What is Iceland like? That might be a weird question to ask about a big chunk of rock in the North Atlantic. But if you’re in tune with the sound of nature – or the nature of sound – then maybe not.
Over the past two years, musician Kaśka Paluch has created a remarkable project addressing this issue from the perspective of the island’s natural environments. But when she first pondered the question five years ago, having just moved to Reykjavík from her Polish hometown of Zakopane, she had the sound of contemporary Icelandic music in mind.
“I haven’t met an Icelander who listens to Björk.”
“My friends used to joke that I moved here to be closer to Björk, because I was a crazy fan,” laughs Kaśka. “When you live in Poland and are interested in Icelandic music – Björk, Sigur Rós, Gusgus – that’s how you hear Iceland. But when you move here you realize that, musically, Iceland doesn’t sound like that. Quite the opposite, in fact. I haven’t met an Icelander who listens to Björk.
The noise is annoying
To discover the sound of Iceland, Kaśka interviewed the kind of people one would expect to know: musicians, artists and filmmakers. And their responses were surprising. “The most common response was ‘a noise,'” she says. “That’s what Iceland looks like to them – constant noise.”
Much of this noise is the incessant din made by us humans, but that said, nature is rarely quiet. If the distinction between a sound and a noise is that one is easy to hear and the other is not, then Mama Nature can be a loud mutha. A howling wind can irritate the nerves. And even the steady roar of a waterfall – certainly one of earth’s greatest gifts – can become an imposition by its persistence. Kaśka realized that his curiosity should perhaps not be about the sound of Iceland, but about the sound of Iceland.
While working as a tour guide, she had a conversation with a client whose eyesight was compromised, but who experienced nature through what she heard rather than what she heard. saw. Kaśka realized that the book she planned on the sound of Iceland would work better as a collection of audio recordings. “I decided to record all the popular places in Iceland,” she says. “No pictures, just sounds. And I assumed I would record them with people and buses and everything. And then the pandemic started.
When Kaśka found herself unemployed in the spring of 2020 – and a relative silence fell over Iceland’s natural tourist sites – she set about visiting each one, making field recordings to create an interactive map which can be viewed here. And while each recording was already a work of art in its own right, some also seemed to volunteer as source material for musical expansion. Thus was born the idea for the album ‘Noise From Iceland’, for which Kaśka drew on her experience as a dance music producer.
The resulting album is an engaging mix of 14 tracks, half of which are pure ambient field recordings best experienced through a decent pair of headphones. Hurricanes whip the listener, lava roars and bubbles in the ears, and the sounds of a glacial lagoon wash all around and above. Then, in the other seven tracks, the sounds of nature are reinforced by solid yet spacious dance music, heavily influenced by late 90s progressive house.
“I’m a big fan of trance and techno,” says Kaśka. “Most of the time you hear music composed for field recordings, it’s ambient or experimental electronics. And honestly, I tried to do it but I just needed a beat! It was interesting to see the reactions of people who were probably expecting music to meditate on. And I’m not saying it will never happen, but for that I really needed that kind of sound from Paul van Dyk.
Kaśka’s musical education in Poland eventually led to degrees in musicology and ethnomusicology – the science of documentation and analysis of popular music. And it was this interest that led to the latest development of the Noise From Iceland project: finding a way to integrate the Icelandic language.
The organization Íslenskur Músík Og Menningararfur, (Icelandic Music and Cultural Heritage), curates a collection of audio recordings, photos, films and texts depicting a history of Icelandic culture. And that’s where Kaśka found a recording from 1969, in which a woman named Hildigunnur Valdimarsdóttir sings a folk tale called “Tungli Glotti Gult Og Bleikt” (“The moon shines yellow and pink”).
“There was such a beautiful energy coming from that recording, and I liked the lyrics,” Kaśka says. “But then I went further and discovered their significance.” The song depicts a woman called Geirlaug, sitting at night, sewing a sweater by moonlight. She waits for her late husband, Glúmur, to come and take her with him.
“So I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s the one! “”, says Kaśka. “It’s nice, you can dance to it, but it’s a horror story.” In Kaśka’s version of “The Moon Glows Yellow And Pink”, Hildigunnur’s original a cappella voice is respectfully arranged over a subtle yet uplifting house track. The whole concept is underpinned by a recording of an Icelandic storm, made by Kaśka the day before the archived song was discovered.
Kaśka plans to continue developing the Noise From Iceland project, creating music directly related to the elements, the earth and the people living on this big piece of North Atlantic rock.