Why Iceland seems to punch above its weight on the international musical scene

Why Iceland seems to punch above its weight on the international musical scene

As she gets ready to play in Cork, Gyda Valtysdóttir tells Ellie O’Byrne her theory on why her home country seems to punch above its weight on the international scene.

For a country with a population of just 360,000, there’s no denying that Iceland is something of a musical heavy-hitter on the international scene.

From the success of acts like Björk and Sigur Rós, to Hildur Guonadottir having just become the first female composer to win a Golden Globe for her score for Joker and then promptly picking up a Grammy for her work on hit show Chernobyl, there’s a reason why theories about Icelandic music abound.

Gyda Valtysdóttir has her own, perhaps surprising take on the success of music from her home country; she attributes the proliferation of Icelandic music to a lack of formal musical education.

Valtysdóttir, who enjoyed early career success in her teens with experimental electronic ensemble Múm before leaving the band to study music abroad, says it’s an informal, can-do approach to creativity that helps music thrive in Iceland.

“I noticed, when I went to study in Germany, that if there’s a history of educated or professional musicianship, people are more scared of doing it,” Valtysdóttir says.

There are more rules. But in Iceland, everyone does music and you don’t need the education to start. I think that’s in all forms of creativity in Iceland: we are always doing a lot of things.

“When I started out in Múm at 16, I really was a beginner and it was just for the joy of playing; there wasn’t any thought that somehow you weren’t capable. It was a field to explore.”

Given that Valtysdóttir is twin to the equally talented Kristín AnnaValtysdóttir, with whom she helped co-found Múm, it might be expected that they come from a musical family, though?

“No-one was educated, but we all sing when we come together, and all enjoy music,” she says. “I didn’t know you could be a musician as a profession when I was growing up.”

Leaving Múm, who still perform and who have since enjoyed a rolling line-up that has included Hildur Guonadottir, in the early 2000s,Valtysdóttir immersed herself in studying cello, losing herself, she now says, in a decade of reinterpreting the works of classical and temporary composers instead of working on her own material. “I feel like I’ve been in a labyrinth and it’s only now that it’s all come together and is starting to make sense,” she says.

“I did only classical music for almost ten years; I knew I should be creating and it was sort of irritating for me not to be in a more creative space, but it’s only afterwards that I look at it and understand why I had to take this road.”

Having been in a successful band with her twin, was part of the journey to try to forge a unique and separate identity for herself?

“Being a twin is weird,” Valtysdóttir says. “You share an identity with someone, and probably more than for people who aren’t twins you have an urge to separate yourself. But I never did that consciously. I left Múm for lots of reasons and none of them were to do with getting away from my twin, at all. We still influence each other.”

Valtysdóttir’s classical labyrinth was not a fruitless decade: a 2016 album called Epicycle saw her tackle interpretations of everything from Prokofiev and Schubert to George Crumb and Hildegard of Bingen.

Evolution, released in 2018, wasValtysdóttir’s return to original composition and collaboration.Idiosyncratic and genre-less ByDesign, the album had the word “ethereal” being bandied about; it has a decidedly Icelandic sound to it.

“Well, I’m definitely Icelandic and I guess that is something that’s easy for other people to hear,” she says. “Of course you are influenced by where you grew up, and the people that you know.”

Valtysdóttir has no interest in a career in mainstream pop. “Music is so interwoven with being alive for me that when I use the word success, it’s to do with having found the balance of freedom to create,” she says.

“I understood very early on when Múm had some success that I’m a very private person. I had to really deal with how I had chosen a profession where I was exposing myself.

“I want to make something that sounds like nothing you’ve heard before, with no genre. We like to make things and put them in boxes to contain them, but there’s a softer line through things that I find much more interesting. It’s kind of a more spiritual way of defining things. I want it to be like it was in the old days; music for entertainment, for ceremonies, for different parts of our lives.”

Gyda Valtysdóttir will perform as part of Cork’s Quarter Block Party on Friday. www.quarterblockpartycork.com

Valtýsdóttir also performs at Lost Lane, Dublin, on Saturday, February 8, for the Spike Cello Festival (in association with Homebeat). Tickets €15 available from Eventbrite

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