On 'Come and Be Joyful,' Björk collaborates with Ingólfsdóttir's acclaimed Hamrahlíð Choir on a series of folk songs evoking the Icelandic landscape
In 1981, a 16-year-old Björk Guðmundsdóttir joined the Icelandic post-punk band Tappi Tíkarrass, which translates to “Cork The Bitch’s Arse.” Grainy footage from one of the group’s first performances is archived in an old underground toilet, repurposed for the Icelandic Punk Museum in downtown Reykjavík, and shows Björk howling into a microphone while dressed like a porcelain doll. The seeds of punk had been sown in Iceland a couple of years prior when The Stranglers drew 4,000 people—about 2% of the population at the time—to Laugardalshöll stadium, spawning an anarcho-punk subculture in which scores of Icelandic teenagers found their identity. (Friðriksson’s 1982 documentary Rokk í Reykjavík, which featured the same doll-like Björk on its promo material, captured this burgeoning phenomenon in all its intoxicating, controversial, chicken-decapitating anarchy.)
While Tappi Tíkarrass was making waves in Iceland’s underground, Björk started singing with another group of young musicians. The Hamrahlíð Choir was founded in 1982 by Þorgerður Ingólfsdóttir, who remains its conductor to this day, and has been formative for the some 2,500 Icelandic teens it has turned on to the enduring magic of classical music. Ingólfsdóttir’s face might not be plastered on the walls of underground toilets nor on posters in the window of every Reykjavík record store, but she is god-like in the tiny nation. (And often outside of it—besides commissioning works from all of Iceland’s most illustrious composers, Ingólfsdóttir has collaborated with American avant-garde giant John Cage, while Estonia’s Arvo Pärt even dedicated a composition to the conductor.) Those who didn’t join the choir likely grew up listening to its beloved albums. “I think every single Icelandic musician you have ever heard of was brought up and musically baptized by this miraculous woman,” Björk wrote in a Facebook post last year. “She is a legend in Iceland and has guarded optimism and the light in the tumultuous times that teenagedom is.”
The Hamrahlíð Choir’s latest release is a collaborative album with Björk. Come And Be Joyful, a collection of mostly Icelandic folk songs plus two covers of Björk’s own compositions, grew out of Björk’s 2019 Cornucopia tour. Having previously featured the Hamrahlíð Choir on her 2017 album Utopia, she asked Ingólfsdóttir and all 52 choristers to accompany her around the world to perform at every live show, evoking Iceland’s folklore and otherworldly topography through equally epic pyrotechnics. Diving into the experimental arrangements of Björk was a new challenge for the Hamrahlíð Choir, which built its career performing Mozart and Stravinsky pieces with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. But even in these more traditional recitals, the Choir is acclaimed for its youthful energy and thirst for discovery, as well as for its exquisite intonation. The collaborative music is steeped in the same bohemian spirit that permeates Iceland’s extraordinarily rich music landscape at large, and perfectly illustrates why Björk was drawn into Ingólfsdóttir’s classical world as a precocious teen in a punk band.
Document spoke to Björk and Ingólfsdóttir about how Iceland’s vulnerable and violent natural landscapes inform their approach to music, the logistics of going on tour with 60 people and enormous bespoke instruments, and the importance of always keeping an open mind.
Hannah Ongley: You’ve known of each other for a long time—why did you decide to create this project now?
Björk: I think there is a delicate balance in the chemistry between the people on each album. I try to balance things that have big personalities and less personalities, if that makes sense. I did Utopia with Arca, and that was almost like a duet between me and her. So [for the Cornucopia shows] I did everything; I recorded all the flute, then I heard the flute. First there were 12 [flute players], so you couldn’t really hear the characters. I changed it and made them seven, and tried to write solos for each flute player, to pull out a little bit of the characters—but it [still] wasn’t that much, to be honest. So I understood, at the end, that I needed the choir that had the most personality. For me, that is the Hamrahlíð Choir.
Of course, it’s a contradiction, because it’s a choir of sometimes 60 people. But [as conductor], Þorgerður is bringing so much passion and so much conviction and purity and hope. I think hope is probably a very important factor in an album called Utopia [laughs]. There had to be a doubtlessness. The more I travel, and the older I get, I associate [hope] more and more with Iceland. You know, it is maybe 1,100 years of—if you are not extremely hopeful, you would probably die. So our palette for hope is very strong.
Þorgerður Ingólfsdóttir: It was amazing to get this question, ‘Are you willing to do a piece for the Utopia [release]?’ That was absolutely a great experience. When Björk came into our rehearsal room [for the] first time and we had the music of ‘Body Memory,’ she explained why she asked us to do this. She said, ‘It was like the sound of the Choir comes out of the Icelandic nature.’ I don’t know if you have visited Iceland, but it is still a land of purity. The nature is very naked, very bare, and also very vulnerable. She explained this so beautifully and so visually that we wanted really to be a part of nature when we did this piece. We had this marvelous feeling [that] we were taking part in something very great.
Hannah: How do you see the relationship between the raw natural landscapes of Iceland and the technological elements of your collaborations on Utopia and the Cornucopia live shows?
Björk: I could understand my relationship with technology best when I saw the word ‘techno’ in Greek is ‘craft.’ I really love craft. I was knitting a lot as a girl—embroidery—and we’re actually here in a room surrounded by craft, at a beautiful café. For me, technology, in music and digital animation, is the same thing, the same spirit. It is humans learning how to be with the tool. Like I’ve said many times, I’m not afraid that it won’t have a soul. If you put soul in it, there’s soul in it. If you don’t put soul in it, there’s not soul in it. That is the question for the person who makes the object for the music, not the thought of the object.
Techno music, for me, is not necessarily urban. For me, it has a very raw nature. When I go camping or on hiking trips into the middle of Iceland, [techno is] very high energy for me. I will sometimes listen to calm music in the city, and then when I go to nature, in the car I will listen to loud music. Someone like Arvo Pärt, very stern and stark and pure, or crazy techno beats, like a glacier or something. In the hippie era in the ’70s, there was this back-to-nature narrative that was very strong in western civilization. It was a question of leaving the cities, playing acoustic guitar, and wearing a flower in your hair. I’m not judging this—this is beautiful. But in Iceland, nature has nothing to do with sentimentality. It’s very dangerous [laughs]. Very intense, and raw, and fierce. I like to say not ‘back to nature’ but ‘forward to nature.’
Hannah: I’d love for you to speak a little to the musical education function of the Choir. How can technical perfection complement and even encourage artistic, free creativity? And what can the choral experience teach teenagers about things outside of music?
Þorgerður: The main purpose has always been to open a window for young people to get to know music—music of all sorts. Of course [in] choir music we have perhaps a golden age and a renaissance for acapella choir music, then we have the great baroque masters. It has been an emphasis in our work to introduce music from different periods, different styles, and [increasingly] to introduce contemporary music. Most of our greatest composers in the late 20th century, and now in our century, have composed for the Choir, and used the Choir as an experimental workshop for their works. We probably wouldn’t have been able to do this with a middle-aged choir, because by then you have lost [your open-mindedness], your open will to discover something new. You get more and more conservative and want to sing the old songs.
To find out what young people like to sing, you ask them, and you think, ‘Well they only want what is called the music for the young people of the day.’ But I have often been so surprised that they might even mention a choral by Bach, and say, ‘This is what we want.’ Or they might mention a very difficult contemporary music piece or a masterwork. You would think everybody has to have great hearing—great sight reading—to go through these pieces. But they do it with joy. It is also to keep this open mind about what is happening. The only thing is not what is the news headlines. There are many things that young hearts feel. This has always been one of my greatest tasks—to find the repertoire. But it has given such joy.
Björk: Þorgerður has for decades commissioned choir pieces by all of the most important Icelandic composers. So it’s a very important archive or catalog which is going to exist forever. It’s a lot of music which is recorded and something that I was brought up with. People are brought up with these CDs, Þorgerður—the next generations. Because they are so flawless, just perfect.
Hannah: There’s something folk-like about that, in terms of passing on that history. Is there a piece of folk music or Icelandic folklore you touched upon in this album that is particularly special to you?
Þorgerður: We have done several CDs, and perhaps there is some theme in [each]: Icelandic contemporary music, Icelandic folklore, a special composer, or whatever. Here, it is only recordings from the Cornucopia shows. We had 20 minutes before each show, on the stage, to sort of warm up the public. This was probably very strange for the public because when the lights are up, there’s a singing choir, in the national costumes, singing folklore from Iceland. This perhaps built a little sound scene through your ears; you experience a little bit of the Icelandic flair, atmosphere. I think everybody was sort of shocked for the first half a minute or so, then they were awed by this aura from Iceland. Björk then came to the stage, after this 20 minutes, [with] completely new scenery and all the graphics on the walls and all the sounds, not any longer this pure acapella sound of the Choir, but all this excellent music and all this energy. I think people were ready for that, and that was marvelous.
Björk: Capturing people’s imagination when they’re expecting something different, it’s a skill. It’s like a magic trick. A challenge like this is very exciting. I personally love doing one song with water drums, or one song acapella, and the next song having the techno beat and strobe lights, then the next song is just acapella again. I really love dynamic setlists. Actually [laughs] when I DJ—the few times I DJ—that’s my favorite thing: to mix sounds of one song from Bangladesh, then a techno song, and then an Icelandic folk [song]. And it’s not just chaos—there is a theme. I think that theme also is basically cornucopia, this idea that there is so much rich music that exists, that it’s a reason to celebrate.
[For the Cornucopia tour] we said, ‘Can you all come to New York in a week or two weeks?’ And 60 people took an airplane and took their final exams from school in the embassy. The spirit that they brought to the stage was like a catalyst. Þorgerður, it was so beautiful to watch you; you were like the catalyst that glued everything together—jumping on an airplane just like, ‘OK, let’s make this happen!’ We still had so many huge technical things that we hadn’t quite solved. There were bespoke instruments: a circular flute, huge organ pipes—seven meters long—flying over us, reverb chamber, and a magnet harp. We had very few hours for soundcheck, and we had to put microphones on everyone. [Laughs] I still don’t know how we did it. Crazy miracles.
Hannah: Is there a memory of the Choir that particularly stands out to you—an early experience or a moment when you realized the magic of it?
Björk: One of my favorite moments, I have to say, is when I sang when I was 16. It was extraordinary; there were 1,000 people on stage, it was a four-hour long piece. I actually made a mistake, and I think it’s actually on the album. I sang one eighth note, in the alto, too early in one part. And [Þorgerður] came up to me and told me what a beautiful eighth mistake this was. She had the grace to make me feel better about it. It was very sweet; I was just one of 1,000 people, and nobody knew who I was at that point. That was an extraordinary experience.