Frontline World

ICELAND - The Future of Sound, January 2003

Synopsis of "The Future of Sound"

World Music's Global Reach

Sample Sounds From the Edge of the World

Learn More about Iceland

History, Culture and Unique Approach to Energy




The Story
Band on stage, Reporter smiles, Crowds dance at a rave

Watch Video Iceland is out there -- on its own. A volcanic island in the middle of the North Atlantic, it sits just below the Arctic Circle, steam rising from its hot springs and geysers. Less than 300,000 people live there. "It feels extraterrestrial, this wind-scoured place," says FRONTLINE/World reporter Marco Werman.

Yet this small, isolated country produces some of the most innovative pop music on the planet. To find out why, Werman -- a veteran music journalist for public radio heard regularly on PRI's The World -- visits the 2002 Iceland Airwaves Festival, a three-day showcase for local groups. "Northern European rock is hot these days," says Werman. "And the music business is paying special attention to Iceland."

Bjork is Iceland's most famous musical export. Her quirky charm, bracing originality and inventive music videos have made her an icon of alternative rock. In the wake of her international success, other avant-garde pop artists are emerging from Iceland. Among them are Sigur Rós, the stars of last year's festival, a band that has since performed in America and earned a spot on many a rock critic's Top 10 list, and an intriguing new group called the Apparat Organ Quartet, known for its deadpan humor and space-travel sound.

Werman catches a press conference touting the release of Apparat's debut CD -- an event that includes dancers from Iceland's Ballet Academy, who provide a surreal, comic touch. Then, after a brief stop to sample a local concoction of vodka and honey, Werman plunges into a roomful of bands promoting their homemade CDs. In the swirling mass of electronica heads and other postrock revolutionaries, there's even a lone heavy metal drummer from a band called Changer. He confesses to Werman, "We're trying to get out of this country -- it's not very good for metal here."

"You can't see everything [at the festival]," Werman acknowledges, "but you can run yourself ragged till the wee hours of the morning trying." And try he did. With cameraman Peter Pearce, he takes FRONTLINE/World viewers on a musical crawl though the bars and nightclubs of downtown Reykjavik -- experiencing everything from rave venues to punk bands to "a sonic artist who works off a laptop."

"I couldn't take (the sonic artist) for more than five minutes," Werman admits. But he clearly relishes the rest of his musical odyssey, ending up in the company of Trabant, a band named after a defunct East German car. Trabant's high-energy political satire recalls John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band and Country Joe and the Fish.

After surveying the scene from one end to the other, Werman decides to learn more about the guys from the Apparat Organ Quartet, whose name derives from the instruments on which they play their spacey music -- old organs. It turns out that one member of the band, Hörour Bragason, is also one of Iceland's leading church organists. The morning after performing in a late-night rock concert, Bragason shows up to play in a Lutheran service at a retirement home.

The resident philosopher from Apparat, Jóhann Jóhannsson, explains that in one aspect at least the experimental group is quite traditional, salvaging and recycling old instruments the way Icelanders use every part of the national animal -- the sheep -- for food, fuel and clothing. Nothing goes to waste. "We even eat the head, you know, and the brains," Jóhannsson points out.

Jóhannsson also tells Werman that Apparat is committed to taking experimental electronic music out of the fringe and moving it into everyday life. To make their point, the band strikes a deal with a local supermarket to play their esoteric music over the store's public address system while the band members serve drinks and hand out questionnaires to puzzled shoppers.

Outside, Werman feels the intensity of Iceland's stark natural environs and long cold nights. It is this "austere beauty," he has discovered, that the best Icelandic bands manage to capture in their sweet, haunting, contemplative, yet energetic music. "Icelandic musicians have taken American rock and revolutionized it with their own sub-Arctic touch," concludes Werman. "This experimental sound is adding an invigorating sparkle to pop music that's been missing for far too long."


Marco Werman

Peter Pearce

Paul Rusnak

David Ritsher
John MacGibbon

Additional Materials
írni Sveinnson
Elektra Entertainment Group
Filmus Productions Iceland

Apparat Organ Quartet
Sigur Rós
Singapore Sling
Telco Systems

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