Music put out by artists from the Nordic region—an emerging hotbed for progressive musicians such as the prolific singer-songwriter Björk and the post-rock powerhouse Sigur Rós—often stems from the region’s moody, expansive landscapes; severe season changes; and in their pursuit of stable democracies, individual freedom, and economic growth, historic political struggles.
In Andrew Mellor’s new book, The Northern Silence: Journeys in Nordic Music and Culture (Yale University Press), the Copenhagen-based journalist, critic, and Nordic music specialist uncovers the marked success and wholly original nature of music born from this richly layered region. The stories and research packing the pages of this engrossing text trace more than a decade of Mellor’s travels, from tiny venues in the Faroe Islands, to the Silence Festival in Finland, to the Malmö Opera House in Sweden. Along the way, he hopes that readers might discover larger truths about the collective experience of these Northern lands and the effect they have on their creators.
We recently asked Mellor to put together a playlist that represents both the vast musicality and mysticality that radiates from the Nordic region. “All of these pieces make a larger journey,” says Mellor about this grouping of songs. “They work together as a living experience.”
Listen to Mellor’s “Northern Silence Playlist” on Spotify.
“Bieggaolmai” by Gunnar Idenstam
“This song, from a remarkable album, opened my ears to Sámi music. Gunnar Idenstam is a remarkable Swedish organist who assembled some friends, including Simon Issat Marainen, who is a kind of yoiker. The album weds together all these disparate genres: French organ music, classical organ music, yoiking, glam rock, and metal. It’s beautiful, the way it builds and becomes extraordinarily overpowering, especially with the wind of the organ blowing.”
“Four Psalms, Op. 74: III. Jesus Kristus er opfaren” by Edvard Grieg
“This is a more standard, classical, choral track and sort of a musical starting point for the book. I found myself in Bergen, Norway, about fifteen years ago, as a tourist, and I bought a CD at the back of the church, as you did in those days. This was one of the pieces that really stood out to me. Actually, the day I picked it up was almost one hundred years after the day that it was written in Bergen in 1906. It’s beautiful Lutheran choral music in which there is a sense of melancholy and vulnerability, which seemed to me like a real quality of the Norwegian psyche when I first started visiting Norway.”
“Karelia Suite, Op. 11: I. Intermezzo” by Jean Sibelius
“The story of the Nordic countries is really the story of small lands fighting for independence, except for Sweden and Denmark, which were the big colonial powers. Finland was, of course, experiencing what Ukraine and the Baltic countries are now, which is the resistance of Russian Imperialism. This piece, by [Jean] Sibelius, was part of the process in which artists, painters, and composers would go through in order to take the identity of their country and make it into art. This is quite a famous, simple piece by Sibelius, but I think it’s got a real sense of the spirit of Karelia [an area of historical significance for Russia, currently divided between northwestern Russia and Finland] in the late 1800s, a nation awakening with optimism and confidence.”
“Abrégé, II. Årepolska” by Johannes Leonard Rusten
“This is a new piece for a very old instrument: the nyckelharpa. The nyckelharpa is extraordinary to look at: It looks like a kind of mechanical violin with added keys that resemble dinosaur teeth. Andrew Brown, an English writer, described it as ‘an accordion on the verge of tears.’ This piece, written specifically for Emilia Amper, is full of charm, and is based on folk intervals, rhythms, melodies, and harmonies and very much a straightforward rewriting of music from the folk tradition. I’ve always found it so charming and have made sure to have it ready to play during my travels around Sweden and Norway.”
“Symphony No. 3. Op. 27: I. Allegro espansivo” by Carl Nielsen
“Carl Nielsen is one of the most high-profile classical composers out of Denmark. He wrote music that was extremely forward-looking for its time, music that very much moved away from the German tradition and away from this [Richard] Wagner style of Romanticism and into something more modern, bracing, and energetic. He had this idea about ‘life force’ and the irrepressible human spirit, and that’s what you can hear in the first movement of this symphony. It begins with this particle accelerator–like feeling, with twenty-six chords spat out by the orchestra, increasing the density of the music. From there, this rich, energetic musical conversation emerges. It’s great music to listen to while you’re biking around Copenhagen, feeling like nothing can defeat you.”
“Heyr himna smiður” by Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson
“In Iceland, you’re at once faced with a country that is utterly modern and completely ancient. The whole place is built on solidified lava, this brown, rock-like fungus, and there are mountains and volcanoes everywhere. Yet, at the same time, you have this progressive system of government where votes take place on Facebook and everyone in the country is involved in political decision-making. I think it's a beautiful thing. There’s a sense that Icelanders are deeply rooted in history and tradition, even more so than the Nordic people. This Icelandic hymn seems to be, to me, very close and very far away at the same time.”
“Aeriality” by Anna Thorvaldsdottir
“We don’t really think these days of the symphony orchestra being an instrument of currency—electronic music is what this century is all about—but in Iceland, they have completely reinvented the sound of the symphony orchestra entirely on their own terms. They’ve made this Icelandic sound out of a nineteenth-century institution. Anna [Thorvaldsdottir] is one of the most gifted composers alive. It should be noted that the five most-gifted Icelandic composers are all women, which says a lot about how they run their culture. She manages to create these extraordinary tapestries in sound that are entirely their own and that operate on their own timescale completely. This is her signature piece. It exemplifies what she can do with an orchestra. There are all these juddering tectonics underneath the music, and yet it's held as this vaporous cloud of sound in the air at the same time.”
“Notget” by Björk
“The musical boundaries of Iceland are so porous, and Björk’s music is a great example of that. She has worked in classical music, in pop music, and she has her own distinct rock and electronic style. This track is really interesting because you could almost confuse it for tvísöngur, which are ancient Icelandic songs. She uses many of the same techniques as Jón Leifs, the first high-profile Icelandic composer, as well as patterns and loops that you get in Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s music. This leaves you feeling like you’re not listening to a pop song that was made to make money, but more that she’s channeling sounds that have always existed, in a style completely her own.”
“Surrender” by Konni Kass
“In the Faroe Islands, because the music scene is so small, you have to play in every single band if you are a Faroese musician. You might even play in the Faroese Symphony Orchestra one night and a metal band the next night. This makes the music scene there incredible. I first heard the Faroese artist Konni Kass at the Faroese music awards in 2017, and I really like her songs. Faroese music can be very dark and cloudy, but she’s come along with these sophisticated, urban lounge songs that could be playing in New York or London. She’s got this great voice and an Icelandic accent, kind of like Björk, that wraps itself around English words in a very evocative way.”
“Slør” by Eivør
“Eivør is a singer with a real sense of mystery behind her eyes. She has worked in every genre: She has sung in operas and in ancient ballads in the Faroese style, and has made a load of albums that are all completely different from each other. She’s an artist of total conviction, and this is probably her best song.”
“Nådigste Jesus” by Berit Opheim Versto
“I come from a classical music background, and my peers in pop music often point to an album and say, ‘This is the album that changed my life.’ In a way, this is the album that changed mine. White Night is an amazing choir from Norway that has been trained to sing in a folk style, so they’ve been taught to sort of forget all of the things they learned as classical musicians, about accuracy, blend, and tonal finesse. They’ve kind of gone back to basics. They sing from the throat and with all of these crazy ornamentations that would have been used in Norwegian churches centuries ago. I think this is the most Scandinavian-sounding music that’s ever been committed to record.”
“Symphony No. 4 in A Minor, Op. 63: I. Tempo molto moderato, quasi adagio” by Jean Sibelius
“There’s a chapter in my book where I try to deal with this idea of the elements of depression and darkness in Nordic and Scandinavian art—despite the fact that these countries are always voted ‘the most happy in the world.’ If you live here, it’s hard to wrap your head around that, because most people seem so miserable. I think what it is is that they have a very healthy artistic relationship with dark thoughts and depression that come with the passing of the seasons. In Los Angeles, the year goes by as one sunny, endless summer, but in Scandinavia, it's completely different in November compared to what it is in May. The fourth symphony is Sibelius’s most depressive symphony, and the first movement, famously, is a very depressed rant for orchestra in which he grapples with his illness and depression, and tries to come to terms with it.”
“Mignon: I. Andante” by Bent Sørensen
“Bent Sørensen is a composer that lives quite close to me here in Copenhagen, and his music is introspective, delicate, fragile, and melancholic. Yet, when you meet him, he is the first person to buy a pint and have a cheerful conversation. This is a dichotomy that I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of. People often talk about this sense of decay in his music: His music tends to sort of fragment and fall to pieces. I remember asking him about this once, and he said, ‘Well, I’ve just been to Italy, and everything there is falling to pieces, but it’s still very beautiful.’”
“Symphony No. 2” by Per Nørgård
“One of the things I tried to do in my book is to talk about functionalism in music. A lot of avant-garde classical music is unbearable for people to listen to. One of the reasons avant-garde classical music from Scandinavia seems to bypass that, I think, is because it has this element of functionalism to it and it has integrity to its design. Per Nørgård wrote this symphony in the early seventies and discovered this algorithmic system called the “Infinity Series” which allowed him to write music that could sustain itself indefinitely. I think the second symphony was his manifesto for this new algorithm. It’s a beautiful, twenty-minute piece that starts and tumbles out, almost gravitationally.”
“Tapiola, Op. 112” by Jean Sibelius
“This is the piece that is a thread starting from the first page of my book to the very last. It’s a simple, highly minimalistic orchestral piece about the forests in Finland. It doesn’t really have a tune, it doesn’t move off one key, and it's very mysterious… it sort of just disappears off into silence. Once Sibelius finished ‘Tapiola,’ he couldn’t write anything else for twenty years—he was frozen creatively. He said he’d written himself into silence.”
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Dominated by companies such as Sony, Sennheiser, and Bose, which leverage technology to make ever-smaller components, thestimated $28.5 billion by the end of this year. On the flip side, there are proudly D.I.Y. audio designers like Devon Turnbull, who with his brand Ojas creates high-end sound systems from his basement and a studio near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. By hand-building speakers th
It’s been a tough year for musicians and DJs, as the pandemic continues to make traditional revenue streams for performiYoung Turks (which counts FKA twigs, Sampha, and The xx among the musicians on its roster), the absence of in-person performances ia playlist of uplifting songs for us that have “amplified the best parts of my year,” he says, “and distracted me from some of the worst.” There’s so
Sound designer Perry Brandston grew up plugging away in New York institutions such as CBGB and Fillmore East in the 1970Oda, a speaker system that was originally designed in 2016 as a means for the American musician Phil Elverum to broadcast l
Nestled in northwest Montana’s Rocky Mountains, Glacier National Park comprises 1,583 square miles of scenic wilderness—
When Teenage Engineering released its OP-1 portable synthesizer, in 2011, the device received glowing reviews from an arOB-4, a Bluetooth speaker system that it’s billing as a “magic radio.” The term isn’t too far off: The mobile, four-speaker
“We love radio, but it’s become so dependent on information and story,” says Chris Hoff, who, with Sam Harnett, producesThe World According to Sound, a podcast comprising minutes-long episodes that tell tales with sounds in lieu of language. “There’s not a lot of spac
In 2014, Nick Quah launched Hot Pod, a newsletter focused on the art of podcasting. Today, the Malaysia native also serves as a podcast critic for New York magazine’s culture and entertainment website, Vulture, and hosts Servant of Pod with Nick Quah, a podcast on the craft and culture of podcasting. We recently phoned Quah at his home in Idaho for an off-the-cuff con Podcasts can adapt to a wide array of topics. Is flexibility their greatest asset?
The middle of a pandemic may seem like an odd time to launch a podcast about road trips—but maybe it’s ideal, as unexpecGreetings from Somewhere, a show about how travel affects us; how we affect the places we visit; and, to date, how the pandemic changed everythi
Malcolm James, a senior lecturer in media and cultural studies at England’s University of Sussex, examines the relationsSonic Intimacy: Reggae Sound Systems, Jungle Pirate Radio, and Grime YouTube Music Videos (Bloomsbury). It’s a thoughtful, scrupulous study, demonstrating how technology, politics, and perception have influenc
Music is art, according to Los Angeles–based musician and sound engineer Dan Alexander, who, since 1967, has bought and Dan Alexander Audio: A Vintage Odyssey (Rowman & Littlefield), a lyrical, emotive study of classic audio equipment. The 440-page tome comes with all the geeke
Elliott H. Powell Traces the History of Black Musicians Engaging with South Asian Culture and Sounds
By analyzing examples from the 1960s to today, Elliott H. Powell, a scholar of race, sexuality, and pop music, traces thSounds from the Other Side: Afro-South Asian Collaborations in Black Popular Music (University of Minnesota Press). “In the end,” Powell says, “the book is about illustrating what the political stakes a
Don’t be fooled by the no-frills appearance of this device—it’s actually something of a shape-shifter. Created by the ItCity Radio (available in the U.S. through Uncommon Goods) lets users pick from 18 international radio libraries with a few flicks of the finger: Simply download the gadget’s ap
Keith Abrahamsson is the founder of the independent record label Mexican Summer, which operates out of New York and London and counts the likes of Cate Le Bon, Ariel Pink, and Photay among the artistEp. 3 of our Time Sensitive podcast.) Launched in 2008, his venture has grown to include a reissue label, Anthology, and a book publishing arm, Anthology Editions. In an effort to soothe anxious, isolated souls, Abrahamsson put together a playlist of transporting tunes for us. “It’s culled from material both in and outside my orbit—songs I work with directly or have connected to as a co “Love Is A Jungle,” Peter Ivers “For Lise,” Matchess “Rectifiya,” keiyaA “Stay Sane,” Pink Siifu “Charlotte's Thong,” Connan Mockasin “Infinitamente Nu,” Sessa “Min
An international pandemic may seem like an unusual time to kick-start a podcast called The Art of Travel. But for Olivia Lopez, a Filipina fashion blogger whose pre-Covid life entailed constant globetrotting, being stuck at the first episode of the podcast, which she launched over the summer. Through the project, Lopez hopes to provide a “temporary escape for listeners, whiYOLO magazine founder Yolanda Edwards, who talks about an unforgettable trip to Greece; Life House Hotels founder Rami Zeidan, who discusses how to make travel more meaningful; and perfumer Frédéric Malle, who explains how to travel via the senses. The conversations have been a balm for Lopez, who, like all of us, has been missing the excitement of everyday life. “
Music fans missing a regular calendar of gigs will find a lifeline in Iris Flow, headphones made to mimic the sound qualIris, which is backed by Queen drummer Roger Taylor, the device features a patented algorithm that restores complex spatial
In 2015, German-born British composer Max Richter wrote an epic eight-and-a-half-hour-long musical cycle titled “Sleep,” with the intention of it being the soundtrack to one night’s snooze. It consists of 31 tracks that each last about halfRichter said ahead of the piece’s U.S. premiere. “It’s a political work in that sense. It’s a call to arms to stop what we’re doing.” Recently, with the help of the Bean app of the same name. Divided into three sessions—Sleep, Meditate, and Focus—users can set timers for the music to play according to a chose
In the early 1970s, the nonprofit educational program Creative Music Studio (CMS) opened in Woodstock, New York, with an unconventional aim: invite artists—regardless of their musical ability, soTime Sensitive podcast.) Martin recently unveiled Creative Music Workshop, an online platform that builds on CMS’s legacy with free masterclasses and an ever-growing library of archival footageMedeski Martin & Wood (MMW), of which Martin is the drummer, called “Inside the Minds, Outside the Lines.” “Our general philosophy is to continuously reinvent ourselves,” Martin says of MMW, which plans to detail strategies fo
The Black Music History Library is here to bless—and educate—your ears. Launched this past August by New York–based music journalist Jenzia Burgos, thean episode of the Heat Rocks podcast as well as a list of preeminent musicologists, historians, and scholars. To those open to pure exploration and discovery, Burgos offers a roll-the-dice folder that randomizes selections from
Reporting on the climate crisis is a balancing act, where journalists must convey a sense of urgency without provoking dHot Take and How to Save a Planet, forgo the subject’s usual doom-and-gloom approach in favor of storytelling, where emotion and calls to action engage l
An activist, M.C., artist, and the first-ever hip-hop ambassador to the U.S. State Department, Toni Blackman—who runs hip-hop meditation workshops—describes her passion-driven role as being “more of a mindfulness educator, and lea playlist of her favorite tracks that help center her. “I was totally unaware of how much music was inside of my head and heart. Some of these songs I play on repeat every oEp. 55 of At a Distance earlier this year. “In between tears and mourning and political frustrations, I am enjoying my journey!”