A few things I learnt in Ólafsfjörður…
Over the past two years I’ve visited Ólafsfjörður in northern Iceland twice to field record, and also most recently to teach music production at the town’s small primary school. A tiny fishing village of about 800, Ólafsfjörður is described by the Lonely Planet as ‘scruffy’ and a place to be missed, which says a lot more about tourist guide books than the town itself. Not only does Ólafsfjörður boast a primary school which is a hot bed of enthusiasm for music program Fruity Loops, it has a water slide (often frozen), a duck pond, a small ski field, a pizza parlour and a choir. In short it is regular small town in a country which is often presented both in image and sound as an epic unpopulated paradise of natural wonders.
Both of my visits were at the invitation of the Listhus residency program run by Hong Kong ex-pat Alice Liu and her husband Sigurður Björnsson, a former trawler engineer. As I’ve only spent a little over two months in a tiny part of Iceland, I’m by no means claiming expert status, but by way of introduction here are a few words on Ólafsfjörður to accompany this sound sketch and photos.
There is a huge amount of interest from field recordists in Iceland, but in my experience it is largely a very quiet and rather challenging place to record due to a lot of wind and the changeable weather. Quiet can certainly be a virtue, and if you take the time and have the equipment you can discover some wonderfully subtle sounds, from the underwater grinding of ice floes, to the slow trickles of snow melts, the drama of cracking sheet ice, and the abundant bird life. But Iceland is not always landscape devoid of people, it is also one of the most heavily touristed places in the world. Over summer planes deposit greater numbers of tourists than the entire country’s population and helicopters bearing extreme skiers and snow mobile tours can be heard regularly even in Ólafsfjörður which hasn’t been hit by the tourist boom as much as many other places in Iceland. .
In Ólafsfjörður fishing still dominates the economy and the soundscape, trawlers noisily chug in and out of the small harbour, bobcats take the catch to the fish processing plant in the centre of the town, and the seagulls squawk as they circle both the trawlers and the pipes which flow from the fish processing plant into the harbour. These canny birds have learnt that the chugging sounds from the factory means discarded entrails from the latest catch will soon arrive in the harbour, and they arrive enmass to greet this glut. I’ve leant quite a lot about fishing since spending time in Ólafsfjörður. The town holds the first memorial to fishers lost at sea in Iceland, a simple plaque in the grounds of a town’s small church. The sea is so cold in the waters surrounding Iceland that you only survive a few minutes if you fall in. Sigurður told me he remembered when swimming pools were installed in northern towns, and fishers and crew, like himself, were encouraged to learn to swim. “It was very controversial at the time,” he said “because the men thought it was better to sink and die quickly than prolong things a few extra minutes by swimming.”
One of the most famous stories of recent times in Iceland concerns the survival of the fisherman Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, who, following the sinking of his trawler, swam for six hours in freezing seas to reach the islands of Vestmannaeyjar. A film of this extraordinary tale of survival called The Deep (scored by the Australian/Icelandic musician Ben Frost) is well worth seeing and provides some vivid images of the Icelandic winter.
Click Image For Slideshow
Being Australian and basically a stranger to snow and ice, my first time in Iceland was dominated by recording the sounds of the extraordinary cold landscape I experienced. Rather than spending much time in Ólafsfjörður, I travelled to less populated areas like Grimsey Island in the Arctic Circle where I recorded a great deal of wind as I grappled with a blizzard, and Itraversed the region between Akureyri and Blönduós where I captured sounds of lots and lots of snow melting into crevasses, cracking ice and migratory geese. Like any tourist I have continued to be wowed by the landscape, and it is hard to overstate how astonishing and spectacular it can be. But on my return to Iceland in May of this year, my approach to field recording had shifted. I was far more interested in the sounds of the built environment of Ólafsfjörður itself – the trawlers, the wire fences, the ski fields and the interaction between thetownship’s large population of gulls and the fishers.
I climbed the mountains on either side of Ólafsfjörður, exploring the ski field which by this time stood unused for spring. I, rather terrifyingly, climbed the towers to attach contact mics to the ski lift wires, I traipsed out to the sheep fences and recorded the sound of melting snow and rain through wires. I discovered a dump near the entrance to the town filled with broken down computers, and happened upon a shipping container which served as a chicken coop. I borrowed a beaten-up old bike to ride the next town Vik to explore an abandoned and decaying fish factory and recorded the creaking door of an old concrete plant on the way.
It is very easy to romanticise the remoteness of Iceland. Ólafsfjörður, like many towns in the north, can still be completely cut off from road access for significant periods during the winter. Vik is even more isolated as it is not connected to the relatively recent tunnels linking Ólafsfjörður to the main Icelandic road system, and it is cut off from road access completely every winter. When I spoke to two local women about the winter I found the topic quickly turned to mental health. These towns are absolutely beautiful, but they are not easy places to live. Alice has told me artists-in-residence at Listhus in winter are often unprepared for the isolation and darkness. Some find the landscape so alien it is frightening – one had to leave because she found the mountains surrounding the town too claustrophobic.
There is so much mythologising of the landscape of Iceland that I find sometimes it seems the people themselves are almost an afterthought. Certainly there are vast parts of the country which are unpopulated, but in Olafsfjörður, and its surrounds, people dominate the soundscape. A huge lake sits behind the town, and I returned again and again to this area to watch and listen to it melt. Over this time vast periods of near-silence were punctuated by the slow creak of ice under strain, bubbles streaming up from the melt, and the nesting Arctic Terns, but there were also snow mobiles, tourist ski trips, tractors, and the odd dog walker. Closer into town kids on dirt bikes tore up the silt at the mouth of fjord.
One day after spending about half a day up in the silence near the top of one the nearby mountains recording the sounds of tiny pebbles tumbling from the peak, I began to notice the unmistakable throb of dance music. As I descended further it became a pounding soundtrack, which reverberated across the valley. It was the local aqua aerobics class, which takes place each day near the primary school.
It is probably this recording, included towards the end of this sketch, which is my favourite of the suite on my soundcloud page. As I slipped and slid down the mountainside to those throbbing beats emanating from Ólafsfjörður’s tiny heated pool, I was reminded anew that this town isn’t just a spectacular landscape, it is also a place where daily human struggles and routines play out, like in any other small town. It is place where local fishers and their families try to get fit to the sounds of canned dance music, where kids rush to ride dirt bikes as soon as the ice melts, and where sea gulls are noisy pests. It is just in Ólafsfjörður these everyday human dramas play out against a backdrop of spectacular peaks and sometimes, if you are lucky, under the northern lights.
All Sounds recorded in May 2015 in Olafsfjörður, Iceland.
They include: the seagull feeding station near the fish factory, nesting Arctic Terns, underwater recordings of ice dumped in the harbour by a road clearing tractor, the door of the abandoned concrete factory, ski lift wires, fences in the rain, trawler crane wires, underwater trawler recordings and the aqua aerobics class as heard from the mountain top.
Thanks to: Listhus + Alice Liu.
To listen to my suite of field recordings from Ólafsfjörður go to:
I have an album from my first trip to Iceland here: