Upon your arrival to the former herring factory Hjalteyri in the North of Iceland which is now an art gallery, you are greeted by a woman in a green costume, who explains:
“You will soon be entering Voiceland.
It is a free country.
There are two levels.
You can walk around on both levels and rest when and where desired.
Voiceland is a country of voice.
Your listening will guide your experience.
For yourself and for a better experience for all other visitors we ask you to turn off your mobile phones. We recommend to be here in the moment instead of trying to capture it on your devices.
Please follow me.”
The woman turns on a flashlight and leads the way through the factory. You follow her steps on a concrete floor, along concrete walls and past barely visible art works. Your group is led to a semi-transparent grey curtain that is held open by another woman, this time in a grey-green costume. She says “Welcome to Voiceland” to each person as your group enters one by one.
The space you enter is empty. It seems very different from the space you just walked through. A droning sound is audible. The atmosphere is heavy and light at the same time. Single light sources illuminate parts of the space and visually elevate the ceiling. You notice two openings in a wall where the sound seems to come from. The openings are covered by the same semi-transparent fabric as the curtain that you entered through. You see the outlines of people behind it. A sound like wind seems to come from above. A call, like a strange bird sound, cuts through the vibrating air. It comes from behind the wall. A man looks out from the curtain and calls again “Kulusuk”. He is left without a reply. The space replies instead with a long reverberation of his own call. He retreats behind the curtain. The late reply “Dröymer” comes from somewhere above. The way in which the space lets the calls linger reveals its vastness, beyond what the eye can see. The sound of wind washes over the lost calls. When you look up to the second level you can see singers coming down a staircase from the third floor. Their lips confirm that the wind sounds come from them. One of them calls “Dröymer” and thereby reveals himself as the source of the earlier call.
The small curtains on the ground floor are opened, and one by one the ‘drone’ singers come from the openings and surround you and the other audience members with their physical presence and their voice. More singers exit the openings, creating microcosmic sounds that travel with them up the staircase to the second floor and around you. A wind sound passes from one singer to another and flies through the space like a leaf riding a wind wave until it lands in silence.
The sudden absence of sound production lingers in the space. Your ears are alert. From a distance a call, resembling a whalesong, is sent into the space. Another singer echoes it. Individual echoes are passed on in a path through the space until the last singer sends her call out into the distance.
You look around and realise that the singers are by now all around you, and simultaneously among you. Their costumes and make-up have a ceremonial quality. Their presence is confident and kind. One whispers “we trees hide”, and another continues to speak in a dramatic tone, saying “in the woodland”. One by one they tell the legend of their country; sometimes spoken, stuttered, proclaimed or whispered. The words form into meaning through these expressions, while the individual character of the singers shines through.
Suddenly a machine-like sound is initiated by a singer. Instantly every singer starts moving in a different way. Other strange sounds join in and the singers move with their sounds through the space. Suddenly all sounds stop. Then the first singer starts again, just as before, and a composition of mechanical sounds sung by people unfolds in the space like a living organism. One by one the sounds come to an end as one twirling sound spirals out towards the ceiling.
All singers come to a hold. Gently a polyphony grows out of the silent bodies and the magnitude of many voices sounding together reaches you unguarded. 15 minutes into the performance this classical form of choral music comes as a surprise. Sadness and hope are shared in it. The music shifts in the space, the timing changes, everything slows down, the undertow of the music has caught you while the sound of the voices grows and contracts. “Against all odds will you search in the dark within yourself…”
You stand close to a bass singer. The vibration of his voice seems to continue in your body. Inspired by this experience you decide to move in between the standing singers. Like in trees, the sound of the voices grows in all directions, travels around you, touches you. You look at the singers, they are concentrated and open. Their voices start to feel like an embrace. The music seems endless, escaping ideas of time. You let go of your expectations. Some audience members have sat down, some lean against a wall, others explore the music while walking between the singers, listening into individual voices.
When the choral has ebbed, individual singers actively cut the air with sharp sounds, moving quickly around in the space. The sounds are like a dialogue with the space, like an activation of different parts of the space with diverse sounds. The randomness of the sounds turns into a composition. The bodies slow down and come to a halt, almost like they were controlled from outside. A deep out-breath sets them free into physically active randomness again, activating the space and all that is in it, including you. This dissolves into a ticking sound of “kkkkkk”.
All singers have now moved onto the ground floor. They create four separate groups in the space. The “kkkkkk” turns into a “Kommkommkomm” and the singers move clockwise in the outer frame of the space. A choreographed Sprechgesang in a mix of sounds and German and English words unfolds, disperses and recollects through physical and musical movement in the space. This energetic and critical part ends with the return from words to the abstract vocal expression of “kkkkk”.
Some singers disappear into the openings in the wall and return with glowing glass bottles. Breath sounds surrounds you from all directions. Some singers blow with a straw into the bottles and create bubble sounds. A feeling of being under water, in a different atmosphere, surfaces. The breath sounds become narrative. The base for human existence is expressed through a musical form of breath. Inside this underwater atmosphere a singular sound is thrown playfully from one singer to another, transforming on its journey. As if from far away in the distance you can hear voices singing. When you move closer to a singer with a bottle you realise that she is singing into the bottle while continuing to create bubbles. When all singers join in, it sounds like a huge choir singing in a place far far away. A single voice emerges and utters a bubble solo which then expands from singer to singer into a polyphonic recapitulation.
Gradually the singers carry their bottles to the spaces behind the wall while a faint “oooh” is audible. As they return from behind the curtains into the visible performance area they create a spooky yearning call. These sounds move insistently through the space. A feeling of desperation spreads. Breathing sounds reappear. There is an unexpected sweetness in some of the calls from individual singers. The word “monster” is audible. The piece develops into a strange love song. Some singers move, some stand still. There is simultaneously a pulling, a letting go, a resistance - musically and physically. And then silence.
Gently, the singers walk through the space, whispering a personal story to architectural elements. A singer stops next to you and whispers a childhood story up towards the ceiling. The secrecy, the intimacy and a feeling of play connect you to the singers and the other audience members while you watch how their faces light up as they understand a part of a story. Some audience members have taken a position close to a singer, following them as they change positions in the space, taking in the whole story. Others stand with their eyes closed and listen to the quiet collective whispering. There is a tenderness in the room, comforting, and allowing space for contemplation.
From one tone, a polyphony arises. The words that are sung by the ensemble are not recognisable. It sounds like a mysterious language with a hidden meaning.
While they sing, the performers form a circle around you and the other audience members. With a collective stomp they initiate a rhythm. Reminiscent of old Viking songs like the wikivaki, the singers move around you singing an energetic, ritualistic song. The vibrations of the ground and the rhythmic singing quickens your heartbeat, and you feel stimulated as this part comes to an end.
Collecting themselves again, the singers walk slowing to one side of the space, facing one direction. For the first time in the performance they create something similar to a frontal performance, as a choir would in a concert hall. You and other audience members move to the other side in order to see better. A sound wave rocks through the space, back and forth like a cradle. A lullaby prepares you to leave Voiceland. “The moon will guide you home”. Contemplating the future, they sing “the future comes day by day”.
Each singer exits into the openings in the wall saying “day”, or what sounds like “day”, until they have all disappeared behind the curtain.
For the applause the singers come out and bow and then return into their hide-out. The woman who led you into Voiceland asks you to follow her. One by one the audience exits through the curtain and walks through the invisible exhibition. Voiceland stays behind, hidden like a parallel world, but still resonating in your body.