There is a world of myth and legend surrounding the origin of Odin’s Raven Magic, a chapter of Medieval Icelandic poetic verse and part of a literary canon known as the Edda. Doubt was cast upon it’s authenticity in the 19th century, but is now recognised as having origins in the 14th century.
The legend of the musical interpretation by Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós is not quite so old, but still goes back some 18 years to when they were commissioned to create the work by the Reykjavik Arts Festival in 2002. It was performed only a handful of times that year and become part of Sigur Rós’ own mythology. The work has existed in snippets found online, but after 18 years, the live recording of the 70-minute score featuring the Schola Cantorum of Reykjavik and L’Orchestre des Laureats du Conservatoire National de Paris performing at the Paris’ La Grande Halle de la Villette has now been released.
Odin’s Raven Magic is a collaboration between the band and Icelandic music legend HilmarÖrn Hilmarsson (who is also ordained ‘chief goði’ of the pagan Norse religion Ásatrúarfélagið), together with Steindór Andersen, a fisherman and one of Iceland’s most respected chanters of traditional epic narrative. The orchestral and choral arrangements were largely handled by former member and arranger Kjartan Sveinsson, and Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir. The piece prominently features the unique sound of a five-octave marimba built from roughly-hewn pieces of Icelandic stone by sculptor Páll Guðmundsson.
The piece is named after the Norse god’s two ravens that flew over the Earth to survey and bring information back to him. The ancient poem (26 stanzas of eight lines) recounts a banquet, held by the gods, in which ominous signs foretell the end of the world of both gods and men.
The beauty of the musical interpretation and the reverence of the performance is stunning, a largely classical and choral work. The poem is read by Andersen whose deep baritone voice contrasts sharply with the angelic chorus. All this is set against a typically ethereal Sigur Rós soundscape.
The whole piece was created in just a two-week period back in 2002. Sigur Rós had previously worked with Andersen in 2001 and Hilmarsson and Sigur Rós guitarist Jónsi Birgisson had both fallen in love with Guðmundsson’s marimba and wanted to incorporate it into the work.
“That’s when things started happening,” says Sveinsson. “The stones just called out to us. We wrote loads of marimba themes, then Steindór wrote melodies on top.”
“Iceland has no tradition of lithophones (instruments made from rock),” adds Hilmarsson. “But the stone marimba was built from the land, so it made emotional sense.”
Fragments apart, the work has lain dormant for nearly two decades but now, amid renewed interest in the poem, the recording is finally being released.
“It’s a very visual poem,” says Hilmarsson, “with images all about falling down, and a world freezing from north to south. It was an apocalyptical warning. Perhaps the people of the time felt it in their skins. Today, of course, Iceland is involved in environmental issues surrounding hydro-electric power and the destruction of the highlands. We are being warned again.”
“There’s always been talk about it, but there were complications involved in making a new film to go with the music, and other conceptual aspects,” explains the band’s former keyboard player and arranger Kjartan Sveinsson. “We finally decided it was ridiculous to keep sitting on it when there were people wanting to hear it.”
Sigur Rós released Odin’s Raven Magic, an orchestral work featuring the Schola Cantorum of Reykjavik and L’Orchestre des Laureats du Conservatoire National de Paris on Krunk (via Warner Classics) on 4th December 2020.
To order Odin’s Raven Magic please follow the link