meaning or significance. I think it is important that there is enthusiasm. If you create a kind of depressed mood, then you must also feel it like a really deep depression. But mostly I am optimistic.

AB: So, is your music optimistic?

THS: There aren’t very many dark chapters.

AB: Here we have the score for Nocturne subtitled Gletcherlied. What is the significance of it? What mood do you want and how do you achieve it? There is a long bass note on G and then we have some triplet figures in the harp.

THS: Nocturnes are romantic, night music. Evening moods. Quiet. But I also wanted it to be a bit cool, a little like ice, as if you are in a tent pitched next to the edge of a glacier. It is fantastic to look at it, but it’s not warm, so there is a kind of contradiction. ‘Nocturne’ is something warm. ‘Lied’, ‘Nightsong’ is warm and beautiful. But ‘Gletcher’, ‘glacier’, ‘jökull’ . . . that’s something else.

You must have heard about the big eruption of Vatnajökul a few years ago. They say that the power that was unleashed in three days was like 3800 atomic bombs. It was nature’s outburst. It’s not benign; it’s frightening. You could drive to East Iceland and look at it; which is what I did. It was an incredible sight. There were pieces of ice that weighed 20–30 tons, as big as houses, being thrown around like toys.

Jón Leifs

AB: Are there others of your generation or among your contemporaries that you feel a connection with and who might even have inspired you?

THS: I don’t think that you can be completely independent of what goes on around you. Over the years I have been present at premieres of works by Leifur Þorarinsson, Atli Heimir Sveinsson and others, and there have been many works that I liked and some that I didn’t. However, I have never been taken completely by surprise, never been in a position where I have thought, ‘Now, I have never heard that before’.

I was surprised when I heard Ligeti’s Horn Trio. I had heard his earlier work, Atmosphères, but then suddenly tonality returned to his work. I thought, ‘After all, this is the same composer’!

AB: The period of the Horn Trio was a very critical one for Ligeti—one that he had to work through. Have you had comparable crises in your development where you either experienced a compositional block or you had to revise your way of thinking?

THS: I have had many desperate moments when I have suddenly started to think that nothing is working any more. What has helped me is the fact that I am an optimist and if something goes wrong one day, if there is an accident, I know that it’s not always going to be that way. It won’t be a crisis for the rest of my life; I have experienced that many times.

AB: Do you have close colleagues with whom you talk about compositional problems?

THS: No, but naturally we talk about things, though not in writing. We don’t have a music journal and the only thing about music that is published here is newspaper criticism. Debate about music hardly exists here. But we discuss things. Atli Heimir and I spent a long time recently discussing our colleagues. That happens once in a while and we don’t necessarily agree. We don’t think in the same way, but that doesn’t matter. The occasion was Leifur’s burial. We had the feeling that his Second Symphony, which was premiered in the Autumn, was the work of a new Leifur, although we knew that he was terminally ill. So Atli and I were a little depressed and were thinking about the old days. Leifur was sixty-three years old. His symphony was a strong celebration of life and also the music expressed the wild temperament that was a part of his personality.

AB: Now you’re speaking of an artistic personality. Soon it will be time to celebrate Jón Leifs’ centennial. Can you say something about his significance in the development of music in Iceland? There are aspects of his work that receive very positive evaluation and others that people prefer not to talk about.

THS: He always encouraged me—I don’t know why. Everyone knew some of his music, the Requiem and the simple Icelandic Dances. I heard the premiere of Leifs’ Saga Symphony on the radio in 1952 and thought it was incomprehensible. I can remember thinking as a teenager, ‘Here is an Icelandic composer who composes a symphony and I understand nothing about it’.

AB: His significance in the development of music in Iceland?

THS: I think that actually his significance for the generation—which doesn’t know his works—is mostly in terms of the Composers Union and STEF. He established those organizations. As an organizer and as a campaigner he was significant, but his music didn’t speak to me very much. I didn’t much like the programmatic aspect. In 1972 we heard his Saga Symphony again at a concert by The Iceland Symphony Orchestra, and then again in a new recording made by BIS. It is music that has no development; there is no main thesis or ‘argument’. That’s my feeling. It’s like a landscape. It just stands there. Perhaps I don’t understand his time-scale. It is music for geologists, historians and natural scientists.

AB: When you say that there is a lack of development are you thinking about this piece or about his whole output?

THS: Well, if you think about a piece like Hekla (the name of a volcano in Iceland, ed.) there is a development from quiet calm to violent eruption. But if the piece didn’t have a title like Hekla and you heard it as a symphonic work, an overture or something like that, you would think, ‘Why? What happened here’?

AB: Leifs wrote a book in German entitled Islands künstlerische Anregung (Iceland’s Artistic Mission). It was published in Reykjavík in 1951.

THS: Yes, it’s a strange book that praises a way of thinking that we have since come to question. I don’t think that those ideas have had much influence in this country. There were many people who were very enthusiastic about Hitler in the 1930s, but I believe that they soon realized what his real goals were. Typically they were people who had gone to the Olympic Games in Berlin and who had come home enthusiastically saying, ‘Wow, Germany! It is fantastic what they can do there’! I also believe there were some adherents in Denmark. But as soon as the rest of the world realized what Nazism really stood for . . .

AB: And as for Leifs himself?

THS: I don’t know the details about Jón Leifs, I don’t know to what extent he sympathized with the unfortunate movements in Central Europe, but he did live in Germany during the war. After the war he came home to Iceland. Guðmundur Kamban, an Icelandic author who wrote some plays, was killed in Denmark after the war. He wasn’t a Nazi, but people suspected him of being one because his plays were performed in Germany in the 1930s and during the war. But those were historical plays about life here in Iceland and in Greenland. Yes, they have Nordic subjects, but Kamban wasn’t a Nazi. Some Danish patriots thought simply the fact that his plays were performed in German theatres was unacceptable, so he was shot in the street in Copenhagen. Poor Guðmundur Kamban. Jón Leifs moved to Germany, was educated in Germany, had a career in Germany, married a German woman—his life was in Germany. And then suddenly his world fell apart.

AB: How did he react when he came home? Was he disillusioned? He did have some ideas that were untenable.

THS: He remained an Icelandic nationalist. He thought that with our Icelandic history and literature we had something to give to the rest of the world. He thought that the sagas were something that Icelanders should cultivate and use as a source of inspiration.

AB: Did he like Wagner’s music?

THS: I don’t think so. It is strange that you mention Wagner, because I remember that once he talked about Wagner. We were eating dinner together on some occasion and Jón Leifs began to talk about Nordic culture, mythology and said, ‘Wagner ruined everything for us’.

AB: Because he had constructed his own Nordic mythology that wasn’t the real Nordic mythology?

THS: Yes. And Wagner’s mythology was accepted and approved—by Hitler, among others. So Jón Leifs thought that Wagner had ruined the possibilities for other Nordic composers and authors.

AB: To what extent have the sagas and Icelandic traditions played a role in your concept of music?

THS: I have never felt that it was necessary to limit myself. I am interested in the world around me; Greek, Roman, Nordic and Indian mythology all interest me. There’s a lot that’s very good and very interesting about Nordic mythology and the sagas, but what about contemporary literature from Iceland and from other countries? That’s also interesting.

The musicology that never was

AB: Today’s important musical institutions have been established in Iceland during your time. You now have an opera house and royalty collection societies. You also have a Music Information Centre and nowadays we see musicians, for example the Caput Ensemble, who are at least as good as the leading sinfoniettas from the other Nordic countries. How does music in Iceland look to you now?

THS: It’s correct to say that there has been a fantastic development in music here. It has been exciting to follow, and each year there are more young musicians who are even better than those who emerged five years earlier. The problem for us is that we are a small country and we have limitations. It is the burning desire and greatest hope of Icelandic musicians to travel abroad. The Caput Ensemble can get together and play concerts, but after that they split up and go to Germany or Holland or other places. If the Ensemble is to survive in the future it is absolutely necessary that they have more opportunities to perform here not just twice a year, in the summer or the autumn, but all year-round. And the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, for which we are very grateful, has the same problem. But how many concerts can they play here in Reykjavík? There are real practical limits, economic ones. I have close relatives who are fantastic musicians but who cannot get work here in this country.

AB: Couldn’t you develop a State Ensemble like those in other places? That doesn’t mean, of course, work for 100 people, but it provides the opportunity for a full-time permanent ensemble that could tour Icelandic music.

THS: We have talked about it and have agreed that that’s what we should do. Create an ensemble of five to twenty people; it should be possible to find the money here in Iceland to pay salaries and cover some of the travel expenses. That would give an ensemble like the Caput new opportunities. It’s been like start-stop traffic on a poor road with too many traffic lights. And now it’s become plain—you know that we have about seventy music schools in this country with about 8000 music students. There are perhaps only one per cent who can think about becoming professional musicians in the future, but in any case, that’s still quite a few. I know that the music school in Reykjavík is having a hard time just now. Maybe because of the elections for local government that are coming up . . .

AB: Why is there no opportunity to study musicology at the University of Reykjavík?

THS: That’s what is stupid. The University of Iceland has not yet accepted musicology as a subject. You can study medicine, law, theology, philosophy, literature and sociology, but not music. Iceland is in many ways very under-developed. There is an historical reason for that. You have to remember that until 1918 the University of Copenhagen was our university. No doubt about it, Copenhagen was Iceland’s capital city and our university was there. It is only in this century that we have tried to establish these institutions in this country, with a very limited population naturally. But optimism dictates that it will happen one day.

Many years ago Henry Cowell came here on a trip. He gave a lecture at the University and the University President was there. Cowell talked about his own music and new American music from the 1920s and 1930s. Suddenly he stopped and said, ‘I have heard that this University has no Music Department. Is it true? What a scandal’! And the people from the Humanities Department were sitting there. We have to maintain our optimism; changes for the better will surely happen some day.


Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson (1938-2013, Iceland) was born into an Icelandic family of Bishops, and become a composer, teacher and promoter of music following his studies with R.G. Harris at Hamline University and Kenneth Gaburo and Lejaren Hiller at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. His extensive catalogue includes both sacred and secular works in all genres. Practical, direct and sensitive to the minute as well as to the spectacular in the Icelandic landscape, Sigurbjörnsson has been the most significant advocate for the development of a vital musical life in Iceland since the war. Scores can be obtained from the Icelandic Music Information Centre and recordings are available on the ITM and BIS labels.

© Anders Beyer 1998.

The interview took place in Sigurbjörnsson’s home May 9, 1998.

This interview was published in Danish: ‘Komponist og optimist: Interview med den islandske komponist Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson’, in Danish Music Review vol. 73, no. 5 (1998/99), page 146-153. The interview was also published in Anders Beyer, The Voice of Music. Conversations with composers of our time, Ashgate Publishing, London 2000.

For a Danish version click here.