Courtesy Yale University Press
Courtesy Yale University Press

A Sonic Journey Inspired by the Expansive Landscapes of the Nordic Region

Copenhagen-based music critic Andrew Mellor, author of The Northern Silence, put together a playlist for us that represents the vast musical styles of the area.
By Meaghan McGovern
August 31, 2022
13 minute read

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.”