Dark Music Days - EFFE Laureate

Simon Mundy - 15 Sep 2019

Simon Mundy interviews Gunnar Karel Masson, the Artistic Director of Dark Music Days.

The festival title, Dark Music Days, gives a clue to its location, not the mood of the music it presents. January in Reykjavik is not a time for late afternoon sunshine. Light of any sort is a fleeting commodity. “In truth,” says Gunnar Karel Masson, its current leader, “there was not much happening in the city that month. It seemed a good moment to concentrate on contemporary work.”


For Icelandic composers, the Dark Music Days represent a sort of mid winter professional sauna – a way to find out what they are writing and, since they are not too many earning opportunities at home, what their compatriots who have moved away are producing.

Placed precariously on top of the Atlantic Ridge that divides the two continental shelves, Iceland has a habit of looking in both directions at once - at the very different music cultures of America and Europe, with the inevitable tendency to identify with Nordic sounds.

“At first the festival limited the type of music to mainstream contemporary classical but now we recognise that people are writing in a huge variety of styles. So our programmes are becoming much more eclectic. And that is bringing in new, young, audiences who do not find the music they usually listen to in the concert hall,” Gunnar Karel says.

The festival was founded in 1980 by the Society of Icelandic Composers for its own members to present their works but these days, while this is still an important focus, it is seen as an opportunity to assess their music in the overall context of the times. “The focus lies on works with mixed techniques where the boundaries of contemporary music performance are explored.” One of the largest venues is Harpa Hall, the steel and glass building opened eight years ago in the wake of the financial crisis which hit Iceland particularly hard.

There is something encouragingly stubborn and Viking about the festival's optimism, relishing adversity, that seems to characterise the country itself. Fiercely contemporary, oblivious of the weather, prepared to pit its composers against any in the world, the Society can even claim that its 80 members represent, out of total national population of 340000, surely the highest proportion of composers to citizens of any country in the world.

Note from the EFFE International Jury

The Icelandic winter is long and devoid of light for large parts of the day. This festival fills the gloom with contemporary music and has been doing since 1980. The jury appreciated its celebration of the relationship between the artist and nature.

More information:

Dark Music Days

26 Jan 2020 - 02 Feb 2020

Reykjavík, Iceland