Fiddler Traditions in Iceland

In 2013 I attended Siglufjørdur Folk Music Festival in the northern part of Iceland. Here I visited the Icelandic Folk Music Center, where they have an exhibition of instruments, recordings, stories and songs that have been part of a living tradition in Iceland. The center is located in a house formerly owned by the priest and collector Bjarni Thorsteinsson. He is the foremost collector of Icelandic folk music and singing and in his lifetime from 1861 to 1938, he also published the book Íslensk Þjóðlög with songs notated by Bjarni Thorsteinsson at his meeting with practitioners in different parts of the country.

When visiting the folk music center in Siglufjørdur, there was an exhibition of an accordion and a violin. On the note to the exhibition it said that these had come to Iceland relatively late (late 1900 century).  A question which came to my mind: were they  part of a tradition in Iceland? The response to this from the center’s staff was: No. The fact that the festival didn’t present a instrumental tradition with these instruments, made it natural to wonder. If the instruments were documented to have arrived in the country, should this also be a basis for the practice of these, and thus a tradition.

After my stay I contacted Rósa Þorsteinsdóttir who is Research Lecturer at the Árni Magnússon Institute in Reykjavik. With her I started to delve into the sources that were available at the university and among them there appeared new information in the form of written notes, old descriptions of violins coming to the country in the 1800 century, and even a book on a violin tradition in northeast Iceland. This gave a firm foundation to begin a research of how far a fiddle tradition in Iceland has existed and whether this had been a national or regional tradition. Through cooperation with Rosa, I have begun to make contact with living musicians, tradition holders and others who have been associated with the musical life in Iceland to see if there exist a living transmission of one or more traditions.

Besides Rosa Þorsteinsdóttir I contacted Chris Foster, who the last ten years has researched and developed playing styles of the two Icelandic istrumenter FIÐLA and LANGSPIL and Bára Grímsdóttir, educated classical composer, choir leader, professional singer and grew up in a family with traditional song as part of their culture. Both helped me get a  picture of the Icelandic mentality around the concept of folk music and why it might be difficult to investigate a fiddle tradition in the country, as this is seen as something external and not originating nationally.

To date I’ve been traveling to Iceland several times since 2013, including a longer stay in Egilsstaðir in 2015 and Reykjavik in Spring 2016. During these stays I have gained greater insight of which role the traditional fiddle music has had in Icelandic society. In the long run, the goal is to release / document the work in collaboration with Árni Magnússon Institute in Reykjavik.

The travels have been supported by: