From Israel to Iceland

I’VE been to a lot of arts festivals and interviewed a lot of festival directors, but this was the first time one had invited me to don a bikini for a meet-and-greet with musicians in a hot spa.

Clearly, Israeli-born maestro Ilan Volkov’s Tectonics is not just another festival, shaped as it is by the unique geographic and musical landscape of Iceland’s capital Reykjavik in which it was forged.

The rendezvous was at Vesturbæjarlaug, one of Reykjavik’s open-air thermal pools, where naturally heated springs raise temperatures and morales during the colder months. Among the musicians stewing like ­langoustine in a 42 degree “hot spot” on that chilly April evening were American percussionist-composer Robyn Schulkowsky, local members of S.L.Á.T.U.R. (an acronym forming the word “slaughter” and the name for Icelandic sheep-intestine sausage, but in fact an “artistically obtrusive composer collective” centred in Reykjavik) and straggly-haired American doom guitarist Stephen O’Malley.

I don’t think the whole Icelandic Symphony Orchestra would have fitted in the bath with us, but this musical melting pot gives some insight into Volkov’s eclectic vision.

The energetic 38-year-old conductor founded his experimental music festival in Reykjavik in 2012 when he was the music director and chief conductor of the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, and its success led him to curate incarnations that popped up in locations as far-flung as Tel Aviv, Adelaide, Glasgow and New York.

For the 10th edition worldwide and the fourth in Iceland, held from April 16-17, Volkov returned to the source – the festival’s heartland. After all, the name Tectonics derives from the astonishing site in Iceland where the volatile, shifting tectonic plates of the Earth’s crust can be glimpsed from the majestic valley of Thingvellir.

“Even though we’re working with a small budget, nobody says no if you ask them to come to Iceland; it’s an exotic location,” Volkov says with a laugh.

Fittingly, the nation’s musical terrain is rooted in genres that collide in unexpected collaborations, revealing (and revelling in) the fault lines between contemporary classical music versus sound art; composition versus improvisation, and the radically different forms that a concert can take. No wonder the name stuck.

Tectonics’ shock waves rippled from the Arctic to the Antipodes as part of the 2014 Adelaide Festival, welcoming international avant-garde visitors alongside a truly eclectic bunch from Australia: Melbourne electronic music whiz Joel Stern, noise musician Oren Ambarchi, violin-and-fence-playing virtuoso Jon Rose, and composers Elena Kats-Chernin and Matthew Shlomowitz.

The ensuing collaboration between Rose and Kats-Chernin, the violin concerto Elastic Band, was one of the Australian commissions that Volkov repeated in Iceland this year, alongside no fewer than six world premieres by local composers, all thrown together in a two-day marathon program at Reykjavik’s striking new Harpa Concert Hall.

Rose, the co-composer and soloist, describes the work as a “sonic continuum between experts in their field: a composer (Kats-Chernin), an improvising musician (Rose) and a conductor (Volkov)”. In a word, he says, “risky”.

Rose – who has spent years making music from amplifying, bowing and plucking derelict fences in outback Australia and created a work for Kronos Quartet in the same vein – recalls the conductor’s enthusiasm for that pioneering project.

“Ilan Volkov was the musician who invited me to tour Israel playing music on the various fences in that tiny pressurised country,” he says.

“‘Won’t I get my head blown off?’ I had asked. ‘No,’ he smiled, ‘I have friends who will look after you.’

“There is only one conductor I’ve ever met who can be conducting Mahler one minute and running a club for experimental music the next.”

In addition to a busy international conducting schedule and curating Tectonics, Volkov co-founded the Tel Aviv bar and music venue Levontin 7 almost a decade ago as a home for experimental, electronic and rock music in Israel.

Kats-Chernin describes writing Elastic Band in Volkov’s spirit of blurring genre divides as a “liberating experience … as I love to improvise on the piano, and it was mind-blowing to hear Jon’s acrobatics on violin and for me to react to what he was doing.”

With certain elements left to chance, the result is a fluid but highly energetic work that snaps playfully from conductor to different groups of instruments within the orchestra, with Rose’s high-octane violin beating an insistent path through the orchestral textures – sometimes literally.

On the opening night of Tectonics in Reykjavik, Rose also improvised in a madcap, cabaret-flecked duo with American-Jewish composer Alvin Curran presiding over keyboard and samples.

The following evening, the premiere of Curran’s large-scale, venue-specific Beams stationed choir, strings, brass and percussion across three floors of the sprawling Harpa foyer, musicians processing up from the basement through the crowd and into the sun-drenched, angular spaces as Curran himself gathered his flock using the shofar – the Jewish horn in which he specialises.

These are the kinds of collaborations that thrive at Tectonics, with Volkov helping to foster unexpected links between the various musicians.

“I’m not there to do Thomas Adès and John Adams. They’re great composers but they don’t need me,” Volkov insists.

“I don’t feel like at Tectonics I have to do this music. I’m more interested in showing a variety of what there is, lots of different strands of music that come from a different angle.

“That way I’m developing my own knowledge of new music and improvised music and electronic music; it’s constant research to find stuff that excites me, and that’s also local and connects different musicians. That kind of music I can facilitate because my feet are in different camps.”

It doesn’t get much more local than the world premiere of Magnús Pálsson’s Kúakyn í hættu fyrir hljómsveit, kór og tvo leikara (the English title, Endangered Cow, perhaps loses something in translation), which is indeed a lament for a species of Icelandic cow, featuring a spoken-word choir whose members all sported traditional “lopapeysa” sweaters.

As I took my seat for the performance, ushers offered me a whiff of Tupperware containing bovine manure. And they didn’t even let me take my tea in, I grumbled. It turned out to be the standing-ovation hit of the festival, confirming that it’s mainly locals filling the auditorium.

I’ve never been to a music festival where I couldn’t pronounce 80 per cent of the names in the line-up. (Volkov doesn’t speak Icelandic, having rehearsed the orchestra and introduced the music to his audience in English.) To be honest, ‘Jon Rose’ was quite a relief.

REPORT by Melissa Lesnie

PHOTO of artistic director Ilan Volkov.