An Interview with ATLI HEIMIR SVEINSSON by IMX, Icleand Music Export
Atli Heimir Sveinsson is a colossus of the Icelandic classical world. Born into a musical family in 1938, Atli’s career began at his childhood home in Reykjavík. Piano lessons were started at the
tender age of 10, before going on to study piano with Rögnvaldur Sigurjónsson at the Reykjavik College Of Music, then at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Cologne, Germany.
In 1963 he attended a series of summer courses in Darmstadt, where he met some of Europe’s musical avant-garde: Oliver Messiaen, Pierre Boulez, Györgi Ligety and Bruno Maderna among them. In ‘64 he studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen at the “Kölner Kurse für neue Musik”; and in ‘65 he studied electronic music with Gottfried Michael Koenig in Bilthoven, Holland.
During this time, Sveinsson experimented with modern techniques of composition, employing elements of improvisation and musical theatre in an attempt to appeal to the imagination of the performers and involve them in the creative process.
After returning to his native Iceland, he began working as a conductor in Reykjavík, lecturing both there and at universities abroad, while at the same time attempting a synthesis that united the international with the national. As the years continued, so did the prestigious positions and accolades.
Among other things, Sveinsson founded a class of composition at Reykjavík College of Music, worked as producer at the Icelandic State Broadcasting Service, became president of the Icelandic Composers Assocation (1972-1983) and organized the festival and general assembly of the International Society for Contemporary Music in Iceland in 1973. In 1976 he was awarded the Nordic Music Prize for his Flute Concerto (his international breakthrough)
He has also acted as president of the Nordic Composers Counsel (1974-1976), organized the Nordic Music Days festival in Reykjavík in 1976, and – in 1980 – founded Dark Music Days, a festival for contemporary Icelandic music. Since 1992, Sveinsson has received a lifetime honorary salary from the Icelandic Parliament and in 1993 was elected member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music.
Sveinsson’s works are often modern yet subtly accessible, and include operas, ballet and major orchestral works, many of which have been performed throughout Europe and beyond. Amongst his most celebrated works are an orchestral song cycle set to Steinn Steinarr’s poem Time and Water, the operas The Silk Drum, Vikivaki (a TV opera based on a novel by Icelandic poet Gunnar Gunnarsson), Moonlight Island and Hertervig. He has recently turned his hand to symphonies and his Symphony no. 3 will be premiered at Dark Music Days by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, on the 7th of February 2008.
You started your musical career pretty early: was this down to being raised in a musical environment?
Yes, I grew up in a very musical home. My mother played the piano very well; she studied at the College for Music in Reykjavik in around 1930. My father was also singing in the male choir, and my family on my mother’s side were all very musical, many of them singers. I was closely related to many well-known musicians and singers in Iceland, and it was very natural to study the piano. When I wanted to learn composition, my whole family encouraged me. My entire family loved classical music; my mother played Beethoven and Chopin, and my grandmother, too. My grandmother lived in Flateyri and had a piano and harmonium; she was the organist for the local church for half a century.
How were your teachers at the Reykjavik College Of Music in the early days?
I had very good music teachers. Many of them were Jewish, people fleeing the war. We helped save their lives and employed them to teach our children music! They were highly educated people.
When did you decide to go deeper into composition?
During my teenage years I heard some of Stockhausen’s compositions. He was responsible for arousing my curiosity. His electronic music was very new in the 50s, and was certainly one of the reasons I went to study in Cologne. It was a new world of sound.
How did you find Stockhausen when you eventually studied under him in Cologne in the 60s?
I liked him personally. He was very inspiring. He had a born gift, and was a kind of theoretical fantasist. On the other hand he was a down-to-earth person. He was very good at explaining his new ideas. We had many lively discussions and there were many good people there. Bernd Zimmerman was also a great figure. Cologne at that time was a bit of a centre that people came to, to find out what was going on. The courses helped me find my own direction.
Being an Icelander, were you considered an exotic figure by others?
No, I never had that feeling. Sometimes it felt strange that I came from a country with no real musical culture but somehow an established cultural life. It meant I had to find my way, and not imitate the music that was happening on the continent. Iceland was just this little island, far in the north. Halldór Laxness called it “a place behind the world”, but I would also add that it was also a place between two large continents, Europe and the USA – the old and new worlds.
So was there pressure on you to produce music that was ‘nationalistic’ – to somehow ‘represent’ Iceland?
No. Jon Leifs worked on that concept but not me. I never wanted to emphasize the folklore of Iceland, more the spirit, which can’t be so easily explained. It’s a sense of dark and light, of colour and distances and forms. I was never really so patriotic, but I have always very happy that our culture has remained strong and has survived.
How were your first works received in Iceland?
Well it was not so much success as scandal [laughs]. Some people didn’t like it. I was the enfant terrible for a while, but that was not so bad. It didn’t affect me. I just continued to do the things I believed in.
What do you deem your greatest successes?
[Laughs] – well I was very young when I got the Nordic Prize, for my 1974 flute concert, which was widely played. And The Silk Drum, an opera, was premiered in Reykjavik in 1980 or ’81, and was the first time we went with an Icelandic opera abroad. It was to Venezuela. It’s a difficult question. I suppose success makes life a little bit easier in some ways, but the problems of composing good music are just the same now as they always were.
Have audiences changed over the years? Are people more acceptant of your work today?
I think it has changed, Two or three years ago, I watched some young children from the music school perform a piece of mine called Flower Shower, a piece I had written in ’73. The piece was rather advanced, but these young children, who were aged from 12-16, played it with no difficulties. I had the feeling they also enjoyed it. They also played the first symphony of Beethoven.
What are your thoughts on pop musicians – Björk for example?
Well yes, she has also been influenced by contemporary avant-garde music. And at the same time I have been influenced by contemporary pop music. It happens. I have never really worked together with Bjork but I arranged a classical choir for three of her songs, with her good permission and collaboration. I liked it very much. She is open-minded and goes her own way.
Your VikiVaki TV opera was a great success, and was broadcast throughout all of the Nordic countries. How was the experience from your point of view?
For me it was very interesting. But I also asked myself whether TV, with such a small screen, was the right format for opera. Maybe it helps, but I missed the traditional aspect. Maybe when I have time I may organize a full opera performance. Then again, we still have no opera house in Iceland.
Why did you found the Dark Music Days festival and where did the name come from?
It was a working title, but people abroad heard it and I got phone calls from everywhere asking: “what does it mean? What are you doing?” [laughs]. Of course it had nothing to do with “dark” music. The name comes from the fact that February, the month we chose to
stage the festival as there was a cultural ‘gap’ in the calendar following Xmas, is generally quite a ‘dark’ time in Iceland, with little sunshine and dark days. The concept was always for Icelandic composers to open up their studios and show people what they are doing, and that tradition continues today.
Looking back on your career, what do you think your legacy will be?
Well I have earned my living mainly from teaching. Some of the younger composers of today have been my students and I must say I am very proud of being helpful to these young people, before they go on to swim alone. I have mostly been pre-occupied with finding a way to express my ideas in a true and clear way.
Is there something left that you would like to do?
I am working already on my Symphony’s 5 and 6. But when I finally stop composing, I think I would buy all the music of Mozart and listen to it all the way through.
From IN THE SPOTLIGHT 2008