Music Is Everywhere
While I was doing an Erasmus study exchange at the Iceland Academy of the Arts in autumn 2015 I took part in a course titled ‘Sounds of Nature and City’. This was an intensive course of concrete music and field recording led by Marie Guilleray. Prior to the course I had very little experience of recording sounds, let alone transforming those sounds in order to create music. During the course we had the possibility to stay a few days in the Icelandic countryside, in a small town called Skalholt, doing field recordings. This experience proved to be interesting and also important for me, as it opened up new ways of listening to the everyday sounds. I remember vividly one instance, when I was recording sounds in Skalholt and came across a tree with completely dried leaves hanging from its branches. Normally I would have just passed by without paying much attention to it, but this time I had my headphones on, and the portable microphone was able to pick up the tiny sounds that the leaves created, beating against each other in the wind. I was really fascinated by this sound, and eventually ended up transforming it and using it in a performance. This experience was a good example of the ordinary becoming somehow extraordinary. Philosopher Susan K. Langer writes: ‘The auditory experiences which impress us are those which have musical possibilities, which allow themselves to be varied and developed, expanded, altered…’
Summer in the forest
This summer I had the opportunity to visit many forest areas in South and East Finland. Here are some memorable places and objects I spotted on my various forest walks.
Magic Songs and Mythical Trees
During the past year there have been two books that have especially inspired my artistic work. The first book is a collection of charms and incantations collected from the rural areas of Finland and first edited in 188o by Elias Lönnrot. This book, titled Suomen kansan muinaisia loitsurunoja, was also translated into English by John Abercromby in 1898. Reading both the Finnish and English editions, I've been charmed by the poems' powerful imagery and strong connection to nature. The Magic Songs are after all the same material that gave birth to Kalevala. However what is lacking is the compulsory narrative character of any national poem.
Another interesting book which I came across is a collection of beautiful photograps and stories of Finnish tree mythology. The book is titled Puiden kansa (Tree People) and the editors are Ritva Kovalainen and Sanni Seppo. This book revealed to me the surprisingly close connection that many Finnish people have had (and maybe still have today) to trees and especially those trees in their yards and nearby forests which have been given a special meaning. On my visit to Koli region this summer I happened to find one such tree. Generally, if a tree has been marked in some way to signify important events such as birth or death, it's called a karsikkopuu in Finnish. The pine tree below is a karsikkopuu of one particular family. There used to be a sign next to the tree with information connected to the family history. These trees are kept to preserve the memory of the family and to respect the work of previous generations.
Saga Fest Artist Residency
In May 2015, the first-ever Saga Fest music and arts festival brought artists and other creative individuals from around the world to gather at Stokkseyrarsel farm in Iceland. The festival was initiated by Scott Shigeoka, whom I had the pleasure to meet briefly already during my previous visit to Iceland. Having followed the shaping of this festival, I was interested in going there and seeing by myself how such a bold endeavor would come to life. Finally, when I heard about the artist residency connected to the festival, I decided that this would the best way for me to participate in Saga Fest. The residency was a one-week experience for a group of 11 artists from six different countries. The artists-in-residence created original works of art around the Saga Fest themes of vulnerability, sustainability, community and transformation. As a group, they held a workshop for elementary and junior high school students from the Árborg region.
Following the themes of Saga Fest, we were introduced to Valgerður H. Bjarnadóttir, a storyteller, vision woman, writer and social worker. She gave us a wonderful introduction to the famous Sagas of the Icelanders. Her presentation was enriched by a historical perspective and her experiences and knowledge from other cultures. Later on she invited us to a shamanic workshop. Even though Bjarnadóttir doesn't consider herself a shaman, she uses traditional methods (such as ritualistic objects) in order to create a special atmosphere for the participants. My experience of the workshop was close to meditation, but I believe many in our group might have had a different experience.
This is how Bjarnadóttir describes her relationship to the past and present: "I have been nurtured with the stories and dreams of that (Icelandic) soil, the language of the völva as well as the stories, language and “food” of our patriarchal, scientific, materialistic, analytic, western, international culture. My way of approaching life is necessarily influenced by the paradox of those conflicting parts of me." She has also reflected on her gender identity in a powerful way: "I am a woman. My method of working with information is to gather it into the creative space of my womb, along with the seed of inspiration, carry it and nurture it consciously and unconsciously until it is ready to be born, woven in words and images, movements and magic."
A valuable insight into the reality of living as an artist in Iceland was provided by visual artist and painter Hallur Karl Hinriksson. His story showed the importance of having both international connections and the ability to communicate and create a relationship with the local community.
Saga Fest was all about community building, and many of the people taking part were also literally building everything from the dome-shaped stages to these imaginative on-site wooden sculptures. It was inspiring to see especially so many young people working together to create this unique experience. The weather conditions made everything slightly more challenging. Before and during the festival we experienced dramatic shifts from clear skies to rain, snow and a wind that could be described only by the word epic.
I am happy that I took part in this experience. I met many inspiring people from around the world, performance artists, storytellers, musicians, puppeteers, you name it. Many of these people are also active in their communities, working with young people, elderly people etc. Being in Iceland always seems to get my creative juices flowing too. This time the result of that will be a music piece combined with some natural sounds. The artist residency experience as a whole was more about networking and getting to know the other artists as well as many other people interested in the themes presented at Saga Fest. I was quite surprised how easily and fast a community can be build through shared experiences and especially lots of shared laughter.
I am a river, I am a bridge
I was really inspired by the documentary Intangible Asset No. 82 by Emma Franz. The documentary follows the story of australian jazz drummer Simon Barker, showing the final stages of his seven-year search for enigmatic Korean shaman, Kim Seok-Chul. I could relate to many things in Barker's search, not only the search of this shaman, but the search of the intangible elements in music. Music becomes a tool for transformation, as powerfully demonstrated in the healing ritual shown in the documentary. The thing that inspired me the most was the way how traditional musicians in Korea approach their intruments and what their role is as a musician. There is power and beauty in surrendering to emotions, listening to your body and being in unison with your surroundings.
10 days in Iceland
In September 2014 I had the possibility to spend 10 days in Iceland as a part of my master programme "New Audiences and Innovative Practice." This experience was very meaningful for me, since it was something I had never experienced before. Together with many other students and teachers from around the world we spend most of the time in a small fisherman village called Stykkishólmur. The town is situated in the western part of Iceland, to the north of the Snæfellsnes peninsula. The scenery was just amazing, and I was really charmed by this small, but very friendly and open community.
During this 10-day intensive course we explored different ways of engaging with the local community, and at the end of the course there were around dozen music performances all around Stykkishólmur. Many of these performances were done together with the locals, such as children from the music school or people from the elderly home. I was involved in a project where we made a "short film" based on a legend about a hill situated nearby. I was introduced to this story by an Icelandic student. In a small group (altogether 7 people) we made a script, shot the film, made a music score and performed the piece in the white church which you can see in the picture above (a kind of alien-like shaped building.)
This small project was quite time-consuming and labore-intensive, but it was a really fun experience, and I enjoyed working together with all the creative and open-minded people, especially film-maker Chris Daniels. And, there's a nice sounding grand piano inside that church...
There was no shortage of stories to be found in the Stykkishólmur area. It seemed that every house, standing on those hills and resisting the merciless weather conditions, had a story to tell. One of the most interesting places to visit in the town is the Library of Water a long-term project by artist Roni Horn.
Besides glass columns that contain water collected from some of the major glaciers around Iceland, you can find there for example a book titled "Weather Reports You." The book is full of spoken testimonies from people living in the Stykkishólmur area, describing how the weather affects their everyday life. I was quite impressed to witness so many changes in the weather conditions even during one day.
There was also a bus excursion arranged during this course, the bus ride took us to some amazing spots mostly near the cost. The bus tour guide was telling with humor some stories about trolls and other other-worldly creatures that are believed to inhabit these areas. Regardless of whether or not you believe in trolls, it's easy to understand why people have had a big respect and fear when confronted with the force of nature. And even today, talking with Icelanders, it seems the environment, and especially the weather conditions, are a big part of the everyday discussions among people. This experience in Iceland made me think about ways of connecting my artistic work with local communities and the stories all of them have. It's just a matter of having the curiosity and time to listen and to discover...
Johanna Pitkänen - Musician. Nature & Art, Magic Songs, Mythology, Rituals, Community