In August 2018, the Esprit de Choeur Women’s Choir from Winnipeg, Canada brought David R. Scott’s choral rendition of Icelandic poetry by Magnús Sigurðsson to venues across the island, including Harpa concert hall.
In early 2018, the choir, one-third of which are of Icelandic descent, commissioned a choral work from the composer that would encapsulate the pioneering spirit of New Iceland, a territory in Manitoba near Lake Winnipeg where Icelandic settlers built a small, independent state that was later absorbed by the province. The settlers referred to themselves as “West Icelanders” because they viewed the North American settlements as extensions of Iceland, rather than havens abroad after a century of volcanic eruptions, famine, and myriad other disasters.
Icelandic Descendents Bring New Iceland Back to the Homeland
As their descendants, Esprit have opted to “bring echoes of New Iceland back to the homeland,” through Scott’s compositional work in five movements. Scott’s composition finds its basis in the sparse Icelandic poetry of Magnús Sigurðsson, in both the original language and in English translation by Meg Matich. The composition,White Field/Hvítur Akur, is sung bilingually, with the first and third parts in English and the second and fourth in Icelandic; the final movement, Daylilies/Dagliljan, is sung in both.
A Multilingual Choral Composition
“The poem Daylilies feels different from all the others–it seems to get away from the poet mediating between his mind and the world. It’s more concrete and universally comprehensible,” Scott said of his choice to blend together both languages in a strong flourish at the end of the work. But “there’s a certain continuity of sound-world in the entire cycle…similar pitch material and harmony, which is deliberate and controlled. Daylilies is quite different from the others because of its continuous rhythmic drive,” he added.
A Matter of Process
Scott describes his process of composition as “analogous to the techniques found in painting, where a blank space is given implied structure by a horizon line and vanishing points.” He, as a composer, adds detail to the background in layers, meaning that ”the surface of the music [the melody] is often saturated with colour, while the underlying structure [harmony and counterpoint] is always implied.”
It’s unsurprising then that Scott would choose “white field”—drawn from the poem “Akuryrkja” (“Composition”)—as the title of his choral work, given the term’s relationship to his own philosophy of musical composition. Sigurðsson’s poetics and Scott’s ideals are kindred, and never is their compatibility more clear than in the poem from which “white field” is excerpted (it’s also the second movement in the work).
Icelandic Poetry and Musical Composition Go Hand-in-Hand
Of his choice of title, Scott says “Quite simply,White Field comes from the poetry. I love the idea of blank (snowy?) landscape as an analogue to blank page and the macro/micro flip of viewer’s perspective (which Magnús does so brilliantly). It’s kind of a neutral title but comes freighted with meaning, including [the] idea of growth/decline.”
In the poem, the page becomes “a white/field” (“Örkin er hvítur/akur”), a trope which is not uncommon across the humanities and human sciences: the tabula rasa is by no means new in the history of ideas. It’s the title of the poem, however, that gives the idea renewed heft.
“Akuryrkja” means “agriculture,” but Matich has strangely translated it as “composition” based upon the word’s second part, “-yrkja”, which means both “to cultivate [a field]” and “to compose [a poem]”. The title alone expresses a core tenet of Sigurðsson’s philosophy—artistic creation is tied to the earth, with the same propensity for moving in cycles. Combined with the lines that follow—”the page is a white/field”—we see the act of composition as one of organic creation.
Thinking Together to Create Perfect Harmony
Scott has said that the choral work was “influenced by some of [Matich’s] thoughts on the translation process, particularly… [translation as] a ‘dissonant place between languages—where writing recalibrates thought’,” and by the textures and rhythms in Sigurðsson’s Icelandic poetry in its bony prosody.
RScott employs the idea that, from the text, he has constructed a “musical narrative” that’s reliant upon “musical ideas (rhythm and accent particularly) [from] the text initially. The emotional content of the poem also (ideally) informs the harmony, use of phrase and line, and the forward motion.”
In a return to Sigurðsson’s ideas of ecoharmony, he says “it’s a balance of all these things to create comprehension and aural connections for the listener. Having established these relationships, a deliberate undermining of them creates tension and interest which is vital to pushing the musical narrative forward.”
Other selections include new choral works for women’s choirs by young, emerging Canadian and Finnish composers, Canadian and Icelandic folk songs, and some popular classics by Ian Tyson, Dolly Parton and Leonard Cohen.
The concert will take place August 13, 2018 at 19:00 in Kaldalón at Harpa. A bilingual version of Magnús Sigurðsson’s Cold Moons, Icelandic poetry in translation by Meg Matich, is available from Phoneme Media.
Poetry From the Book
The morning sun
on the crown
of a daylily.
that fills up
and a cruet