Utopia of the Suburbs: Stífluhringurinn by Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson

Major new work by the Icelandic composer and Slátur co-founder is inspired by an old hydro-electric dam that became a haven for birds and other wildlife

Stífluhringurinn is a landmark in suburban Rekyavik. The name means ‘dam circle’. It is the site of an old hydro-electric dam. Unusually, environmentalists are calling for this particular dam to be reinstated due to its positive impact on the local birdlife. It’s an almost idyllic, tree-filled space – but far from ‘natural’. For composer Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarson, the space represents, “a suburban outdoor utopia that is full of birdsong and wonder and makes people forget where they are for a moment.” Limning this zone runs a circular path which connects the two neighbourhoods of the composer’s upbringing. Each of the two movements on the record is dedicated to a priest from one or other of the areas. One a Japanese Lutheran, and the other an Icelandic practitioner of Zen.

A couple of years ago I wrote about Gunnarsson’s landvættir fjórar, a complex and challenging collection about Iceland’s land wights, spirits who represent the four quarters of the country, the four elements, and/or the points of a compass. I hugely enjoyed this release and was pleased to have more work by the composer come my way. Stífluhringurinn is conceptually driven by ideas of place, too – and I fancy that the land wights have a role still – but the geography here is more localised, more specific, and brushes with the composer’s own autobiography. As I have come to expect from this composer, the narrative around the music is a little twisty and the interlocking components are peculiarly shaped.

Gunnarsson is an experimentalist, and I suspect, something of a Modernist. All of the principles of music as we might understand them in the lineage of the traditional Western canon are fair game to be stretched, abused, ignored, but perhaps most importantly, questioned, as many have done though the last century. But we should be careful not to think of any of this as being arbitrary or random. There is precision and discipline here in abundance. Firstly, we need to reject or rethink meter. Rhythms fall as natural patterns. Tempo, time signature, and so on, have no real part to play here.

As a structuring principle, Gunnarsson divides his sound into four basic categories: short pitchless sounds; short pitched sounds; long pitched sounds; and glissandi. Though if we are thinking of pitch, we should probably chuck out any notion of equal temperament, too. Each of the two movements has a four-part structure that gives each sound category a moment of dominance, and the second movement reverses the order of the first because we should consider it to be walking down the other side of our initial ascent of the Stífluhringurinn.

The piece was written for the Caput Ensemble, a group operating at a very flexible size between maybe two and twenty players since 1987. Here, I think there are about a dozen musicians working with Gunnarsson’s graphic, screen-based, animated scores. Premiering in 2019, plans to record the work were frustrated by Covid and a later, more granular and editorial version has emerged which has also allowed producer/engineer The Norman Conquest a little freedom to add some further finesse to proceedings too. The ensemble largely comprises strings (bowed and plucked instruments), brass, recorders and harpsichord, with some percussive sounds working around and within.

The first part, ‘Arabakki’, sets us off on our ascent with the short pitchless sounds as the dominant principle to start with, though the other sound elements gradually encroach with the pitched sounds initially working in quite a small range of pitches involving some wonderful, super close microtonal intervals delicately smothering the more gestural sounds after the five minute mark. Following this, the size of interval starts to increase as things become more open. Strings ring out beneath the wooden hush of recorder. Pitch is largely in ascendence here with short scalic passages stepping their way toward what I’m guessing must be the dam itself at the top of the circular path. It’s actually completely lovely how each of the four musical elements gently makes way for the next without ever disappearing completely. It’s so carefully balanced and neatly judged, like a sort of masterful watercolour with each pigment flawlessly blended. Which, I suppose, is appropriate as this is a sort of landscape art, after all. As we depart the bowed string, long pitched section and move toward the closing section, glissando becomes the core sound, with trombone and brass urging the violin and viola to fall into less stable noises, as if the wind has picked up at higher altitudes. I’ll confess to a genuine sense of vertigo toward the end of this first section.

As is appropriate the second movement, ‘Klettabær’ begins here in ghostly, wind-like glissandi, as the structure begins to reverse, but without repeating. This is cyclical, of course. This second movement feels more reverberant than the first, with wooden pops and knocks dying away slowly in space as clusters of tones sound out like dense and diverse hedge-ways with too many plants fighting for space. I really love this section (about six minutes in). It’s not just a fascinating approach to harmony and pitch, but also an exercise in timbre. So many distinct shapes of sound playing out simultaneously. All these breath-like overtones alongside chimes, pizzicato, hammers, and plucks. It’s lovely, and I think my favourite music from this composer that I’ve heard so far.

Music about place is difficult. It’s hugely subjective, hostage to qualia, and resistant to specificity. But do we need accuracy here? I think not. We need feeling. A sense that our imagination has received something that gives a sense of what it might be to experience a place. Lately, I’m starting to believe that instrumental music does this rather better than song, being unfettered by text. That’s my feeling here anyway, and whether or not my sense of the Dam Circle is accurate, I do have this feeling. A feeling of human made things being overrun by nature. Succulents splitting concrete. Bird nests within railings. Lichen covering paint. Gunnarsson is a composer who has his roots in Modernist experimentation, but also one whose work speaks explicitly to his own place and time. This is very beautiful music, sitting with poise and purpose, bending meter, pitch, intonation and tempo without actually demanding that much from its listeners. It is a very easy world to fall into, and a rich one in which to spend time. I look forward to more from this composer.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today