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In “The Swan,” a Nine-Year-Old Meets the World

Anchored by a remarkable child’s performance, The Swan is a sensitive example of an overlooked element in coming-of-age films: awakening to the outside world. Nine-year-old Sól (Gríma Valsdóttir) is an insular girl, her imagination fueled by the craggy shoreline and unceasing sea that surround her small Icelandic coastal community. She’s angry and resentful at being sent away for the summer, a banishment presented in Gudbergur Bergsson’s 1991 novel as the punishment for shoplifting.

Writer-director Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir’s entrancing adaptation makes Sól’s exile to an inland farm more vague, a punitive act inflicted by baffled adults who see her restless curiosity as pernicious rebellion. Sól’s great aunt and uncle regularly take in wayward kids, believing that hard work and exposure to nature will straighten them out. By presenting events primarily from the perspective of this thoughtful, observant girl, Hjörleifsdóttir’s first feature highlights the flaws in the rural couple’s reductive approach while chronicling the maturation of a child who’s experiencing dizzying new emotions and struggling to comprehend the powerful discontent of adults.

Hjörleifsdóttir continually shifts from Sól’s hazy point of view, a dreamlike and intimate cocoon, to a sharp vision of what’s happening around her with startling effectiveness. But what Sól mostly perceives are the adults she both admires and disdains: the compassionate farmhand feverishly scribbling in his journal in red ink and the sardonic farmer’s daughter punishing her parents for their cozy simplicity. They regard the grassy valley surrounded by black, volcanic mountains as an oppressive landscape of bitter defeat. Sól absorbs their painful secrets, but not their attitude, realizing that the rugged, breathtaking terrain contains both harsh reality and magical possibility.

The Swan
Directed by Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir
Synergetic Distribution
Opens August 10, Village East Cinema

 

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Ben Spiegel Applies His Foraging Background at Icelandic-Inspired SKÁL

Perhaps the Scandinavian trend we all predicted a few years back didn’t take hold with the vengeance we expected, but restaurants celebrating the culinary canon of those countries near the Arctic circle continue to take root here, a testament to the ever-changing nature of the New York City gastronomic landscape. The newest entrant is SKÁL (37 Canal Street, 212-777-7518)–which translates to “cheers” in Danish–an Icelandic spot bringing a bit of Erik The Red to the lower Lower East Side with an ambitious menu in a homey space that formerly housed Les Enfants Terribles.

Having visited Iceland to get a view of something other than a brick wall across from my apartment, I can attest to the natural beauty of the land and the people who call it home. A volcanic island isolated geographically from its Nordic brethren, Iceland’s physical location makes it an undiscovered culinary scene.

Raw beef, Littleneck Clams, Wild Onions
Raw beef, Littleneck Clams, Wild Onions

Ben Spiegel, a Canadian chef who gained notoriety at the lauded Willows Inn on Lummi Island in Seattle, came to New York to follow his girlfriend. If he chooses to leave, it might be avid patrons following him wherever he lands next. Spiegel traveled often while he was growing up in the Toronto area, and it was on those trips that he became connected with food and the ingredients that existed in nature. At 19, he spent six months living in a pig barn at Michael Statlander’s Eigensinn Farm, splitting his time between the kitchen and the land. His journey also included a stint at famed Copenhagen dining destination Noma. If there’s a pre-requisite to becoming a successful forager, you can rest assured Spiegel has completed all of the courses required.

Not that he’s exactly foraging here. While the terrains of Denmark and Iceland are ideal for gathering pure ingredients, New York City’s urban landscape poses a challenge. Moreover, chefs are all picking out of the same pot. But Spiegel has picked up a few tricks in his time on the east coast, and he counts the Union Square Greenmarket as a favorite place to fill his kitchen’s walk-in and pantry. “This woman’s cabbage is so damn good,” Spiegel joyously recounted by way of example. On another trip to the market, the chef came across a woman who’d forgotten about her potatoes in a refrigerator for a year. He purchased the forgotten product–which was still good–and it was one of the best potatoes he’d ever eaten. He put them to use in his dish of Atlantic cod with last season’s potatoes, flowers, and greens.

Above all, Spiegel is bent on keeping things interesting and surprising in a city saturated with restaurant options. “How are we going to keep you from getting bored?” he asks.

Hit the next page for photos of the Icelandic inspired cuisine and space at SKÁL.

SKÁL's cozy digs are a retreat from the busy world of Canal Street a few blocks away
SKÁL’s cozy digs are a retreat from the busy world of Canal Street a few blocks away
De Cicco Broccoli, Green Garlic and Breadcrumbs.
De Cicco Broccoli, Green Garlic and Breadcrumbs.
Grilled bread accompanies the raw beef entree at SKÁL
Grilled bread accompanies the raw beef entree at SKÁL
Croquettas
Croquettas
Iceland's Lava Beer
Iceland’s Lava Beer
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SIMPLY DIVINE

Tripling and quadrupling her voice with the help of a Roland RC-50 Loop Station, singer Julianna Barwick creates her most otherworldly wordless choruses yet on 
Nepenthe, recorded in Reykjavik with Sigur Rós producer Alex Somers. Barwick, who grew up singing in Missouri and Oklahoma churches, brings home those imposing Icelandic chillscapes to the Stanford White–designed Judson Memorial Church, where the antidepressant qualities of the Brooklynite’s vocal ambience will work their forgetful magic—probably minus the string ensemble, guitarist, and teenage female choir that pop up on Nepenthe. Barwick released perfectly titled Sanguine in 2007 and its Asthmatic Kitty follow-up, The Magic Place, in 2011. Nepenthe, though, is a billowing musical benzodiazepine of a much higher dosage.

Tue., Aug. 20, 7 p.m., 2013

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Young Magic

Young Magic call Brooklyn home, but their down-tempo, soul-inflicted psych-pop experiments with sounds culled from all over the world, sampling field recordings captured in Mexico, Argentina, Iceland, and other far-out locations. The band’s two vocalists are Australian ex-pat Isaac Emmanuel and Indonesian native Melati Malay, and on their 2012 debut full-length, Melt, the former’s striking rap-like verses play with the latter’s more ethereal, atmospheric additions. Following their recent tour with Purity Ring, Young Magic play a string of hometown shows surrounding their appearance at this year’s Austin Psych Fest.

Tue., April 9, 9:30 p.m., 2013

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Saga: On Thin Ice

New York audiences are well accustomed to seeing nudity on the stage, but witnessing a man’s junk ripen into a rock-solid boner has got to be a first. Before incriminating the Baruch Performing Arts Center for endorsing public lewdness, it should be explained that the character happens to be played by a puppet whose penis resembles an apple core.

The erection occurs about midway through Saga, an entertaining new puppet play by the Obie-winning company Wakka Wakka and the Nordland Visual Theatre about the disastrous impact of Iceland’s banking collapse on the virile Gunnar Oddmunson and his family. The scene is a flashback to the night Gunnar first meets his wife, Helga, puking outside a bar. Despite or because of her advanced state of intoxication, she’s game for a romp in the bushes, where slurping cunnilingus, vigorous sex, and hilarity ensue. Nine months later, their recklessness has earned them a son, and they marry.

Impulsiveness is, naturally, a theme for the couple. With dreams of opening a luxury bed-and-breakfast, they use a seemingly endless supply of borrowed money to purchase a big house, a new Jeep, and a stable of horses (the cast of six puppeteers wear woolly equine costumes).  It all comes crashing down, however, when Prime Minister Geir Haarde, lampooned as a teensy chap with a munchkin voice, pops out of a hole in a map of Iceland to declare that the country is in financial freefall. As a panicky Gunnar goes over his bills, they flutter from his desk (with the aid of sticks) like a flock of menacing birds, pecking at him and chirping, “Pay me!”

It’s easy to feel for the poor guy, given the universality of the financial crisis, and Kirjan Waage and Gwendolyn Warnock’s moving script (the moments with his young look-alike son are especially tender) makes you root for him to find a happy way out. If there’s one gripe to make, it’s that the creators go for a dark, over-the-top finish when a subtler landing would have been more satisfying. But the work is so full of big laughs and offers so much to love—Waage’s wonderful puppet design, an appearance by the Northern Lights, and other delightful surprises (warning: you may get a little wet)—that all you’ll remember is how much fun you had.

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Switch

A methodical, occasionally remedial survey of the energy crisis and its possible solutions, Switch fits a subject often treated polemically into a more benign, continuing education mold. It’s the less excitable and therefore ultimately more persuasive sibling to Ondi Timoner’s 2010 Cool It. Geologist Scott Tinker plays our conduit, searching the world for answers to a problem that the Asian economic boom will compound several times over. Sensible suggestions involving electric cars and home insulation are made, but Switch focuses more on meeting demand than cutting it. And why not: All those electric cars will still need (largely coal-fueled) electricity. Scott’s journeys to places like Iceland to check out geothermal and Denmark to look into wind generally end with an “unfortunately” followed by a “hopefully”—with the exception of nuclear, the most elegant solutions aren’t feasible on a larger scale. Lynch is thorough and has sought out an impressive array of key point people; a clearheaded presentation of the facts builds to a PowerPoint finale. Switch was created as part of the Switch Energy Project, a multi-platform effort the press notes indicate also comprises “a primary school energy education program.” No disrespect and certainly no discredit, but that sounds about right.

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Hilary Hahn & Hauschka

Silfra, the new album by lauded classical violinist Hahn and prepared-pianist Hauschka, is a cool experiment in mood and improvisation: There’s an old-fashioned modernist sensibility to the duo’s sonic snapshots of Iceland (where they recorded), subtle metamusical forays, and a 13-minute industrial-tinged interpretation of Beckett’s Godot.

Wed., June 20, 8 p.m., 2012

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Björk

Last year, alt-rock-era sorceress Björk released the first-ever album-as-app, Biophilia, which allowed fans to conjure up their own avant-garde sounds to supplement her usual breathy chants, yelps, and coos. Lately, she has been bringing her sounds to life (literally) in a series of shows at Queens’ New York Hall of Science. Amid exhibits demonstrating the wonders of biology and chemistry, Iceland’s most famous cultural export turns the museum’s grand hall into her stage. It’s a show you can tell your mom you went to because (just maybe) you could walk out of it smarter.

Sun., Feb. 12, 7:30 p.m.; Wed., Feb. 15, 7:30 p.m.; Sat., Feb. 18, 7:30 p.m., 2012

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Björk Gets Pedagogical

Please don’t misunderstand Björk. While she might be returning to New York for her first concerts here since 2007 with a residency of conceptual dates premised on her eco-obsessed recent album Biophilia—not to mention specialty instruments and a 24-piece Icelandic choir—the singer would hate for you to think she’s putting on any undue airs.

“I always feel a bit odd when people start to call me a composer. . . . I think what I do is really simple,” Björk says on the phone from Iceland. “I don’t think I’m so complicated or something.”

Well. Let’s not be hasty there.

In the event that 10-foot “pendulum-harps,” a MIDI-controlled pipe organ and something her promotional tour materials describe as “musical Tesla coils,” don’t much resemble your idea of paring things down, Björk is prepared to ride for a broader conception—really, her own private definition—of minimalism. Whether speaking about matters of production design or musicology, it’s clear the word has a special significance in her aesthetic philosophy.

“It’s just kind of loaded with urban problems, the word ‘minimalism’: something about civilization and repetition and the irony of mass production,” Björk says. “In Iceland, we don’t have this history. We definitely have history, but that’s not our history.”

After recalling how her “happy punk” teenage coterie was quite “passionate” and in thrall to everything Romantic in nature—an anti-minimalist crew, if you will—today Björk credits the erratic distribution of music from New York’s old “downtown” scene for exploding those distinctions.

“Which albums came over and which didn’t, it was almost coincidental,” she remembers now about the appearance of Steve Reich’s Tehillim in her life. “Especially the minimalism of Philip Glass or something, it felt very intellectual . . . though I’ve always felt Steve Reich had a lot more soul, for me.” (At the behest of The New Yorker‘s Alex Ross, Björk recently identified the ECM edition of Tehillim as one of her 10 favorite recordings of all time.) And while Björk is careful to append her enthusiasms with humble disclaimers that she’s not officially schooled about classical music, her listening habits speak for themselves when she wonders aloud whether she could sing Meredith Monk’s Dolmen Music all the way through from memory.

“I’m influenced by so many folk singers—and I guess what is called ‘world music’—but if I should name any minimalist albums . . . I would name [Tehillim and Dolmen Music, which] don’t have this kind of urban-irony, post-modern feeling. They feel more passionate and more like folk music.”

And there’s the challenge Björk faces: She has to keep making her highly idiosyncratic approach to genre definition go over. In today’s hashtag-reductive listening culture, it’s far from obvious that even the singer’s hardcore followers will keep up with Björk if her brand of folk music continues to betray the influence of Reich and Monk. (For evidence, check the multiple harps and antiphonal choral groupings on Biophilia‘s “Moon,” as well as the slowly thickening organ textures on “Dark Matter.”)

Although Iceland’s avant-pop mainstay has already achieved “career artist” status, her albums over the past decade have been regarded with some suspicion among fans who would prefer a stylistic return to the more unambiguously pop heyday of Debut and Post. Instead, in 2007, she gave them the percussive battery of Volta (which featured free-jazz drummer Chris Corsano and Lightning Bolt’s Brian Chippendale). Last year’s Biophilia, which boasts the songs that anchor this month’s New York shows, is a more serene affair—as befits its themes of environmental consciousness—but is no less compositionally complex, as the combined instrumentation being imported for her concerts attests. Her most devoted fans will take each new album, though their number might be slipping. (While Volta netted a Top 10 debut on the Billboard 200, Biophilia couldn’t manage to sneak into the Top 25.)

Asked whether she has a sense of the challenge that her instructional ambitions might pose even with a contemporary “indie” audience, Björk starts an answer and then questions the premise. “I was gonna say in Europe, it’s more accepted to use complicated music—and then I was thinking about Latin music and jazz—I mean, come on. You have so much music that’s complex,” she says. “And modern folk music, if you want, it has some moments of simplicity with moments of complexity and virtuoso musicianship in between. I feel like I’m in that sort of category.”

This month, Björk will try to sell this pan-stylistic vision of folk by taking on the role of music teacher. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be a music teacher; that was like my dream,” she says. “And then this pop thing just kind of happened. . . . I never knew at what point in my life I would get to music teaching—but it felt so natural to do it now and not to separate it from my music, but sort of make it the same thing.”

More than half of her Biophilia shows in town will take place at the New York Hall of Science, mirroring the “Biophilia Educational Program” first tested in England and Iceland last year before making this month’s stop in Queens. (Students at Middle School 185 in Flushing, a music and science magnet school, had to write admissions essays to get into the program.) Designed as a week-long music-education course for children, Björk’s syllabus takes songs from Biophilia and pairs them with phenomena from the earth sciences and musical elements in order to form three-part lessons. That means, for example, that the song “Thunderbolt” equals lightning proper—and thus merits talks from a scientist and a music teacher. The latter will speak on the subject of the arpeggio, which Björk equates with lightning. (If you go to one of the New York Hall of Science shows, just go with the analogy.)

Adults attending the evening concerts at the Hall of Science won’t get precisely the same experience as the approximately 50 New York City kids who attend the Biophilia Educational Program, though the singer does intend for the adults-only shows to communicate some of the same principles. “I don’t want technology to be in one corner and nature in another and music over in a third—it’s all the same thing,” she says. (Her subsequent Roseland Ballroom shows will employ some of the same gonzo instrumentation, though not in as pure an art-installation fashion.)

“I only realized last week why everything’s so crystal clear in the music: It’s because I wanted that simplicity. Where Volta is kind of chaotic and sort of the state before a solution, Biophilia is the solution, in the broadest sense of the word. And if you think of teaching arpeggios with lightning—I hope it doesn’t sound too far-fetched—but it’s part of the same kind of mind-set. . . . And I think this 21st century is going to be very much about that.”

Does that sound far-fetched? Perhaps just a little. But Björk will hardly be the first lecturer to spice up her patter with quasi-mystical concepts and props. And macro-sales figures to the side, her classes in Queens this month are sure to be full: The New York Hall of Science shows will only accommodate 650 adult-aged students a night. Prepare yourself for a waiting list.

Björk performs at the Hall of Science on February 3, 6, 9, 12, 15, and 18 and at Roseland Ballroom on February 22, 25, and 28, as well as on March 2.

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JONESING FOR JONSI

As Iceland moves decisively with its provocations of worldwide annihilation (first, the economic collapse; now, literal blackening of the heavens—really, guys?), they do offer us partial amends in the form of Jonsi, lead singer of Sigur Rós, and his solo debut of shady, labyrinthine soundscapes. Go, a multi-collaborative effort with experimentalist Nico Muhly, is not to be confused with Jonsi & Alex, the vocalist’s ambient side project with beau Alex Somers. But the brash, layered production can be confused with Gabriel’s horn, because clearly we’ll all be hearing that soon enough, anyway.

Sat., May 8, 8 p.m.; Sun., May 9, 8 p.m., 2010