Iceland was the last of the European countries to be settled, just over a thousand years ago now, by Viking explorers, Celtic women, and monks. Today the country has a relatively small number of people living on it; it’s around the size of the state of Ohio, which has some 11 million inhabitants, but only about 340,000 people live there. The island’s tumultuous natural features are a big reason for this. There are hundreds of volcanos and many of them are active. Evidence of their previous activities can be seen all around the countryside in the form of lava fields, which look sort of like regular fields because they’re covered in green moss but are rocky and cracked all over by fissures, some of them treacherously deep. The heat from volcanic sources creates warm geothermal pools and magnificent geysers. (The word geyser, in fact, comes from the Icelandic name of a huge one near Reykjavik, Geysir, which was the first such water spout modern Europeans had ever seen.) Parts of Iceland are covered in ice caps, including the largest glacier in Europe, and the glaciers’ constant melting feeds the rivers and results in some 10,000 waterfalls across the country. The Icelandic highlands, situated in the middle of the country, are mostly uninhabitable and largely without infrastructure; the rivers there change course frequently, even daily, and can’t be bridged. The country’s landscape is wild, stunning, and in many ways rare.
Iceland is also, of course, the land of the midnight sun. That’s the reason J and I chose to visit there over the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. Ever since I learned in school that, way up north, the sun is up around the clock in the summer and dark for most of the winter, I’ve marveled at the idea, have wondered for all these years what it would feel like if the sun never set. Now I know: It feels weird. Almost enchanted. During the week we spent there, it never really got dark. Even after sunset at midnight the sky stayed lit but dim, like the light at twilight, until it rose fully again at around 3:00 a.m. On sunnier days, as opposed to cloudy ones, slices of yellow sun peered through the slats in the blinds behind our bed and rested on my face, giving me the confused sensation—at two o’clock in the morning—that I was on a beach vacation and lying down for a nap on a drowsy afternoon. It felt moving, too—strange to think of people in another part of the world having a different sort of understanding with my old companions the sun and the moon—and very energizing.
The chaotic emotional stuff I’ve been going through in recent months has drained me, and I think something about the idea of drinking in full, 24-hour days of sunshine must have struck me as a kind of personal restoration technique. Sure enough, though I felt tired from traveling and from all the walking we did while we were there, I didn’t exactly get sleepy in the evening, the way you do naturally when it gets dark. It was as if my little internal battery was plugged in and getting recharged. One day I even refreshed myself the way the locals do, by soaking in a geothermal pool, right on a beach in Reykjavik. It was a grey day with a low, moody sky but I’d packed my bathing suit for our long urban hike in case we found a place to bathe. When we did find one I looked out at the unfriendly sea and felt dubious: Who goes to the beach on a cold, rainy day? Icelanders do, that’s who. We saw people trucking across the sand in bare feet, and others swimming in the ocean with mitts on their hands and feet to protect them from the sharp rocks on the bottom. Before I chickened out I went into the locker room to change, then hustled through the chilly air to a long concrete tub built into a platform on the beach. The water was only about as deep as a bathtub, and sinking gratefully into its warmth I had the embarrassing yet thrilling sensation that I was in fact taking a bath with a bunch of strangers. I eavesdropped on but couldn’t understand their conversations because they were in Icelandic, Russian, and rapid-fire French. My body was warm while a light, cold rain spritzed my face, which struck me as strange enough to be funny, and the pleasure of a rare feeling of pride filled me. I’d gotten myself to this beautiful, special place, I’d been brave enough to get naked in front of strangers, and here I was, quite literally basking in it.
One evening in Reykjavik, J and I went to a concert. It was the thing I was most looking forward to on our visit to Iceland, which sounds silly given what I just told you about the lava fields and geysers, but before this trip I had no frame of reference for things like that. Listening to live music in a darkened room, on the other hand—that’s an experience I already knew I loved. This show was to be experimental ambient music performed by Jo Berger Myhre on standup bass, and his collaborator Ólafur Björn Ólafsson, who plays keyboard and drums (sometimes with Sigur Rós!).
Most of the concerts in this Midsummer Music series took place in Reykjavik’s large and impressive concert hall, and I’d somehow gotten the idea that the series itself was something most people in town would attend, as part of a circus atmosphere I imagined would be created by the perpetual sunlight, everyone up all night and partying. Once there I found that, with the exception of a few to-be-expected drunks hooting out on the street late at night, most people were not deep in some wild revel but were in fact composed and very soft-spoken (and, of course, going about their normal business). Likewise, as we walked to the venue I saw that this show was being held “off site” at the kind of place I’m infinitely more comfortable than in some fancy concert hall: a small art space located in what looked like it had previously been a storefront. People in good outfits were standing around and talking quietly, drinking from bottles of beer. I felt at home.
We sat in folding chairs and waited for people to come out and begin playing the instruments, both electronic and organic, that were arranged a few feet in front of us. Slowly Myhre and Ólafsson, with the aid of a dude squatting on the floor and working a big, blinking mixer, began playing from their album The Third Script. I’ve read that the album was almost completely improvised, which of course means that each performance of it is also completely unique. We listened as the music built up slowly, crescendoed, then deconstructed itself back into its separate parts before disappearing again. Myhre pulled his bow across the strings and made the bass moan and cry. The more rhythmic sections lumbered inevitably but irresistibly, like a dance and a dirge at once. Higher sounds occasionally streaked across the music’s horizon. Tiny bells tinkled in the middle of all that space, like wind chimes in the countryside reminding you that there’s a house not too far away, comforting you; you’re not really alone.
I tried to resist it, but it was hard not to hear some elements of the music as reflections of the landscape around us: Ólafsson’s violent drumming as eruptions, Myhre’s bass as whalesong or the groaning of glaciers as they move, chafe, and break apart. And after all I do believe that, as a part of nature, we human beings possess the same qualities as the animals, earth, and atmosphere around us, so the art we make is necessarily formed from this elemental stuff. In any case, I loved the way the music made me feel. It matched something inside me, felt familiar. The movements of my life can be tectonic, rumbling low underground, or they can be sudden, violent, and smothering—a volcano. Whose can’t?
The writer of this review of The Third Script gives an interpretation of the album’s name that I find profound and beautiful (and according to the musicians themselves, he’s correct). He writes that he finds the music “meditative” and “ruminative,” as I did. Several times throughout the performance my chattering mind went blessedly quiet, even as the music activated my poor, overworked solar plexus, who always comes to life during highly emotional moments. I let the performance be a way to meditate and breathed into that space, letting all of my constituent parts, my mind and my body and whatever else, know that they were free to wake up, if that’s what they wanted to do.
When we left the gallery it was 10:30 at night and the white, cloudy sky was still lit up as bright as daylight. It had taken several days for the strangeness of the perpetual sunlight to properly register and make some kind of sense to me, and all at once, for just a moment, it did. It just gives you more time, that’s all. More of each day to live. We walked the short walk through the city’s downtown to our rented apartment, not hurrying the way you do in the dark, but strolling like we had during the day, trying to take it all in.