Iceland has a strong sense of national and cultural identity, a rich musical tradition and a vibrant contemporary music scene, with a distinctive character.
Initially, the church seems to have influenced Iceland’s traditional music, as the heterophonic ways of protestant hymn singing used to be similar to the “undisciplined” Gaelic long-psalm singing of the Scottish highlands. Hymns written by Icelanders such as Hallgrimur Petursson (1614-1674) had a strong Icelandic character, often in the Lydian mode, with parallel fifths and augmented fourths. This changed in 1801, when governor Magnús Stephensen introduced harmoniums in churches and published a new hymn book. Reykjavik Cathedral led the way in using the new instrument and the Danish-style hymns with formal harmonisations and foursquare rhythms. The arrival of radio in 1930 completed this “enlightenment”, affecting the musical taste of the population.
Iceland is famous for its heroic ballad poetry, the sagas, which date back to the Viking era and were passed down orally for centuries. The tradition of singing sagas can still be found in the Icelandic folk songs known as rímur. The singing style, known as að kveða, is usually described as a form of chanting, since it is a recitative that falls somewhere between song and speech. The tradition has just about continued to the present day, mainly through the efforts of two societies dedicated to the preservation of rímur, who have made some archive recordings.
Björk is probably the best known Icelander – and certainly the country’s most popular musical export. She is a rock musician and for much of her working life has been based in Britain. She has made Icelandic-language versions of her songs, and on French keyboardist and producer Hector Zazou’s album Songs of the Cold Seas, she sings a traditional song.
It’s remarkable how musically productive Iceland is. Since Björk achieved international stardom, the spacious, quirky sounds of bands such as Múm and Sigur Rós have become internationally known, the latter having collaborated with rímur chanter Steindór Andersen as well.