Make music with a carrot instrument?
What is music anyway? It’s not a question I expected to be asking myself at a children’s music concert. Neither did I expect to find myself playing a carrot instrument. But Iceland is a land full of the unexpected and, as we were warned on the plane, things here can be a little different to what you are used to. And so it was when we went to a performance of contemporary music for curious children as part of the Reykjavik Children’s Culture Festival.
Yellow suns burning in a dark sky
Two yellow suns burn in a fizzing sky. Beneath, white bombs of energy skate along cobalt tracks spitting sparks into the night sky. I watch the giant screen intently, like everyone else, waiting for my cue. This dancing imagery is not randomly generated computer graphics but an experimental musical score.
I am holding a carrot. I think I’ve been told it’s not a carrot but a musical instrument but it was in Icelandic so I’m not sure. I know I’m supposed to crunch it at some point but I’m not sure when. So maybe it is a carrot instrument. The people on stage at the front seem to have cracked the code. They’ve juggled oranges, squeezed juice onto the floor, lit a candle and are busy rubbing sandpaper in time to the colourful shapes moving around the screen. But then they’re consummate professionals, musicians from the Reykjavik Chamber Orchestra. It’s a bizarre set-up, they’re all wearing plastic cups as beards held on with elastic bands stretched around their ears but they’re taking it all in their stride; after all this is a public concert.
I am lost and unexpectedly challenged
To be honest I’m a bit out of my depth. I’m something of a secret musician myself, I can read music and find my way around a musical score but I feel totally lost here. I was warned on the plane over that conditions in Iceland may be a little different to what I’m used to, but I didn’t think it applied to everything. And I certainly didn’t expect to be challenged like this in what was billed as an hour of contemporary music for curious kids, part of the Reykjavik Children’s Culture Festival. But it’s me that’s ended up feeling curious. I came expecting to listen, relax and be entertained but instead am questioning my understanding of what counts as an instrument and indeed, what music is. Does a group of musicians scratching sandpaper and blowing bubbles into plastic cups while the audience crunches carrots count as a musical performance? Is a carrot instrument actually an instrument?
The kids love this strange Icelandic music group
The thing is my kids seem fine with it all. It doesn’t seem to matter to them that the introduction and explanation was in Icelandic. It doesn’t seem to matter to them that in the first piece (LAUR by Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson) the brass players tapped air into their instruments instead of blowing into them, the percussionist played the scissors and tin can while the string section skidded fingers up and down their strings according to instructions flowing across a computer screen in front of them.
It doesn’t seem to matter to them that the orchestra have now put down their ‘normal’ instruments and are playing oranges, matches and sandpaper as they perform Karaoke by Ingi Gardar Erlendsson. And they seem thrilled to have been given a carrot instrument to play, are entirely focused on the symbols on the big screen that are orchestrating this whole performance, keenly anticipating a signal that means ‘crunch.’
I guess that’s the beauty of childhood, the openness to what is and willingness to experiment, without the judgments of what things ‘should be.’
As I sit staring into space wondering what this is all about, there’s a sudden stereophonic crunching around me as everyone bites into their instruments. Up on the screen two giant carrots fly off the colourful ‘score’. One moments lapse of concentration and I’ve missed my cue.
Things are not what we think they are
“What is music anyway?” asks Guðmundur, the composer of LAUR, as we chat to him afterwards, thankfully in English. Both he and Ingi are part of a collective of experimental contemporary composers in Iceland, which goes some way to explaining the strangeness of the experience. He’s particularly pleased to have had his unconventional piece performed by an established ensemble of musicians, “I think it broke down some barriers and sounded very nice, but then I wasn’t eating carrot.”
As we talk the audience leaves the auditorium, the children eating their instruments while the musicians mop up the juice and finish off the fruit they played earlier.
“What if this is music?” says Guðmundur sucking on his orange. And suddenly I get it; the whole thing is a creative provocation. Music can be anything and anything can be music, if I can just get past the socially constructed definitions and interpretations that limit my experience. “I like it when the audience plays their carrots,” says Guðmundur excitedly, “you can’t all do it at exactly the same time, so there’s a randomness to the sound, it’s never the same, it moves around. That’s music.”
Old but perhaps not as wise as the young
What’s interesting is how easy this is for the kids to accept. I guess they don’t carry the years of conditioning that comes with age and what I foolishly think of as wisdom. Perhaps they are actually wiser, still open, playful, creative and imaginative enough to accept what is, enjoy the performance and play along on their carrots. As I crunch my carrot I know there’s an important lesson for me in this kooky, Icelandic and nutritious musical afternoon.
This post is part of our 2012 Iceland Season. We visited Reykjavik in April for the Children’s Culture Festival, then spent a summer exploring the wilder parts of the country expedition style by car and bike. We’re grateful to Visit Reykjavik, Icelandair and Icelandair Hotels, Reykjavik Excursions and The Blue Lagoon for their support in helping bring you this season of posts from the Reykjavik Children’s Culture Festival.
Read more from our Icelandic Spring 2012 Reykjavik Children’s Festival season:
- Looking for the Source – preview post
- First impressions – arriving in Iceland
- Not your usual Golden Circle tour
- Culture and happiness – at the Children’s Culture Festival
- Letting go of the reins – Icelandic Horse Riding
- 8 things that make Iceland the most creative, kooky place I’ve been
- Does a happy revolution sound like this?
- Whale watching or whale eating – what’s would rather you do?
- Spin but not as we know it – the Icelandic art of marketing
- Posts from our Adventure Islands Season in Iceland and The Faroes