Dark Music Days Music Festival
Opportunities for Embodied, Cross-Disciplinary Performance
WORDS BY JEANETTE JOY HARRIS | HARPA, Reykjavík, Iceland
JAN 24-29, 2023 | COMMUNITY
Siggi String Quartet - Photo by Ester Magnúsdóttir
Trio Isak - Photo by Ester Magnúsdóttir
Dark Days Music Festival (DDMF) is an annual Reykjavik event that shines a light on innovative and progressive music. With an over 40-year history, DDMF transforms the unrelenting January weather - where gray skies, sleet, and snow meets a 6 hour window of sunlight - into a diverse musical respite that both pleases and challenges audiences.
Curating a music festival, or any festival that highlights “new” performance is tricky, but DDMF’s program included a diverse set of established, large musical groups like Iceland Symphony Orchestra and lesser known solo performers like Rosie Middleton. In doing so, the festival is not only supporting existing musical ensembles but educating and cultivating audiences by nurturing new talent.
DDMF is a wonderful example of why experimental music needs to be heard live - with bodies playing, performing, and listening. Recorded sounds that the ear alone might find inscrutable can vibrate a person’s bones in unimaginable ways when the listener is brought into close contact with the performer. The intoxicating, shared buzzing of a lone voice can communicate an aural reality that is flattened once recorded. If not experienced live, the breathing, hesitation, and pause of Rosie Middleton’s concert, for example, could not be adequately understood. In her performance, the sounds of the palate, lips, and tongue, and the fleshiness of the voice itself evoked the sensual pleasure of the “sounding body.”
Further, live performance not only accommodates the unique complexity of a performer’s body but allows for the creation of an acoustic architecture that envelops performers and audiences together. “White Flags” by Daníel Bjarnason musicalizes the faded American flags left on the moon after the Apollo mission and, in doing so, hinges the vastness of space upon objects that are slowly deteriorating. Trio Isak seemingly created its own temporary galaxy. As they performed the eerily suspended strings of “White Flags,” the audience gravitated closer to stay in the trio’s orbit and the HARPA concert hall seemed connected by delicate slivers of notes.
Rosie Middleton - Photo by Ester Magnúsdóttir
But to the degree that musical performance is enhanced when it fully embraces the body, it can be compromised when it attempts cross-disciplinary practice without respecting the technique of other creative practices. For example, Rosie Middleton’s performance of “Code Poem - Any Chance of War?” by Mira Calix was a moving work that included live voice and recorded Morse code. It also included Middleton’s performance of SOS flag signals. Though the flags added a compelling visual element to the work, flag semaphore relies upon codified movements to communicate message. Unfortunately, Middleton’s emphasis on executing the vocal component of the work surpassed the precision of the choreography, so much that the movement at times distracted from the emotional articulation of distress she so powerfully vocalized. Further in “White Flags,” Trio Isak supplemented their stage by displaying five, white, hand drawn flags, visually connecting their performance with the lunar landscape. These five flags were later used to textually denote movement changes in Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s “Présence.” Had Trio Isak simply presented the flags as unique, stand-alone visual components, perhaps using six flags instead of five to mirror the number used in the Lunar Assemblies, they could have added a content-rich sculptural element to the work. In both instances, it seems that legibility of the musical performance was prioritized over the cohesion of the performance as a cross-disciplinary work.