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Dark Music Days Music Festival

Opportunities for Embodied, Cross-Disciplinary Performance

January 24-29, 2023; HARPA, Reykjavík, Iceland



Dark Days Music Festival (DDMF) is an annual Reykjavik event that shines a light on innovative and progressive music. With an over 40-year history, DDMF transforms the unrelenting January weather -  where gray skies, sleet, and snow meets a 6 hour window of sunlight - into a diverse musical respite that both pleases and challenges audiences.

Curating a music festival, or any festival that highlights “new” performance is tricky, but DDMF’s program included a diverse set of established, large musical groups like Iceland Symphony Orchestra and lesser known solo performers like Rosie Middleton. In doing so, the festival is not only supporting existing musical ensembles but educating and cultivating audiences by nurturing new talent.

Tinna & Júlía - Photo by Ester Magnúsdóttir

DDMF is a wonderful example of why experimental music needs to be heard live - with bodies playing, performing, and listening. Recorded sounds that the ear alone might find inscrutable can vibrate a person’s bones in unimaginable ways when the listener is brought into close contact with the performer. The intoxicating, shared buzzing of a lone voice can communicate an aural reality that is flattened once recorded. If not experienced live, the breathing, hesitation, and pause of Rosie Middleton’s concert, for example, could not be adequately understood. In her performance, the sounds of the palate, lips, and tongue, and the fleshiness of the voice itself evoked the sensual pleasure of the “sounding body.”

Siggi String Quartet - Photo by Ester Magnúsdóttir

Further, live performance not only accommodates the unique complexity of a performer’s body but allows for the creation of an acoustic architecture that envelops performers and audiences together. “White Flags” by Daníel Bjarnason musicalizes the faded American flags left on the moon after the Apollo mission and, in doing so, hinges the vastness of space upon objects that are slowly deteriorating. Trio Isak seemingly created its own temporary galaxy. As they performed the eerily suspended strings of “White Flags,” the audience gravitated closer to stay in the trio’s orbit and the HARPA concert hall seemed connected by delicate slivers of notes.

Trio Isak - Photo by Ester Magnúsdóttir

But to the degree that musical performance is enhanced when it fully embraces the body, it can be compromised when it attempts cross-disciplinary practice without respecting the technique of other creative practices. For example, Rosie Middleton’s performance of “Code Poem - Any Chance of War?” by Mira Calix was a moving work that included live voice and recorded Morse code. It also included Middleton’s performance of SOS flag signals. Though the flags added a compelling visual element to the work, flag semaphore relies upon codified movements to communicate message. Unfortunately, Middleton’s emphasis on executing the vocal component of the work surpassed the precision of the choreography, so much that the movement at times distracted from the emotional articulation of distress she so powerfully vocalized. Further in “White Flags,” Trio Isak supplemented their stage by displaying five, white, hand drawn flags, visually connecting their performance with the lunar landscape. These five flags were later used to textually denote movement changes in Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s “Présence.” Had Trio Isak simply presented the flags as unique, stand-alone visual components, perhaps using six flags instead of five to mirror the number used in the Lunar Assemblies, they could have added a content-rich sculptural element to the work. In both instances, it seems that legibility of the musical performance was prioritized over the cohesion of the performance as a cross-disciplinary work.

Rosie Middleton - Photo by Ester Magnúsdóttir

Melissa Noble, Managing Director of the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center and Coordinator of Interdisciplinary Studies at University of Houston comments that, “while exploration and authentic inquiry can be captivating, when performing artists consider implementing cross disciplinary additions, there is often a lack of proficiency, as the Dunning-Kruger effect describes ‘you don’t know what you don’t know.” That is to say, the profound dedication of technical mastery to one discipline and the lack of training and experience in other areas can not only be detrimental to the types of performances that try to integrate multiple areas, but the performers themselves are oftentimes not aware of their lack of proficiency.

MÖRSUGUR - Photo by Ester Magnúsdóttir

This, in no way, should discourage musicians from integrating visual, sculptural, and somatic elements in their performances. Quite the contrary. Integrated experiences, like the performances of Trio Isak and Rosie Middleton, are engaging and their cross-disciplinary nature provide multiple audience access points. However, what should be kept in mind is that theater, dance, and visual art are disciplines that require their own concerted dedication. If musicians want to include these components, they must fully commit themselves to understanding the technique and processes involved.  For musicians, the successful integration of other disciplines might seem insurmountable, but when it is executed well, a challenging musical work can be pried open in unusual and exciting ways.


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