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Campus Currents May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

Cool Music in Hot Iceland

Left: Abba Thorvaldsdottir, Ph.D. '11
Right: Berglind Tomasdottir, M.A. '12

Although it is a cold place to live and has a small population, Iceland is emerging as a hot center for new and experimental music. Several graduate students and alumni from UC San Diego’s Department of Music are natives of Iceland, and many return there to present concerts in Reykjavik, the country’s capital—population 120,000.

“Cultural life is very important here and the number of musical events taking place every week is very high, especially considering the size of the city,” says composer Ulfar Haraldsson, an Icelandic native who earned his Ph.D. in composition at UCSD in 2000, and is now on the music faculty at the Iceland Academy of the Arts.

Flutist Berglind Tomasdottir, who is working toward her masters in performance at UCSD, says that contemporary music in Iceland suffers from being an isolated academic art form, as it does almost everywhere. “But we have indie pop megastars,” she adds, “like Björk and Sigur Rós whose diverse, exploratory music has an impact on the whole music scene.”

Tomasdottir’s dissertation reflects her fascination with her country’s music. “I’m exploring Iceland’s national identity as it is presented in the music of Björk and Sigur Rós,” she says.

Tomasdottir’s fellow Icelander Anna Thorvaldsdottir completed her Ph.D. in composition at UCSD last fall. “We are still at an early stage in shaping the history of Icelandic music,” she says. She is already making her mark in Reykjavik, where her piece “Aeriality” was commissioned by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and premiered there last November.

UCSD composer and music faculty member Rand Steiger has mentored several generations of Icelandic composers, including Haraldsson and, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Haukur Thomasson and Hilmar Thordarson. “Sometimes,” he says, “it seems as if I’ve taught a significant portion of the entire population of Reykjavik.”

—Dirk Sutro