29 December 2011

Icelandic new year flavor

A few months ago one of the members of my choir announced that she had a plan to make a disc of musical favorites related to New Year celebrations, and she wanted us to be part of the effort. The director whipped up a new arrangement of one of the Icelandic classics, and during our annual weekend retreat rehearsal, we performed it along with several other favorites to an attentive recording crew.

She was recently interviewed on the national radio program, and it included a snippet of the best one as the intro. This song's tune and lyrics make me think of Vikings stamping around a bonfire in the deepest dark of an Icelandic winter night, and even though this is only a clip, I hope you can feel it too.

The rest of the program is an interview with my choir member for anyone who wants to exercise their listening skills, and it closes out with another recording of another New Year favorite, as performed by a very enthusiastic choir comprised of several generations of Icelanders. I can't wait to get the CD and hear the rest of our contributions, and hear what else is included.

13 December 2011

musical magic

Last week my choir held the usual Christmas concert that I've mentioned here before, and the event turned out to be one of those classic Icelandic evenings. This year's program was Bach's Magnificat, a glorious piece of baroque frivolousness, paired with a piece newly written over the past few months. The choir director has been in a composing program at school here, and decided to write a chorale as his final thesis. As he finished the chapters over the fall, we rehearsed them along with the Bach piece, re-learning as he re-wrote, trying to grasp his new sound and do justice to his creation as we brought it to light.

The rehearsals with the baroque orchestra began a week before the concert, and at the last rehearsal on the Sunday before our concert, things were sounding a bit iffy. Soloists were getting lost, the timing of the instruments was off, the choir anxious and uncertain of entrances, notes that had been changed at the last minute, unable to hear each other, shuffling the risers in the back rows.  Too late to do anything but hope at that point though, so the on the evening of the performance, as I watched from the side chapel as the  church fill with concertgoers, I hoped we'd do justice to this new piece, and to all these people who were paying to hear our efforts.

As always though, once the overture began, nothing else mattered but the Bach that we'd been practicing for nearly a year. It's a piece I hope I sing again, although as each movement whizzed by I found myself wondering if or where that might ever happen again. There wasn't much time to ponder this since we filed offstage the instant the last chord was over to mill about in the church's cellar.

Finally, time for the director's piece. Somehow, despite the frustrating performance, it all came together just how it was supposed to- the girls' choir came in right on cue, the soloists remembered their pieces, we found our places and our voices in the choir, and at the end, the director's look of gratitude directed at us said it all. The audience seemed to agree, and one standing ovation and several encores later, I marveled at all the only-in-Iceland features that came together to make this evening possible. There we were, an amateur choir composed of a very motley crew of people, representing all ages, many different professions, a sprinkling of nationalities, along with the elite from Iceland's symphony orchestra, some of the best soloists the country has to offer, all performing a piece that had been written just in a few months by the guy who's guided our choir through four countries now. Doesn't happen every night in a girl's life.

We rounded out the evening with a champagne toast and a hilariously cheesy cake featuring a full-color photograph of the director, as ordered by his wife (she ate the piece with his face on it). The elation of the well-performed concert combined with the liberal champagne made for a joyful and conversational after-party. As it began to wind down, I slipped off my fancy-yet-uncomfortable concert shoes, and back in my boots, I walked the few blocks home in the crisply starry night, arpeggios still trilling in my ears.

01 December 2011

midnight memories

It's past midnight and in my little corner of Reykjavik, I just spent 10 minutes with my chin leaning on the edge of my bedroom skylight, propped slightly ajar. It's quiet below, the sidewalks glazed with a crust of ice, and above me curves a smudge of northern lights. Christmas decorations have gone up, so although the inhabitants are mostly asleep, the houses along my street glow with fairy lights. The mysteriously mild November has now descended into deep negative numbers, so I'm wrapped in wool from the neck down.

Propping one's chin on a windowsill is rather akin to leaning on a pasture gate- it's the right place for a good ponder. After reading through a few years of my blog archives, I thought about all the things I once marveled at that have become so ordinary I don't even think about them anymore. I've learned to rip open milk boxes and how to fold them securely closed, I learned to stab juice boxes with a knife to allow smooth pouring, I'm no longer lost when it comes to figuring out what frozen goods to buy, even if the labels are all in Danish, and the plugs and switches I thought were so fascinating are forgotten in the midst of everything else on my mind.

When I go to the same gym I once visited with my friend T, it's the classes in English that feel wrong, not the Icelandic ones. I've learned all the body part words I need to know, and adjust my hands, my hips, my shoulders without a second thought to the language. This happened again earlier this week when I once again met H (still editing after all these years!). Our conversation began in Icelandic, shifted to English, flowed through Icelandic again, and continued this pattern as we worked through texts in both languages. As the wine bottle emptied we tried a few moments in German as well but abandoned that as the Icelandic crept in again.

My body's adjusted to the place too- recently as I exited the bakery on a particularly windy day, my grip automatically adjusted on the cake box so it wouldn't go sailing across the parking lot. Not so when I first arrived and an enthusiastic gust of wind ripped friend K's car door from my hand and bent it so badly that the door never shut properly after that. I think about the wind still, of course, but more as a practical concern. Which windows need closing, which direction is best for the run today, or should I just do inside-yoga instead?

I've been thinking a lot about what it means to be integrated somewhere, and I've realized how differently I think about this place compared to those first months. I remember being so aware of how isolated this little island is, imagining the vast black oceans beyond, the empty frigid mountains that ringed the city. Now, when I think about Iceland this night, I think of H across the street in her green-wallpapered bedroom, J nested amid her handmade felt-crafts a few streets away, M still in the apartment where I first met her in 2007, only now with tiny S sleeping at her side, K's family in their rambling home smelling of delicious cooking. Further afield, there's M in his cozy house with the crazily hand-tiled bathroom, V in his neat village on the edge of Eyjafjörður. In between lies a string of familiar places that I've visited and stopped at during the dozens of trips I've taken. This island is no longer a remote, forgotten piece of lava, it's a place crisscrossed with memories and people and experiences.