strandarkirkja

8-channel Electroacoustic composition with live soprano

The many facets of Iceland; from its rich cultural heritage to its incredibly unusual landscape have long held a profound fascination for me, and have provided me with constant artistic inspiration for a number of paintings and collages produced over the past few years.

Strandarkirkja (Coast church) is a small wooden stave church located on the South Coast of Reykjanes. Its location is incredibly isolated; when I visited the church, I was amazed by the vast expanse of coastline stretching out before it, with absolutely no signs of other life visible either nearby or as far as the horizon. This coastline is heavily shaped by volcanic activity, and the church itself is built on a lava field. This makes for a bleak and yet profoundly beautiful surrounding landscape. The church, although at first glance seemingly typical of Icelandic rural churches, is in fact extremely special because of its background and history.

The Reykjanes coastline is particularly hazardous to navigate, not only because of the extreme weather conditions, but also due to the many lumps of solidified lava peppering the shallower waters. Subsequently, many boats run aground in this area. One such group of sailors finding themselves in danger, and thinking they were going to die, prayed to God for help. A bright light appeared from towards the shore, and began moving towards the men. As the light came closer, the sailors realised that it was an angel. The angel came towards the boat and then led the men safely to land. The sailors were so grateful, that they built a church on the spot where they came ashore. A church has stood on the site ever since, with the present Strandarkirkja dating from the early 19th century. It is popularly believed that this church has a special power to aid success or good luck. I was so struck by Strandarkirkja’s humble beauty and its fascinating history, that I felt compelled to write a piece about it.

The resulting composition Strandarkirkja is an electroacoustic piece for eight speakers and a live singer. I wanted to create a piece that would invoke Medieval polyphony, while at the same time having the feel of modern minimalism so effectively employed in the compositions of Pärt and John Tavener.

During a recent trip to Reykjavík, I came across a manuscript entitled Melodía which was on display at the Þjóðminjasafn Íslands (National Museum of Iceland). Despite its rather unassuming physical appearance, Melodía is one of the most important surviving Icelandic manuscripts. Compiled by an unknown scribe in 1660, it contains 223 sacred songs, more than virtually any other Icelandic collection, and many of them are unique to this source. Strandarkirkja incorporates elements of texts and/or plainsong found in Melodía.

There are three separate texts used in this piece. The first is an Icelandic Lord’s Prayer, Vér biđjum thig which I felt would be appropriate to use as the sailors’ prayer to God. The text is attributed to Bishop Gísli Jónsson, but the author of the music is unknown. As far as I have been able to find out, this piece is the first time this melody has been used out with the context of Melodía. The second chant is the well known Gregorian chant Ave Maris Stella. I deliberately chose Latin to represent the Angel, as a contrast to the vernacular of the Icelandic spoken by the sailors. The text itself ‘Hail bright star of the sea’ is also highly appropriate. The last text is a poem by Rev. Ólafur Jónsson, a 17th century resident of nearby Strandar. His text Mikils ætti eg aumur ađ akta (Unworthy though I should revere) carries the heading ‘A eulogy to God’s holy angels, to the service they made to Christ in this world and still make to us today.’ This prayer of thanks to God’s Archangels compliments the other two texts perfectly. This melody is also anonymous and again, as far as I am aware, this is the first time it has been used out with the source manuscript.

I am a soprano with an unusually large vocal range. I wanted to experiment with my natural range in this piece. Although I have manipulated many of the vocal samples in terms of duration, none of the original pitches have been altered in any way. The finished piece encompasses a range from D-sharp 3 to G-sharp 6.

Strandarkirkja opens with the Icelandic Lord’s prayer. As this was to be the sailors’ dialogue, I deliberately set this particular chant low in my register. I wanted to create a feeling of being at sea, and the voices creep in and out, mimicking the ebb and flow of the sea shore. It gradually builds up to a climax, with the sounds becoming more agitated as the men plead for help. I decided to introduce spoken voices to heighten the feeling of urgency and desperation. The Angel is first heard as a short ‘Ave’ motif in the background, and is quite difficult to hear. As the angel comes towards the men the full chant begins as the overall mood begins to change. The Angel’s sound is brighter, and in my upper range, as it is literally sounding from ‘above.’ At this point, I introduce a live singer. I thought it would be interesting to combine elements of pre recorded, manipulated sounds with a completely live voice improvising amongst them. At this point in the piece, I still wanted the sound to appear otherworldly, so ideally the performer would be hidden from the audience, acting as another disembodied voice. Each full ‘Ave’ chant sounds in turn from each of the eight different speakers. As well as experimenting with sound, there is also a symbolic point to this. The chants are sent to speakers (8, 1, 6, 3, 2, 7, 4, 5) in this order to make the sign of the cross sonically.

The singer then moves so that they are visible for the final chant. This should mean that if being performed in a church, there should be a real difference in sound created by the singer when visible, and previously in an ‘offstage’ position. I thought it would be particularly effective if the singer continues to sing ad lib after the recording finishes, with the final ending of the piece being the a cappella live voice.