17 February 2008


After a week of work in Norway, I returned to Iceland for the annual pre-season training trip for the choir, the vocal equivalent of the early spring rowing training in college, where we'd go south and row ourselves silly for a few days.

The choir trips are a bit shorter, a bit less strenuous, and for some reason always seems to take place on weekends of exceptionally bad weather, like the first time when I spent an entire weekend enshrouded in fog. This year it was that special kind of rainy weather that comes after lots of snow and results in skating rink parking lots everywhere, and lots of mysterious fog wisps. Our destination this time was the complex at Sólheimar, a place that's made a name for itself by creating a safe space for people with mental disabilities to live together. The complex is situated in a valley about an hour's drive from Reykjavík, and contains houses for the people, craft studios where they have woodworking, weaving, candle making, and other activities, a small store where they sell these items, a hotel, several guesthouses, a pool and a church. Most of the food is both organic and vegetarian there, and the buildings have been built with an eye toward recycling, renewable resources, and maximum efficiency.

The choir has grown so large that we occupied two houses, each with a large kitchen/living area and wings of double guestrooms spreading outward along the ridges above the central valley. Rather than singing in the living room as we did before, we got use of the lovely church at the highest point of the little community. The low walls of the building were snug in turf, and the vaulted ceiling of pale wood adorned with a chandelier of winged lightbulbs. With the trapezoidal windows looking over the foggy landscape it was a serene and perfectly isolated place for a day and a half of musical focus.

We sang all Friday evening, and most of Saturday in the church, then stuffed ourselves into cars and drove through the swirled mist to practice some more at Skálholt, the seat of the Icelandic bishops. Like most places in Iceland, this place is steeped in fierce history and has been significant in the story of Iceland since the 11th century, but little human-generated evidence still remains of all this activity. The church built over ruins of previous constructions is only from the middle of the 20th century, and while quite large by Icelandic standards, is still a rather cozy and non-awe-inspiring scale. Despite the size, the acoustics, so sorely lacking in many Icelandic churches, are superb there. The songs that sounded decent elsewhere sounded exceptional in this special place, ringing against the dark stone floors and spreading around us.

We sang until evensong, when a few people filtered in the door of the church, and we then all lined up on opposite sides of the church for a short call-and-response service. At the end we shared a moment of silence that was remarkable in its perfect quiet. 40 people ranged along the walls of this stone building in the middle of the open countryside, so perfectly still that the only sound was the rushing of the geothermally heated water through the radiators. No cars, no horns or city hum, just the exhalation of the earth through the pipes and the breathing of the people standing beside me.

After that, it was time for some noise at dinnertime and afterwards. We ate at the restaurant in Sólheimar at two large tables, and by the end of the dinner everyone was swapping chairs, and the conversation volume rose as the wine glasses emptied. We finished by singing a favorite song, then headed back up the hill for more singing, more conversation, and more eating. Unlike last time when my Icelandic comprehension abilities shut down as the trip progressed, this time they blossomed. Although the choir now does have several other non-Icelandic members, none of them were actually on the trip, so I was alone in the sea of pre-aspiration and lilting cadence, hearing of my choir director's California exchange student experience, talking of the deliciousness of Boston beer.

This group has been a constant over my years here, and it's nice to see how things have changed over the course of these group getaways. We've been to a bunch of places in Iceland and outside of Iceland and each time there' s a new word learned, a new person I talk to, the feeling for a new song.


Tom said...

Your word pictures help me be more present to the Icelandic experiences you are sharing. Thank you. For some reason I have had - for many years - an attraction for anything near the arctic cirle. Your writing helps live a piece of that.

Jess said...

Did your tape and the personal stereo arrive? I sent them end of Jan.

cK said...

I love the notion of songs shrouded in fog. It isolates the voice...not that that was the point of the anecdote, but it's atmospheric, you know?

It reminds me of a story my brother told back when he studied at the University of Aberdeen. He was walking to campus through a field and near the waterfront. From somewhere in the fog around him, someone was playing the bagpipes.

Sing it!

ECS said...

tom: there's something special about living in the far north. Glad the blog helps live the experience vicariously :)

jess: yes, I got it in a tiny space between trips to Norway, but I haven't been able to listen to anything yet! Do you want the tape player back when I'm done?

ck:that experience sounds so classically Scots to me, and somewhat haunting. It does have that effect, to be making noise in the fog.

abecedario said...

nice blog.