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.
For many who dream of becoming a full-time musician, aspirations come with a backup plan in tow. But for San Diego-based composer Bryan Jacobs, who originally envisioned a career in agriculture, making music felt like the safer of his two options.
“At that time I figured if I’m going to be on a farm and spend as much time by myself as I want to, I want something to entertain myself,” he says. “Someone has to make the food we eat. And maybe I will someday. But I got more and more interested in some musical projects and that just seemed more realistic.”
Although Passepartout Duo was given the honor of playing his frenetic score “Piano+Electronics” at Myrkir Músíkdagar, Jacobs also performs live with his Ensemble Pamplemousse. In the past, the outside-the-box collective has produced a series of creative concerts that has even included a symphony played on four car horns. Still, Jacobs promises that none of his creations are created for the sake of being obtuse. He firmly believes anyone can appreciate the emotion behind music—even when it’s difficult to describe.
“I’ve never found an elevator pitch that works because everyone’s reference point is totally different,” he muses. “Most everyone I’ve met in the world has a connection to music. It has meant a lot to them at least in some point in their life… I want to see if anything I do has to do with what you like. Usually, it does somewhere. Sometimes people understand it totally right away.”