- Singing in the Ice
In a land far away, a mere island speck between Greenland and Scandinavia, running cold and hot with ice and volcanic geysers, men in Iceland sing together through the thick and thin of daily life. It’s that simple a saga, this book, a saga about song, about songs arising in sagas.
Sagas came along for the ride when the Norse settled Iceland in the ninth century. Sagas were, and are, individually rendered prose and poem narratives about the grand mythic actors and episodes of pre-medieval to medieval times. “Saga” and “song” are etymological cousins, from an Indo-European root, meaning “something said.” The saga of this book traces the transformations of diverse vocal practices through Iceland’s first millennium, to the group singing of the 19th century onwards—these choirs inspired by the musical revolution that was everywhere in Europe contributing to national identities. During the past century in Iceland, the exigencies of rough daily life on land and on the seas found both individual song and collective choirs becoming, overwhelmingly, a male prerogative.
Robert Faulkner, a Brit with musical passions, was first initiated into the Icelandic song world in London at a Christmas feast of Icelandic friends where the entire family—parents and children—held forth in three-part harmony. He was then drawn to northeast Iceland to live, work, and research, first networking with kin of his earliest Icelandic friends in London. For twenty years at the end of the last century, he taught music, sang in and directed choirs, and undertook a study of vocal culture among native Icelanders, focusing on the fusion of males with their bodies and societies via their own voices. His research relied on ethnographic participant-observation, ordinary conversation, and the diaries and memories of friends who enthusiastically became his subjects.
In this book, many years in the writing, Faulkner shares these experiences in what he aptly describes as “auto-ethnographic constructions,” an approach he grounds in an “interpretative phenomenological framework” for those wishing to regard the subject as social science. Despite some academic window-dressing, this book is nothing short of a song of Faulkner himself.
The Viking settlers of Iceland in the ninth century could not be called “colonizers” in the absence of nation-states. Centuries later, the eventual nation-state of Iceland only became independent of their own colonizers, Denmark, in 1944. Meanwhile the medieval Icelandic Edda sagas had been maintained as an oral tradition with the inevitable accidental and deliberate editing through the ages and was finally transcribed in the thirteenth century. Thirty years after independence, these treasured original manuscripts returned to Iceland to be regarded as foundational for Icelandic nationhood. That awe inspired respect for the sagas turns out to be ironic because emerging nationhood was primarily predicated on Icelanders distancing themselves from both formal saga recitation and informal two-part vocal traditions, as well as from folk dance. Faulkner describes the introduction of collective, romantic, and nationalistic traditions, as well as diatonic harmony, from Western Europe in the century as a virtual “vocal cleansing” as the new four-part and three-part harmonies swamped Icelanders’ traditional song and two-part bawdy tunes and deemed them profane.
While the poetry and prose of the sagas celebrated individuality, self-reliance, resilience, and elaborate dramas, as Iceland came of age as an outlier of 19th century Europe, the romantic literatures of Europe were emphasizing subjugation to collective nationhoods. Inspired by nation-building on the continent, missionary-musicians travelled about Iceland introducing adaptations of the harmonic singing traditions developing in parallel on the continent. Some of the songs came to incorporate Icelandic saga references and folk tunes indexing the rugged arctic landscape, but the individualistic attitudes of the original sagas came to be associated with ancient conditions of hardship, poverty, epidemics, and even the tyranny of volcanoes that ironically intensified the arctic weather. The volcanic eruptions in 1783 affected, negatively, food production, health, migration, and even politics on both sides of...