Book Review

Robert Faulkner. 2013. Icelandic Men and Me: Sagas of Singing, Self and Everyday Life. Farnham: Ashgate. 252pp. Contains audio CD. ISBN 978-1-4094-4976-8 (hbk)

Reviewed by: Tony Mitchell, University of Technology, Sydney, Australia

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Keywords: ethnography; gender; Iceland; male voice choir; singing

A key protagonist in this “saga” of an Icelandic male choir is Baldur, who states:

I am more of a man because I sing … not that I am some soft man. I think it is exactly that we are as much, if not more, manly, because we sing, gentle and beautiful and clean, pure and lovely. You’re not less of a man for that, you are more. Seriously! (160)

This quote captures what is essentially the central thesis of this book; singing in Iceland is an assertion of manhood and masculinity through what might be perceived as “feminine” qualities. The first time we see it, it is impressive. But by the fourth time it is quoted, it has rather lost its lustre.

This is in many ways a remarkable book. It incorporates the author’s own “saga” of spending twenty years in a remote part of north-eastern Iceland, near Húsavík, the country’s whale-watching capital, together with his female partner. This was after graduating from the Royal Academy of Music in the UK, as a music teacher and conductor of the male voice choir Hreimur. It ends with his taking up a university position in the drastically different environment of the University of Western Australia. Since his departure the choir has been taken over by a Hungarian conductor and recently toured Hungary (171).

There are various components to the book. First, the ethnographic component, which primarily tells Baldur’s saga, along with fragments from those of the other choristers, and is based on extensive interviews with and notes taken on singing by members of the choir. Then there is the author’s own saga, which begins with his own experiences of singing in public as a child, majoring in singing at the Royal College, visiting an Icelandic family who had recently moved to London for traditional Icelandic Christmas laufabrauð, or leaf bread, an occasion accompanied by singing in Icelandic, which resulted in something of an epiphany. The family sang mostly in three-part harmony, from a repertoire that included the finale from Mozart’s Magic Flute, but consisted mainly of unfamiliar Icelandic songs. Faulkner notes:

The “socialness” of this kind of musical performance as a corporate, democratic and domestic activity, shared in a very specific social context outside what I had assumed to be singing’s natural setting in the concert or recital hall, opera-house or church, caused me to question what I had always thought a singer to be. As an aspiring “functional” singer, it struck me that the rest of the populace might not simply dismissed as dysfunctional ones [sic]. (11)

As Faulkner comments, singing was “an important way to remind … [the family] who they were” (12). The experience led to a lifelong friendship with the family, a holiday trip to Iceland with them several years later, which included a number of musical events, an encounter with a headmaster of a local community school, and the couple’s decision to join the considerable number of foreign music teachers in Iceland at the headmaster’s school.

This is by far the most impressive part of the book. The anecdotal accounts of singing as an expression of identity and locality are often inspiring. Baldur frequently refers to singing as an “elixir”, or as Faulkner puts it, “one of life’s most important technologies for living and coping with life” (30), an expression I prefer to the more frequently-used “Self-therapy”.

Secondly, there is discussion of Iceland’s history, its sagas and songs, and the musical development of men’s choral singing, from kvaeðaskapur, or Epic Song, in which only one tone remains stable in a song, the rest use continuous pitch. This involves the performance of narrative sagas or rimur, unaccompanied and usually solo vocal performance of texts dating back to the fourteenth century, which still exists today. Then there is tvísöngur, “two song”, or “quint singing”, two-part singing of hymns and some secular songs only occasionally heard today, which gave way to nationalistic polyphonic singing in the nineteenth century, influenced by Iceland’s exposure to German and Scandinavian choirs. This was also when mixed gender choral singing began to appear, and Iceland’s most well-known composer, Jon Leifs (1899–1968), collected and transcribed a number of field recordings of folk songs in the 1920s. Apart from writing huge choral and orchestral works such as Edda, based on the most extensive Icelandic saga, Leifs also wrote a number of works directly influenced by Icelandic landmarks: the Hekla volcano and Geysir (both 1961), Dettifoss (1964), a ‘dialogue with a waterfall’, and Hafís (Drift Ice) in 1965.

Unaccompanied male choral singing has remained the norm in most parts of Iceland, although harmoniums first appeared in Iceland in the early twentieth century, when they became immensely popular, and the Icelandic langspil, a fiddle similar to other Scandinavian varieties, first appeared towards the end of the eighteenth century. The first public performance by what became known as the Reykjavík Mens Choir, or Icelandic Singers (Karlakór Reykjavíkur), in 1926, occurred in the capital in 1854. This choir, who occasionally used a piano accompaniment, toured Scandinavia in 1935, Central Europe in 1937, and the USA and Canada in 1946. I have a 1963 UK mono vinyl recording of them, Songs of Iceland, which includes two songs by Leifs, conducted by their founder, Sigardur Thordason, whose retirement occasioned the recording. The cover photograph is of the Gulfoss waterfall in the south of Iceland. As Nicola Dibben has noted in her book on Björk, which is referenced here, “landscape ideology” played a significant part in nineteenth-century nationalistic Icelandic music and art, and still does. Faulkner comments:

A huge song repertoire exists which vocalizes many of the surrounding valleys, dales, mountains, lakes, and woodlands. Such songs, often composed by local amateur composers, enjoy almost folk-song status in the area and many occur in men’s diaries as they find themselves in, or thinking about these places, visiting or remembering them in song. (105)

Faulkner’s group Hreimur has toured the UK, Norway, Faroe islands, Finland, Germany, Switzerland, Australia and Italy (106), and he estimates that there are currently “more than two dozen very active male voice choirs all over Iceland” (170), a considerable statistic given that the current population of Iceland is 322,000. The 2005 film Screaming Masterpiece, which features Björk and other key Icelandic popular musicians, claims that there are “90 music schools, 400 orchestras, and an unknown number of rock bands” in the country, indicating a very high degree of musical literacy, which is matched by literacy in the other arts, especially literature. The 1955 Nobel prize winner Halldor Laxness is a household name, and one of the choirs Faulkner documents in the photographic section that concludes the book (212) is the quartet Garðar Hólm—actually a double quartet—who are named after the central character, a celebrated “world singer” of Laxness’s The Fish Can Sing, where there is considerable doubt expressed whether he has any talent, as he keeps cancelling dates.

The third component of the book is theoretical, beginning with a discussion of masculinity, drawing on the work of prominent Australian theorist R. W. Connell, as well as music psychology, mobilizing the Interpretative Phenomenological Framework (IPF) developed by Jonathan A. Smith, which focuses on a “psychology of individuality and symbolic interactionism” (16). Related concepts such as the tripartite Unitary Self concept (social, material and spiritual), and “peak aesthetic experience” are also drawn on. It is in this aspect of the book where I feel less comfortable, particularly as the theoretical component begins to dominate the narrative aspects, and becomes very repetitious in the process, along with the quotations from Faulkner’s interviewees. The scholarship is extraordinary—Faulkner is able to resource extensive, and otherwise obscure texts in Icelandic as well as by English language scholars, but it does begin to take over the discussion, and I would have rather read more narrative detail than the sometimes abstruse theoretical arguments it is entangled with. For example, Faulkner mentions in passing a rimur and rap project he initiated with local teenagers, “an unlikely, though certainly not illogical, fusion” (52), presumably inspired by a similar project initiated in 2001 by noted Icelandic composer and film musician Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, rimur exponent Steindor Andersen and rapper Erpur Eyvindarson (Blazroca), which resulted in a CD combining rimur, rap and folk songs. It would have been fascinating to have heard more about this. He also mentions introducing the first performative “world music” project into Icelandic schools, involving Zimbabwean marimba music and other African music (169), which would have made interesting reading, especially given that marimbas made of stones and even rhubarb are a feature of the Sigur Rós’s film Heima. But its inclusion would arguably be difficult to justify in terms of vocal music.

One issue that inevitably arises is the male-centredness of the choir and choral singing in general in Iceland, and Faulkner is careful to contextualize this. His partner Juliet played very much a back-seat role in his 20-year fieldwork, which he acknowledges as “an archetypal representation of gendered musical behaviours” (149), but he does give her due as a frequent pianist-accompanist and “enabler” of the choir, along with a number of other notable female musicians. Baldur first sang and became a singing enthusiast through singing with his mother, and the accompanying CD leads off with a beautiful track recorded of him singing in public with her when he was 17, an event he has always treasured. Baldur’s mother Sigrún did meet other women informally to sing in parts, but they were subject to what Faulkner calls “the impossibility of a group of women rehearsing regularly and performing in a public arena” (134). This is despite the fact that Iceland elected the first woman president in the West in 1980, had the first openly gay woman prime minister from 2009 to 2012, passed a positive discrimination act in 1976 and ordained the first women priests in 1974. But rural Iceland has been slow to follow suit. One of the few other female singers in the area was a Scottish woman called Lissý, who married an Icelandic farmer and moved to Iceland in 1894 at the age of 19 with a large song repertoire which was appropriated by the local community, and was a formidable vocal performer. Another was Elísabet, who directed one of the local church choirs for 30 years, taught harmonium, composed songs, accompanied Lissý and even formed a small male voice choir. A women’s choir named after Lissý was formed, “but it has never secured a regular place in local public musical life” (134), despite attempts to revive it by various women musicians. There is, however, a Reykjavík Women’s Choir that has existed since 1993.

There is no doubt that the male choristers Faulkner worked with were reasonably sensitive individuals and always respectful towards women, and one of Baldur’s statements indicates things may be loosening up:

Thirty or 40 years ago no woman would have drunk out of a hipflask at a round-up [sheep corral], let alone sing with men who were a bit merry. Today she’ll probably take a sip, you put your arms around each other and sing. (183)

Another interesting fact is that most of the men in the choir regarded singing as “insignificant in their own sexual relations and even courtship” (139), while several of their partners contradicted this. But finally Faulkner is forced to conclude that “[t]he origins of the male choir movement are firmly rooted in the construction site of a cohesive and homogenous national identity dominated by a hegemonic masculinity” (91). Nonetheless male choral singing has significant female support in various different ways.

Song worlds are a key factor in the choral singing scenario, as they “realize and represent particular kinds of domesticity, community and ethnicity, through the songs sung in these spaces and by the singers who sing them” (87). Faulkner even mentions that choral singing at the urinal at dances in community halls is a common activity: “if women go to the toilets to talk together, men go to sing together!” (99). He makes an analogy between graffiti writers leaving their mark on a subway wall and his singers locating themselves in a particular environment as a “statement of personal identity” (100). As a result, domestic spaces such as the kitchen, the bathroom and the bedroom are “actualised through song” (102)—singing in the shower may be a common pursuit for male singers in the western world, but the entire house is fair game for Icelandic men and their families, and menial tasks are often made more bearable or even fun through singing.

The accompanying CD contains a number of songs by amateur composers, at least three accompanied by Juliet Faulkner, and includes examples of rimur and folk melodies, tvísöngur, solo and duo singing, a song sung while rounding up sheep in the mountains, a wedding dance, a funeral song, a series of lullabies (with baby sound effects), folk tales, a song sung in a coach, children’s songs and a song about haunted places, as well as imports from Norway, Denmark, Germany, Estonia and Russia, and a song sung in a cavernous power station.

Faulkner ends the book with an anecdote about the Irish poet and 1995 Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney, whom he met in Iceland several years ago, when he read from his poems accompanied by Uilleann pipes, and who signed his copy of Opened Ground with the inscription from one of his poems, “Sing yourself to where the singing comes from” (198). Heaney died in August 2013, after this book was completed, so it provides a fitting memorial in what is an extraordinary book.


Dibben, Nicola. 2009. Björk. London: Equinox Press.

Magnússon, Ari Alexander Ergis. 2005. Screaming Masterpiece. Reykjavík: Katapult Films.