I am a failed cellist. Somewhere during my teenage years, I traded Bach for Belle and Sebastian, performance dresses for band t-shirts and Converse, and never looked back. But now, in the age of the playlist, this “pick your tribe” style of music appreciation seems antiquated.
This is particularly the case in Iceland, where the country’s classical and pop luminaries have roots in the hardcore and metal scenes—and vice versa. (Think: Ólafur Arnalds and Sigur Rós.) It’s here in Reykjavík, on the coldest weekend in January, that I rediscovered a bit of my teenage self at Myrkir Músíkdagar (in English, that means "darkest days"). At its core, the festival, located at the Harpa Opera House and surrounding smaller venues, is dedicated to showcasing the best in upcoming instrumental, experimental, and modern classical music.
Don't let those genre descriptions intimidate you. As composer Bára Gísladóttir helpfully tells me, the best way to start any exploration into the musical unknown is to stop assuming that words like "classical" or "instrumental" translate to inaccessible or hard to understand.
“I feel like it’s about opening up,” she offers. “We are so occupied with what is art, what is music, what is culture? Who cares?! Everything is about an experience.”
It’s true, over the course of three days, Myrkir Músíkdagar proved to be much different than the stuffy music halls of my youth. Sopranos growled like punks, clarinetists looped themselves into abstraction, and—in a moment that proved teenagers really are the coolest—the Reykjavík Youth Symphony took over the lobby of Harpa, performing an interactive piece in which a musical drone was passed between orchestra members positioned across all three levels of the venue.
Below, we highlight five of the instrumental scene's most exciting performers. From a future film luminary to a member of Björk’s brass section gone rogue, here are the five standout artists and composers on the scene.