“These recordings do not contain human-derived sounds,” writes Hafdís Bjarnadóttir in her introduction to the evocative Sounds of Iceland. This is a difficult achievement in field recording, although with 90% of Iceland residents living in or near Reykjavik, it likely grew easier as the artist left the capital. A few birds are present, although no Icelandic horses; the focus is on water in all of its guises, save for rain.
The set travels the country clockwise and seasonally, proceeding from spring to winter, when Ring Road can be impossible to traverse. The format is enticing, in that it invites others to trace its path. As those who live in Iceland or have visited the nation know, one can’t simply drive in a circle around the country; one must make detours, especially if one wishes to experience the Western Fjords; Bjarnadóttir takes this detour, and I have as well. In fact, I’m more than a little bit jealous, as this is the journey I have vowed to someday take. On my last visit, I covered the Iceland Airwaves festival, but didn’t leave enough time on each side of the festival for more than day trips. I stopped just short of Jökulsárlón (which is not included here), barely missed the Galtarviti lighthouse, where múm recorded Summer Make Good, and saw the waterfalls at Gullfoss and Skógafoss, but not at Dettifoss and Goðafoss. My boots got soaked at Vík, but I never got close to Lake Mývatn. Bjarnadóttir hits the areas I missed, and many more. Listening to this collection, I am reminded of the natural sonic treasures of Iceland, as well as the (mostly) unmarred visual beauty. One can drive up to a glacier in a blizzard (I am not a smart traveler), and no signs or stations will block one’s path.
Bjarnadóttir is a wonderful tour guide. As a guitarist and composer, she already has a number of releases and awards under her belt. Her diverse background in both sound installation and ensemble composition has given her a keen ear for arrangement, which makes Sounds of Iceland sound much more like a composition than a simple collection of recordings. Each section involves a smooth overlap of sources. She begins big, with geysers and hot springs, capturing the listener’s attention before introducing more subtle sounds, such as the birds at the Grímsnes lava field. The waterfalls will come later; she knows that these will provide the “payoff” noises, like the crescendoes of a classical concert. We never hear footsteps, or inhalation. She is fully present in the set, yet seems fully absent or erased.
Bjarnadóttir is also fully aware of attention spans, and by mixing 24 snippets of sound into the seven segments of her 42-minute set, she keeps the tour moving at a quick clip. In person, one can spend hours in the caves and coves; Bjarnadóttir gives us minutes. There is always something exciting around the next bend. A pristine recording of a local stream provides a teaser: bigger things are on their way. The first waterfall is heard in the third segment, and the sound is enormous. Unlike other field works, this one is meant to be played loudly. By the time the artist reaches Dettifoss and Goðafoss, the sound is deafening: a cacophony that humbles by virtue of volume.
Special notice goes to the packaging. Sebastian Ristow gives Sounds of Iceland the sharp color and beauty it deserves, bringing the recording scenes to life for the home listener. While there’s nothing like being there, this is the sort of recording that might entice a listener to purchase a plane ticket; it’s certainly tempting me to return to Iceland sooner than I had planned. With so much sonic treasure located throughout the island, one hopes for a follow-up, and soon. (Richard Allen)