Thursday 25 June 2020

Icelandic experimentalism: Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson's Sinfonia explores non-traditional tunings and alternative notations

Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson Sinfonia; Ensemble Fengjastrútur; Carrier Records
Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson Sinfonia; Ensemble Fengjastrútur; Carrier Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 24 June 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Icelandic experimental music which is the distillation of the the composer's long experience with non-traditional tunings and alternative notations, imbuing the music with freedom, anarchism, energy and humour

The Icelandic composer and performer Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson is best known as being a founding member of the Slátur collective, an experimental arts organisation in Reykjavík. His interest in non-linear musical pulse (without grid or straight line) has led him to create his own notation. On his website, Gunnarsson describes it as a need to 'incorporate digital dynamic screen scores or animated notation (or related digital methods) to express his inability to adapt to the convenient society.'.

This new disc of Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson's Sinfonia on Carrier Records, performed by Ensemble Fengjastrútur, might be a major performance of a recent (2019) work by a composer not extensively represented on disc (though there are other discs of his music on Carrier Records), and also represents Ensemble Fengjastrútur's first full-length release, but it is the result of long processes. Gunnarsson has collaborated with Slátur for fifteen years,  Ensemble Fengjastrútur was founded in 2007 and has developed a long relationship with Gunnarsson's music and Sinfonia was written for them in 2019.

The whole style of Gunnarsson's music, the Slátur collective and Ensemble Fengjastrútur arises out of the catastrophic bank crash of 2008. At the time Gunnarsson had just returned from Mills College (where he studied) and found himself stranded in Iceland. This is how Slátur collective arose, a group of like-minded individuals who experimented, congregated in cheap housing, worked with found objects and broke the rules. Gunnarsson's challenging style of music requires sympathetic collaborators who are willing to find out what happens when you abandon conventional Western notation and the strait-jacket of bar lines, counting and regular grids.

Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson: Sinfonia - Andrés Þór Þorvarðarson, Ásthildur Ákadóttir and Gunnar Grímsson during dress rehearsal in Mengi (March 8th 2019) (Photo Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson)
Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson: Sinfonia
Andrés Þór Þorvarðarson, Ásthildur Ákadóttir and
Gunnar Grímsson during dress rehearsal in Mengi
(March 8th 2019) (Photo Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson)

Ensemble Fengjastrútur specialises in this style of performance, on his website Gunnarsson says of them that 'The musicians are not defined by the instrument that they are most comfortable with but rather their general musicality, artistry and how both of those things apply to each individual piece they perform'.

Sinfonia uses three plucked strings/harmonicas, three flutes/recorders and three percussion players, and everyone has additional sound-making instruments; frustratingly whilst the disc does not describe what we are listening to in particular, Gunnarson's website includes an informative article. But it is clear that the instruments include found objects or prepared ones. This is music created with what is around you. And this sense also imbues Gunnarsson's material.

He is interested not just in non-standard rhythm and pulse, but in non-standard tunings as well. As he describes it, 'By intently focusing on small differences, both in rhythm and pitch, the ear gets tuned to a microscopic mode of listening. When things then open up, a new sense of variety is gained'. A lot of this comes from Icelandic folk-music; listening to Gunnarson's Sinfonia you hardly think of folk-music, yet the use of non-standard pulse and different tunings arises completely out of a tradition where everything is passed orally, with no reliance on the strictures of notation.

The plucked strings and the harmonicas are tuned "1/6th of a whole-tone (33cents) apart (very small intervals)", some instruments (bottles and harmonicas) play just intonation for this 36 note scale whilst the flutes and recorders to not. The way Gunnarsson treats pitch is illuminating, he explains it in the article, "the relationships of short notes vs. the relationships of long notes, as I see it. In other words, the ear is more specific when it has more time and more vague when it has less time. When it has little time it likes to recognize the contour and rounds things of to the simplest common denominator (or simplest similar ratio) but with more time you get higher resolution and a more specific and subtler sense of, well, harmonicity."

Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson: Sinfonia - snapshot of the score (Photo Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson)
Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson: Sinfonia - snapshot of the score
(Photo Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson)
When you listen to Sinfonia it sounds very, very free and improvised, yet such is the power of Gunnarson's notation (see above) that I gather that with the majority of his pieces, each performance is the same. What you are hearing is carefully controlled, it is just that the composer is talking to his performers using a new language. It is, of course, helpful that Gunnarsson is a performer himself, and the music on the disc is the result of this long process of experimentation, creation and performance.

Sinfonia was premiered by Ensemble Fengjastrútur at Mengi on 8 March 2019 and they went into the studio two days later. The performers were Páll Ivan frá Eiðum, Þórunn Björnsdóttir and Björn Davíð Kristjánsson (wind), Andrés Þór Þorvarðarson, Ásthildur Ákadóttir and Gunnar Grímsson (percussion) and Svanur Vilbergsson, Hallvarður Ásgeirsson and Hafdís Bjarnadóttir (plucked strings), all this information and the pictures are taken from another informative post on Gunnarsson's website.

Sinfonia takes an apparently traditional shape, with four contrasting movements, but there is nothing traditional about Gunnarson's sound world. Part of the freedom of the music is the way he treats the non-traditional instruments, it feels different, but the textures are complex and highly evocative. The non-rigid notation means that there is an intriguing flexibility of rhythms, similarly the pitches. This is music that takes time, an intriguing sound-world which it is worth paying attention to. This is music whose creation has required the active participation of the performers, and there is a sense that Gunnarson expects and active participation of his listeners too.

Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson: Sinfonia - Svanur Vilbergsson, Hallvarður Ásgeirsson and Hafdís Bjarnadóttir during rehearsals (March 2019) (Photo Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson)
Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson: Sinfonia - Svanur Vilbergsson, Hallvarður Ásgeirsson and Hafdís Bjarnadóttir during rehearsals (March 2019) (Photo Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson)

There is a humorous anarchism to this music, it does not treat any of the Western canon as a given but re-interprets and experiments. But, like all good art the serious and the humorous are mixed up, and this disc is offered with complete sobriety, yet there is fun too. I have to confess that the use of bottle-phones and whistles on this bring back happy memories, for me, of the TV series The Clangers. Yet, one is also aware of the intensely complex spatial control which Gunnarson exerts over pitch and rhythm.

In the way that Gunnarson has created his own music-making apparatus to satisfy his researches, his is rather akin to Harry Partch (1901-1974) the American composer and music theorists who created his own instruments so that he could work consistently with microtonal scales.

The disc is available from Carrier Records as a CD or as vinyl, but the vinyl version is virtually sold out. The striking album cover, by Sam T. Rees is also the result of one of Gunnarson's long term artistic relationships.

This is music like no-other, anarchic and experimental, free yet controlled, humorous but entirely serious, it treats the rules of Western classical music with a freedom and a seriousness that arise out of oral and folk traditions filtered through an idiosyncratic modernism. Do try it.

Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson (born 1982) - Sinfonia (2019) [32:42]
Ensemble Fengjastrútur
Recorded June 2019, Mengi, Iceland

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