Hidden Places This is What Iceland Sounds Like

A soundtrack of sound tracking
A soundtrack of sound tracking | Photo: Gabi Schaffner

A visit to Iceland is a feast for the senses. The overwhelming visual impressions are those that we associate most with the country. But what does Iceland sound like? Artist Gabi Schaffner went off in search of the island’s “hidden places.”

In early summer Schaffner visited Iceland, supported by the Goethe-Institut. Equipped with microphones, headphones and a laptop, the artist travelled through the country, stopping to take in various places. She asked herself what would happen when the boundaries between mind and place became blurred. The result is part documentary, part poetry.

Prelude: Wind

Vindur, the Icelandic wind, is ever-present. It ruffles the fur of the microphone windscreen, burrows its way to the membranes inside and often destroys the material right then and there. Evenings are the calmest, when the wind dies down somewhere between the heights and basins or in a part of the highland deserts where it spreads itself like a rustling silk sheet over the countless pebbles and is silent. This is the best time to go outdoors with the microphone...

Recording in progress! The artist and her sound subject Recording in progress! The artist and her sound subject | Photo: Private Hissing springs, bubbling mud pools, rivers, glaciers and volcanoes: images are what come to mind most when we think of Iceland. By contrast Iceland’s soundscapes would seem unspectacular. Often they are not even consciously perceived on site because it is difficult to break away from the beauty of the landscape, to avert the eyes and to open the ears. When we listen closely, the pathways through which the hybrid musicality of Iceland reaches the ears are intricate and only semi-conscious. The listener receives infinite variations of the ever unchanging – a code that consists of only a few elements and is spelled out in weather and winds, ice, water, stone and hot earth. And ultimately, forgetting time, you hear “music,” which, located between geological phenomenology and Goldberg Variation, opens to the hearer a trek between dream and consciousness.

Surf in Vik, southern Iceland

The black sand in the bay stretches out in a long semicircle, the rocky gateway of Dyrholaey lies to the right. The waves tumble white under a grey sky showing with a single stripe of blue. The surf announcing itself carries a tone on its long, smooth back that is echoed back by the coastal cliffs: a high-pitched rumble, an echoed echo that fans out as the waves break on the shore to a thousand-fold untraceable sigh. The microphone is lying between two little rocks close to the boundary of the waves where the foam is licking the shore. Thousands upon thousands of tiny bubbles are popping fizzily with the sharp hiss of the wave’s pulling on their retreat. The masses of sound glide up through the air like the bodies of invisible, gigantic animals, throngs of singing whales made of air, sea spray and crystal.

 Foto: Gabi Schaffner

Brook, Fljótstunga. Western inland

A week of snow and strong winds and the riverbanks are crocheted with icy borders, rocks and stones wear ice-cold lace bonnets. The stream flows not far from the track leading to the heights of Langjokull, Iceland’s second-largest glacier. My hands are lobster-red for cold, my hair damp from the weather, the microphone rests by a triple rivulet protected by my only hat on a couple of ice-encrusted bits of moss. The ice raises the frequencies; they sound fragile, glassy, crystalline. Underneath is the tone of the actual brook; darker, heavier and melancholy. Behind me, to the left, is a lively, bright dribble, a drumroll at ultra-short intervals. Otherwise: the call of the whooper swan, far away.

 Foto: Gabi Schaffner

Plane before Strútur, western inland

Sometimes in the desert one is suddenly aware that nothing is to be heard. The wind has died down, the ground is dark gravel. There are no plants, no insects. There are no birds. Besides one’s own breathing, the rustling of clothing, the sound of one’s own steps there is nothing. This is the moment to listen for the sound of the stones. Not every stone sounds the same. The flat platelets of metalliferous shale that, fragmented, cover whole mountains by the billions clink with a bright crackling underfoot and sound, when trickling, pouring, slipping away under the boots, almost as melodious as water. Now and then a pling sounds that is oddly similar to the cracking of an ice cube in a glass of gin and tonic.

 Foto: Gabi Schaffner

Reykholt, north southern Iceland

In the gloaming, the greenhouses glow quince-yellow in the light of sodium vapour lamps. Fig trees, oleanders, tomatoes press their foliage against the tarnished panes, as if to break out of their glass containment. Not far away on a hill stands a crooked construction with a chimney reaching into the evening sky. A scarred metal body shaken by vibrations on a concrete base, quivering aspiration, rusted holes from which little clouds of steam well... Startled, I drop the microphone. A sudden roar from inside releases a meter-high column of steam. The pipes spew boiling water. For three and a half minutes, the domesticated geyser stomps, groans, squeaks under its wrinkly shell and rattles the air with animalistic growls as if a caged dragon were within. As a neighbour later told me, until a few years ago this dragon heated the village’s sole bake house.

 Foto: Gabi Schaffner