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Iceland Airwaves, Some Breathless Asides

from Monday, October22nd of the year2007.

So, I’ve been away for the last week at the Iceland Airwaves festival, which is always pure madness. The basic scheme is this. There are six venues of assorted sizes in Reykjavík, most of which are not normally venues (for instance, one is the Art Museum, Listasafn Reykjavíkur, and certain others are bars with stages). Then, there are countless “off-venue opportunities.” Then, there are the bars in which people randomly take to the stage and play. All the venues are within walking distance, and the city opens itself up to the thousands of foreign music-enthusiasts (there were a lot of English people there this year!) Although the festival properly runs from Wednesday until Sunday night, I had arrived early, on the previous Sunday, to work with a Swedish/Norwegian singer-songwriter called Ane Brun (pictured here, singing at Kaffibarinn on Saturday). picture-2.pngWe recorded some strings for her, and then I had a day to relax, and then Wednesday, everybody turned up! Rehearsals! Trips to the airport! Trips to Ikea! Fifteen people staying in Valgeir’s house!

I have great admiration for people who can perform “Large-Scale Hospitality” “” in our old apartment, Liz and I used to be able to accommodate fifty people to have Christmas Puddings without blinking an eye; now, we have a mandatory coziness situation. Valgeir & Sigga Sunna somehow managed to deal with all of us (including people who didn’t know each other, an additional level of complexity) ane-mio.JPGin their house in the near-suburbs of Reykjavík without going insane. Partially this is due to the organizing prowess of Valgeir’s brother (and studio manager) Mio (pictured with Ane) and also Valgeir’s interns, Paul, Tobbi, & Leó (pictured here, leo.JPGin his Amazing Outfit) “” click to make the Amazingness Larger.

On Thursday night, the deal was that my label, Bedroom Community, took over a venue (Iðnó), and presented three acts: Valgeir Sigurðsson, Ben Frost, and Sam Amidon. All of this started around 10:45 PM, which is sort of the “Time of Choice” as far as these festivals go; people are sufficiently happy and beer-soaked, but not beyond the point of listening or having a good time.

This is me playing with Valgeir and Sigga Sunna in Valgeir’s set – a much-reduced but infinitely more fun version of his larger set, because we each get to (have to) do more to cover all the parts:


Here are the six guitarists (Gummi, Haukur, Gunnar, Greg, Steinar, & Danný) playing Ben’s beautiful and outrageous Music for Six Guitars:


And then, finally, I was conducting the Njúton orchestra in Sam Amidon’s set, mostly from his forthcoming album All is Well:

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We (Bedroom Communitý) curated a series of two afternoons at a bar called dsc00855.jpgKaffibarinn, which by day is a perfectly respectable, English-seeming coffee shop and by night is crazy Euro-disco indie dancefloor drunk festival broken glass party.com. Liz put her jacket down for a few hours and, by evening’s end, it was covered in not only beer and broken glass but somebody else’s blood. I played some solo stuff; here is an excerpt of me playing “Skip Town.” About 23 seconds into it, you can hear me play the Wrongest Note Ever; check out somebody saying, “onnnng” (응응응응 – or is it ì–´?) right after it in protest.


And a photo or two:

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A quick note: some of the photos from this post are by me, some by Steve Budd, some by Valgeir, some by an English boy called Roo Reynolds, it’s sort of Random. If anybody wants specific credits, hit me on the hip.

One of the highlights of the festival, though, was not having to perform my own set (even though I ended up performing at the bar, as you saw, as well as a quick solo piano thing at the Nordic House) which meant that I was able to hear a whole bunch of really fun acts as a spectator. Some thoughts:

I love Ólöf Arnalds so much, I know I’ve said this before, but seeing her live was totally great; she rested her mandolin on her pregnant belly and proceeded to play a very serene and lovely set of six or seven songs.

[audio:01 Ævagömul orkuþula.mp3]
Ólöf Arnalds Ævagömul orkuþula – nobody quote me on it, but I think this title means something like “age-old word-power” possibly “tale as old as time…!?”

– I had an outrageously good time at the FM Belfast set, which is funny hard-beat diskó with 3 singers mainly singing in unison. Check it out on MySpace.

l_cea2921d4a979102399204e93e7738b0.jpg– The real fun discovery was this Benni Hemm Hemm business, which maybe people knew about before but I hadn’t. The obvious comparison is to the Brooklyn-based band Beirut, but, my beloveds, this is so much (more) fun! I hate to compare, because it’s such a dumb game, but, I really don’t think I have ever seen people having so much fun on stage, and it was a proper brass band, like, nine or ten people, including the lovely Ingi Garðar who had just played with us in the Sam Amidon set. Look at that picture! Look how happy! Also, listen to this track and then go buy their CD and dance around your house in your underpants.

[audio:02 Snjórjljóssnjór.mp3]
Benni Hemm Hemm Snjórjljóssnór — that means, like, snowlightsnow, which is a little cutesy.

This is just one of many songs that is, at least live, a lot of fun; I will say that recorded, it’s a little static, but the whole record is worth getting.

I have to say, I am of the (possibly rude) opinion that there is very limited use for mixed meter in pop music ““ you always sense that the song, if it’s in 7/8 or a funnily divided 9/8 time stops being about the song and starts being about how clever one is to have achieved music in such a meter. A notable exception is Sufjan Stevens, who seems to get away with it effortlessly (usually). I remember a couple of years ago always getting myself into these mind games where I started with a metric footprint and squeezed everything into it, even if it worked against the grain of the music. Anyway, Benni Hemm Hemm had a lot of songs in meters other than 4/4 and 3/4 and it was always, let’s say, the Second thing you could say about the song, rather than the First. This is something that’s, I think, really important to consider when writing pop music, which is, in what order do you want the information to be received by its listeners, who, chances are, are doing a whole lot of stuff at the same time as listening (dancing, driving, drinking).

– Another observation. I really like it when music has a Clear Beginning and a Clear Ending. Think about a great thing like Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke, which very clearly Begins and Ends. A lot of rock music does not have this effect when it is performed live. Sometimes this is really frustrating, because I always worry so much about beginnings and endings when I’m writing, and it seems a little bit of a cop-out to always end on these endless chords with everybody sort of jiggling around on the notes and having the Last Say. Then again, there are some cases in the classical tradition (such as the end of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, especially when performed as a ballet) where one’s instincts are to start clapping as soon as the last chord starts, as opposed to when it ends. So maybe this isn’t such a weird tradition after all; in any case, sometimes I wish a little more attention got paid to the Totality of the song (as defined by silence on either end of it) rather than having it be part of an endless stream of noise.

Of Montreal were Good Fun, as could be expected. Deerhoof were Good Fun, as could be expected.

– A breathless aside: Did everybody read the total nightmare Sasha Frere-Jones nightmare article nightmare thing, bar and grill? What? What? You didn’t? You should go read it now. And then you should tell me what you think of a sentence such as, “Jagger’s knock-kneed dancing may have begun as an homage to Little Richard’s exuberant hamming, but he eventually devised his own style—a bewitching flexion of knees and elbows.” FLEXION!? Anyway, my biggest issue with the article is the attitude behind it; when Alex Ross writes about music, all you want to do is run out and listen to everything he’s just talked about, buy the scores, and read the biographies of the composers. Alex’s enthusiasm is focused, yet nydude.jpgtransparent enough to reveal the busy cities behind it: it is a membrane through which the reader is invited to listen further & deeper. Articles such as SFJ’s posit music as vehicles for His Personal Excitement—the listener as the despot, sitting in the throne, waiting to be amused. This article made me, in the middle of a busy music festival, never want to listen to music again, with its cynical attitude (“such-and-such is the only such-and-such kind of such-and-such that I play”—as if Musics gain credibility by finding their way onto SFJ’s turntable or CD player or whatever. And also, like, if and only if such Musics happen to be randomly in Blackface?!) Shudder. Anyway, he had my friends Grizzly Bear’s name in his mouth, which was probably meant to be a compliment (he said that they “excited him the most”—again, look at the verbal structure of the sentence, it’s like they are the toy ponies and he is the static observer), but his comment on them (“The band’s sound suggests a group of eunuchs singing next to a music box on a sunken galleon”) has so much to do with his own self-congratulatory command of the English language that the fact of our talking about music is completely lost. Not to flog the point, but I have never met a single person my own age (musician or not) who has ever found anything that SFJ has written to be anything better than “borderline acceptable;” for what it’s worth, he’s got us talking amongst ourselves about music, and, through negative example, encouraging us to listen closer and stop being weathermen for imagined stormfronts and depressions. Thanks, I guess?

Deepe Breath.

Oh OK just kidding, another breathless aside. Did you guys see that J.K. Rowling said that Dumbledore was gay? She is so lame. I posted before about this whole issue, and I am mystified about the fact that she feels like she can dip back into the books that she so dramatically finished off (she, like, wept bitter tears of farewell in her hotel room in Glasgow or something) and mess with Plot without adjusting the Language. And then you realize, for her, there is Bärli Language, and Möstli Plot, which was sort of my suspicion the whole time. The books that, for me, resonated most as a child, were the ones where the plot was good but the descriptions, the turns of phrase, the descriptions of place, were breathtaking even for somebody who didn’t yet understand why. I’m thinking of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence, notably, whose language haunted me before I knew what to be haunted by something was. wizard_of_oz_00.jpgHarry Potter, obviously, I am too old to remember reading it as a kid, but what was fun about those books was the plot, and never the language, which always felt like a kid making up abracadabra-like spells applied to the neighbor’s dog with a wand made out of a piece of tin foil and a rhubarb stalk. Also, P.S., if you’re going to have a gay character in your book, do you have to make it the smartypants but politically cunning bookish one who falls in love with some other teenager and then whose end of days are spent in an lonesome and pensive monastic hermitage surrounded by yet more teenagers? I’m calling Bullshit on this whole situation. spivak3.jpgGayatri Spivak once chided my class, saying that we were talking about literature as if it were “gossip about nonexistent people,” which I think is one of the most efficient phrases to describe lazy thinking about books. Now, this isn’t to say that literature cannot contain a LITTLE gossip about some made up people, but, her point (actually my point; I have never quite figured out what her capital P-point is, which I think is the secret to her genius, as she operates through these weird gelatin-like shadowforms behind and through the text) is that the language governs, and the plot inhabits the language.

Deepeste Breath.

Saturday afternoon, Reykjavík! played a show in their rehearsal space, and asked me and Sam Amidon to do a quick thing to “open” for them. We grabbed a pump organ, and a guitar with three strings, and Sam sang his version of the classic We are the true-born sons of Levi. The video below, by Ben Frost, captures the spirit of the event.


As always, the best part of being in Iceland for any length of time is getting into the ritual of using the pools which are simultaneously luxe and also municipal. There is something extremely satisfying about something government-run, cheap, used by families, and relaxing. Ane, Joe Holt, and Dan and I had a spectacular morning walk through a torrential rain, hiding out behind somebody’s garden shed for shelter. We took a hot tub in the rain, and then eventually the sun came out. Restorative, lovely. declensions.pngI was emboldened, this trip, by having overcome some of my basic anxiety about Icelandic declension—I can now sort of navigate the basics of the most basic conversation and decline nouns both proper and not as they arrive with a relative degree of success; declension on the fly feels in a lot of cases like trying to flip a pan of vegetables about to burn; you know it has to happen and you just have to flip your wrist and, you know, if a cardoon ends up behind the stove, the cat will get it later.

View of Íþróttamiðstöðin Versalir Waterslide


  • Oh my god, hooray, and amen to EVERYTHING. JKR & SFJ both need to cool it. Mr. Jones does not seem to understand how like race or genre or culture or any of these things actually work. It can be awesome when indie rockers borrow from hip-hop or soul or funk or blues or Afrobeat, but let’s not make it mandatory to colonize every music on the planet, huh? As hard as it is for you and me to believe, there really are folks out there who prefer Pavement to Parliament, and that’s their prerogative. (Remember when he called Stephin Merritt a “cracker” for preferring Noel Coward to Li’l Wayne, or something? I blush to think what kind of judgment he’d pass on the poor chumps who dare to prefer dead Germans to just about everything.)

    P.S. – Mr. Jagger’s “knock-kneed dancing,” his “bewitching flexion” (and okay I admit I love that “flexion”), is ALL Tina Turner, as any number of people will tell you–the first and foremost of those people being Tina Turner.

  • ‘self-congratulatory command of the English language’

    Now I do enjoy reading your blog, but I had to laugh at this one: perhaps a bit of self-criticism is in order?

  • Re: SFJ, please remember when he lauded Mariah Carey for bringing melisma to the masses.

    Re: mixed meter in pop music. SFJ could not have said it better (or COULD he…?)

  • Right, but we love that genius 3/4 bar in Livin’ On a Prayer.

  • New Pornographers/Carl Newman also make great mixed-meter pop music. It’s nearly unnoticeable. Clearly.

  • That waterslide sucks.