Other than a few early Irish monks and the occasional wave of Norse and Danish settlers, Iceland remained isolated from the rest of the world for centuries. Icelandic music therefore grew in sort of a vacuum, with unique melodies, rhythms and narrative themes developing over many generations. For example, in the “hákveða” (“heavy foot”) rhythm, a particular rhythm only found in Iceland, singers place a special emphasis on the last word of each sentence they sing. For example, listen to an original version of the Icelandic song we know from class, “Ólafur Liljurós,” and listen to the emphasis on the “hann” in the lines “villir hann” and “stillir hann.” (Meet an Icelandic instrument known as the langspil. Meet an Icelandic instrument known as the fiðla. Meet them both together.) Also, according to Wikipedia’s entry on the music of Iceland, Icelandic folk songs “are often about love, sailors, masculinity, hard winters and elves, trolls and other hidden people.” That sounds awesome.
Though European dances like the polka and waltz became popular in Iceland when Danish settlers introduced them in the early 18th century, somewhat of a roots revival has brought back older Icelandic cultural dances like the vikivaki, which has been a staple on the Icelandic scene since the 11th century. (Enjoy a traditional Icelandic dance known as the Á Sprengisandi. Or take a look at the Langisandur.)
Rimur are epic Icelandic tales which performers sing poetically and most often without backing instruments. Most rimur have their origin in the Viking Age Eddic poetry of the Skalds which is dense with poetic metaphor and cryptic, complicated rhymes. Forgive the darkness of this video but sing along to a short taste of rimur performed by Gunnar Hrafn Hrafnbjargarson.
ICELANDIC POPULAR MUSIC:
Iceland may have a minuscule population–less than 325,000, if you’re curious–but it has somehow produced a disproportionate number of internationally known musicians. Icelandic bands don’t all share any particular unifying sound, but the best known Icelandic performers seem to be utterly confident in the creating music that sounds unlike popular music from anywhere else in the world. For example, music from the band Sigur Rós (“Victory Rose”) has a mesmerizing, almost transcendental air about it. Watch Sigur Rós perform “Staralfur,” which is a song–confirming the Wikipedia quotation above–about little elves.
By far the most famous Icelandic musician is the entirely unique singer/songwriter/actress/performer/duck, BJÖRK. Björk is the daughter of a well-known Icelandic union leader, Guðmundur Gnnarsson, but her musical talents catapulted her to fame far beyond Iceland’s tiny borders. Since her early days as the lead vocalist of the Icelandic band, SUGARCUBES, Björk has created music that combines jazz and folk and electronica and rock and classical composition, and has invented a sound that’s only her own. (Watch a performance of “Earth Intruders.” No one else makes music like that.) [Watch Björk perform, “All is Full of Love.” Watch Björk perform “It’s Oh So Quiet.”]