Old Music Monday: Voces Thules and the music of Medieval Iceland

I’m going to Iceland next week.  I first went there in 2012, just for a few days, at the suggestion of several friends who had visited and loved it.  We were on an extended visit to the UK, and decided to take a few days to make the short flight to Reykjavik, and rented a car, and without knowing it, we landed in The Most Magical Place On Earth.  It killed us to be going back to the airport so quickly after we had arrived, but we knew we’d be going back.  Especially when we live on the East Coast.  Flights from Newark to Reykjavik are only like 4 hours long.

So anyway, I need to go back to Pennsylvania for shoulder tests next week, and I was checking out flights from my home in Andalusia.  With it being the height of the summer tourist season, flights from my local airport were crazy expensive.  The other alternative is a seven hour drive to Madrid, or Lisbon.  So I decided to get a bit creative.  Malaga serves European airports, and I wound up getting a decently priced flight from Malaga to Reykjavik via Copenhagen.  I’ll stay there for 3 days in an airbnb I found, and then go to Newark on another airline.  All told, the flights and airbnb were cheaper than a flight from Malaga to my home, and this way I get to spend three days in Iceland.

I’ve been looking into the music scene, and especially the early music scene. I discovered Voces Thules, an early medieval and renaissance Icelandic music vocal group.  They started off in 1992 recording contemporary music, but then in the late 20th century, some major discoveries of medieval music were made, and they transitioned to focusing only on that.  They have since recorded and published the complete collection of music from the Office of St. Thorlak, bishop in Skálholt in the 12th century.  Thorlak is the patron saint of Iceland, having lived from 1133-1193.  Thorlak himself was quite cosmopolitan for the times.  He studied in Paris, and possibly Lincoln, before coming back to Iceland and set up a monastery, refusing to marry despite the fact that many other Icelandic priests were married.  His life and miracles are discussed in great detail in one of the sagas, Þorláks saga helga, and his feast day is kept on December 23, now traditionally the last day of preparations before Christmas.

The music of Voces Thules is amazing.  In many ways it reminds me of Iceland itself – it’s wild and harsh, but strikingly hauntingly beautiful.  I can’t make up my mind what exactly it sounds like.  Then I realized that it makes me want to move, and the rhythms are so constant with the pounding of the drums, and I am now wondering whether this music doesn’t have some kind of tradition in boats.  Stay with me here.  The Vikings were amazing in boats, right?  They had a network stretching from Newfoundland to Norway, and their longboats with the fierce carved heads went all over the North Atlantic.  They would have had 20 oars, all having to push and pull at the same speed so the boat sped through the ocean.  They might have had someone with a drum keeping the rhythm, and they would have sang songs to keep everyone moving at the same speed.  That’s what this music reminds me of.  I can picture a huge viking ship with fifty men on board, all pushing and pulling on the oars at exactly the same time, the oars looking like one well oiled machine from the outside, perfectly synchronized, as the men sing this music.

I’m not sure if my hypothesis is right, but I like it, and I’m sticking with it.  It’s beautiful music, and definitely worth checking out.  They don’t seem to be on Spotify, but the CD’s are available from several online retailers, and there are youtube playlists with their music, so there’s no shortage of ways to listen.

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