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Crossing Sonic Barriers in Iceland: Kitchen Motors's Nart Nibbles and Motorlab collections

by Dave Heaton

The climb that Sigur R˛s is deservedly making towards international prominence has brought a great deal of focus to other Icelandic musicians. Some of that spotlight is shining on the avant garde Kitchen Motors label, and it also deserves it, as evidenced on a handful of recent compilation albums showcasing gatherings organized by the label. The two-CD Nart Nibbles set, Motorlab #1 and Motorlab #2, all distributed in North America by Bubblecore, have brought the experimental side of Iceland to the rest of the world; each collection includes a varied batch of musicians combing their brains for new ideas and then trying them out in a live setting.

Nart Nibbles is subtitled "Experiments in Reykjavik," and documents exactly that. Kitchen Motors began as an organization promoting concerts and other artistic performances, all, as they've put it, "based on the ideals of experimentation and collaboration and the search for new art forms" (as quoted in the recent feature article in The Wire). Nart Nibbles is the first CD compilation from Kitchen Motors--it includes DAT recordings of various performances that they organized. The first CD, Nart Nibbles I, begins with a track by Apparent Organ Quartet, four organists who face each other and improvise a piece of music. The result is a growling mass of sound, with each instrument sounding nothing like what you'd imagine an organ would sound like. Most give off noises more like batch of guitars, loud and screeching. As the piece builds, more sounds come in and play off each other, building a wall of variety. That track is followed by a track by Big Band Brutal which combines drums and electronics into a loose, funky and spacey track. The rest of the CD includes a beautifully spooky piece for prepared guitar and lapsteel by Petur Hallgrimsson and Hilmar Jensson, where they make guitars sound like everything from the wind to underwater vibraphones, a jittery piece by Spennuveldid that continually alternates between heavy metal riffs and electtronica, and a playful collaboration between mum and Musikvatur where they come up with a new kind of carnival music that is both melodic and absolutely chaotic. Nart Nibbles II includes just two tracks, but one of them is a monster. Helvitis Symphony no. 1, the first in a series of similar pieces for different instruments, has four guitarists playing off of each other, then joining with nine more guitarists, one at a time, until you have a mass of guitar frenzy. Don't let "frenzy" confuse you, though; this isn't 13 guitarists wildly playing rock riffs until all you hear is noise. Each takes a mannered approach that shows his or her own personality. The piece is at turns delicate, hushed and, yes, wild, but it never sounds like a mess. It's an intriguing experiment all the way through.

The two Motorlab CDs capture performances from Kitchen Motors' Motorlab events, where musicians come together each month for different experimental adventures. Motorlab 1 begins with a moody collaboration between the musical group Stilluppsteya and writer Magn¨s PÓlsson. A segment from a two-and-a-half-hour mix of music and video projections, the track presents a moody atmosphere where voices rise and fall and electronic blips and whirs lurk in the background, eventually emerging to drown out everything else. The three other tracks on this CD are similarly centered first on ideas. On "Veltip¨nktur," Hilmar Jensson, Ulfar Haraldsson and the CAPUT Ensemble created a work based on the idea of "playing with very delicate microtonal pitch blendsů(with) the wind and string and guitar parts fluctuating very slowly in and out of tune with each other." It sounds like the wind, essentially, in a slow but soaring swoosh of sound. On "Junkyard Alchemy," Hispurslausi Sextettinn improvise a piece using instruments made from industrial materials. "Junk," if you will. It's an amazing thing, another one of those pieces where you couldn't identify the instruments if blindfolded; it's a slowly trudging sonic beast, whirring here, crying like an animal there. The last track on Motorlab 1 is one of the Motorlab events' signature pieces, "Telefonia." For it, members of the audience leave messages (spoken or sung or whatever) using their cellular phones. The sounds are processed through a computer and channeled back through speakers into a feedback loop. A "director," in this case Curver, uses software (written by Andrew Mackenzie of the Hafler Trio) to excute the processing and add other material into the loop. While the messages would obviously take on a different meaning for me if I spoke the language, the piece is still a complex, intriguing one, with all sorts of sounds filling the room, from people speaking to chamber music to an opera singer to cartoon music. The technological aspect combined with the quick edits of it all give it a truly futuristic, postmodern feel.

Motorlab 2's first five tracks are a remarkable "monodrama," with music by Mum and lyrics by Sj˛n, one of the lyricists behind the songs for the film Dancer in the Dark. This work feels less improvised than most of the other material on the two CDs, and is so, but is nonetheless outstanding. The story is a bit lost on me, again due to the language barrier, though the liner notes and titles indicate that it deals with a thirty-something housewife who decides to get her education. The work grumbles slowly at first until a beautiful melody in simple tones rises up during the second track, sung by the opera singer-like vocalist └sa J¨nýus. The third track adds strings, a jittery keyboard line and beats, leading to the hopeful sounds of the final track, "She begins her education." The rest of Motorlab 2 is just as wildly creative as the other music on these compilations. It features a dual between organists and shortwave radio-ists, with a drummer pounding away in between them, on one track, and Big Band Brutal, who improvise music to splatter cartoons on the other.

All of these Kitchen Motors CDs made their way to North America in a short period of time, early this year. Yet they're filled with enough unique creations to give the impression that there's a lot more where this came from. And the more that's released the better, I say. The musical experiments recorded on these collections combine intellectual and scientific ideas about what combinations might lead to a new sound with gifted musicians ready for anything. Being at these events and witnessing them would be a wholly different and wonderful experience, I am sure, but listening to the music without seeing what the musicians themselves are doing keeps you equally attentive and is just as rewarding. The experience of listening is both a mental one--figuring out what they're trying to accomplish and where it's going---and a visceral, sensual one, where you feel each sound in your body and see how it affects you.

Issue 5, April 2001 | next article


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