Tectonics festival in Reykjavík is now in its third year. We meet conductor and curator of the festival Ilan Volkov in the cafe at Harpa concert hall and discuss this year's programme and working with American experiementalist composer Alvin Lucier.
What is the main idea behind Tectonics?
Tectonics is about the meeting of different musical cultures and genres, from composition and improvisation to electronic music. It's also about making music with amateurs and children and music that uses space in different ways. Every piece has been specially composed for the festival, many by lesser-known composers and some by really well-known figures like American experimentalist Alvin Lucier, with the works often promoting new forms of notation. For example, Páll Ivan frá Eidum’s Mirror Neuron System involves the orchestra reading from five different screens and imitating the composer as he plays different instruments.
Each year Tectonics focuses on a different composer – the first year was a celebration of one hundred years since Cage’s birth, and last year we invited Christian Wolff to perform. A major theme of the festival is contrasts – performers range from the orchestra to solo pianist – and using the same space for such different things is important. This year I’m adding elements of the indie scene. That’s interesting because you get a lot more tonal music written that is still really interesting and fresh. The festival is a great opportunity for people to develop relationships with new people.
Have you worked with Alvin Lucier before?
The first time I worked with him was last year in Glasgow. He’s an amazing figure, not only for his inspiring work, but also because he is so generous. A lot of the composers at the festival are here to meet him and work with him.
What is Lucier trying to achieve with works like Opera for Objects and Music for Solo Performer (1965)?
He takes everyday objects and finds the beauty of their sound. The idea is often to take an object and knock on it to see how many different sounds you can hear. It’s developing what Cage was interested in: appreciating everyday sounds. An important element for Lucier is the beating that naturally occurs between pitches – for example between F sharp and G where there is a certain vibration that happens. If you lower the G, the vibration speed changes. This is demonstrated clearly in his work Diamonds which the Iceland Symphony Orchestra performed on the first evening of this year's festival. What’s happening in the piece is super complex and the beatings almost induce psychedelic feelings. And of course, the brainwaves piece [Music for solo performer (1965)] is incredible to watch and you can feel such an energy in the room when it is performed. It’s a magical piece.
Yes, I was utterly transfixed by Lucier’s performance of Music for a Solo Performer and I could see that members of the audience were equally delighted and bemused by the piece, trying to work out how he was controlling the percussion. How does the piece work?
He’s not really controlling it at all. Fengjastrútur, who set it all up, put 20 instruments around the room. Each one has a speaker and the alpha waves produce a vibration which makes sound. All the instruments are working at the same time, but the mix is done by Hauke Harder who decides with Lucier how to orchestrate it in advance.
Do you think Icelandic audiences are more receptive to experimental orchestral music like this than British audiences?
I don’t think so. I think it very much depends on how you set it up. I have been doing new music in the UK for many years now and gradually I found a way that works for me. I programme things that I respect which I think are missing in the scene and that I think people want to hear. The last three projects of contemporary music we’ve done, outside Tectonics, were super busy: the Cage Hear and Now was packed and so was our last George Lewis concert. And Tectonics last year had a big audience. I think there is a huge potential with audiences everywhere now, it’s just that you need to do it in a big way. You need to make it a big part of what you believe in; you also have to make it part of your season – you can’t play traditional music all of the time and just do one experimental concert a year: you have to cultivate your audience.
What first drew you to Iceland?
I was invited to conduct the Iceland Symphony Orchestra’s first concert season here at Harpa – the venue is such a big deal. The orchestra of course is getting used to playing in this space and every year their playing gets better and better, so that’s exciting. The orchestra took a big risk with Tectonics – it was the first time we’d done it and any orchestra who would do it afterwards could benefit from the PR and the success of the first time. So they were amazing for that and now they have put themselves on the map in a unique way, which can now travel as well. This orchestra is very open to new things and very dedicated. For example, today [the second day of Tectonics Reykjavík] is a very technical day and almost every piece has a different requirement – either with lights or a change of location or something. As is often the way, a rehearsal didn’t finish on time this afternoon. Instead of leaving for lunch straight away, the 15 of them stayed and finished working on the piece, just because they like the composer and they are nice. That’s very rare. Super rare. It’s just a job for some people.
What significance do you think Harpa has for Reykjavík and for Iceland Symphony Orchestra?
It was very controversial to begin with, but now it’s here and it’s an amazing venue. The Iceland Symphony can put on big stuff that they could never do before. Hopefully the country will really make something out of this venue – it’s already in a good state, but it can always be something more. It has a bright future and it’s great to work here, especially doing a festival of new music.
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra will host the next instalment of Tectonics in Glasgow from 9-11 May 2014