Let’s Paint The Northern Lights

Here I am (center) pointing toward the Northern Lights, and sharing the experience with friends Ilmur (left), Christian (right) and Anjali (not pictured).
Photo by Anjali Daryanani

By the time we got to the hot spring, it was almost completely dark. With the exception of a few stars that peaked out in the sky to join us, we were alone because the spot is a well-kept secret.

We parked the car, leaped out, tore off our clothes and jumped into the hot spring—it felt like needles dashing into every part of our bodies because of the sudden transition from biting cold to warmth. As we eased in, the four of us sighed a collective breath of bliss, and we corked our heads up toward the night sky to watch the stars come out one-by-one.

There was no sign of human activity for many miles in all directions. That’s one of the things I love about Iceland: you can drive out of capital city Reykjavík into wide and open spaces of silence in just a matter of minutes.

“I have a feeling we are going to see the Northern Lights tonight,” my friend Ilmur said. Seeing the Northern Lights in the summer month of August—it’s rare and too unpredictable to say for sure. The conditions really need to be perfect: clear sky for visibility, cold enough for it to occur, among other variables.

By one or two in the morning, a simple and narrow line split the star-filled sky in half. We thought the line was a cloud at first until it started transforming before our eyes. Its white hue bloomed into a radiant green and it started moving, swirling around the empty sky as if it were dancing.

“It’s the Northern Lights!” Ilmur yelled.

The green rift widened until it seemed to envelope the entire sky above us. We kept gasping and yelling everything from, “This is incredible,” to expletives—we couldn’t believe it.

Then, the four of us fell into a silence from the overwhelming feelings of awe, gratitude and inspiration.

* * *

Photo by Scott Shigeoka

Photo by Scott Shigeoka

In a land full of opportunities to be alone and in silence, there is a loud and thriving music scene. It’s a vibrant community of musicians, some of whom have become household names worldwide like Björk, Sigur Rós and Of Monsters Of Men. What I’ve noticed in the past month here, attending shows and festivals, is that there is so much creative activity here.

Perhaps it’s this open space, which facilitates a free exchange of ideas and collaborations across niches, where Icelandic music finds the heart of its inspiration.

Although this assumption is based on just a month’s worth of experience, it’s a more developed view than my original perceptions of the country’s music scene prior to my arrival in Iceland. I initially thought there was a clear link between Iceland’s natural and mysterious beauty and its music.

As Ben Frost, musician and co-founder of Iceland-based collective Bedroom Community says in an interview with The Quietus: “I would inevitably get mad because of the cheap shots, shoddy analogies…Björk metaphors, glacial landscapes…of Jökulsárlón. … That’s so lazy. And it diminishes the records’ ability to exist outside of that context. It imposes an expired narrative, an unimaginative interpretative structure.”

Tony Dundas, the drummer for The Temper Trap, had a similar revelation. He wrote an article on Iceland’s music scene in the 2013 winter edition of Boat Magazine.

“The long cadences and swelling sonics of Björk or Sigur Rós or Ólafur Arnalds seem naturally fashioned to fill the empty spaces of the landscape around them,” Dundas wrote. “Icelandic music, if not born of ‘place’, is unwittingly shaped by it. But maybe that’s me, in dreary London, hoping there’s somewhere in the world like Iceland in my head. We want that to be true, but my experiences meeting and talking to Icelandic musicians have shown that I’m often the one adding the emotional and sentimental connection to their otherworldly landscape, not them.”

I’ve found that his point is largely true. During my “Icelandic listening tour,” a personally financed month-long trip in Iceland preceding the start of my Fulbright-mtvU grant, I spoke with as many musicians as I could. While they loved getting out of the city and into nature, they told me, it wasn’t Iceland’s physical landscapes that inspired their music.

So what is it, then? Frost and I share a belief that it’s the space and possibly more importantly, the culture, that has created such a vibrant scene.

“More than just creating space, it’s necessary to allow for change,” he said in an interview with The Reykjavik Grapevine. “That’s probably a more positive and effective way of dealing with the world, allowing for the fact that everything is constantly in flux, everything is an illusion that will be inevitably shattered at any moment.”

* * *

In 2008, Björk released her single Náttúra. The record’s proceeds went to an environmental foundation in Iceland that shared the same name. She performed alongside Sigur Rós that same year to raise awareness on the construction of a hydroelectric dam through an untouched river in the southwest of the country. The purpose of the dam was to provide energy to increase the country’s aluminum smelting output, Iceland’s most power-intensive industry. Almost a tenth of the country’s population came out for the event and the dam was never built. In Iceland, music has a real and tangible effect on the environmental movement.

Six years and one financial crisis later, musicians are still vigilant about using music to raise awareness and directly impact the outcomes of environmental issues. Earlier this year, a coalition of organizations and artists came together to launch “Stopp – Let’s Protect the Park,” a concert stacked with some of the country’s most popular music artists: Of Monsters and Men, Retro Stefson, Samaris, Mammút and Björk. This single event raised ISK 35 million ($300,000 USD) and produced massive media coverage on the vision of converting the highland area into a national park.

Even within Reykjavík there are smaller events in which music and arts are paired with environmental change. There are independent workshops on sustainability, permaculture and arts at eco-villages like Sólheimar and farms like Töfrastaðir. Yoga teachers are contributing to the community’s inner growth and artists have set-up installations throughout the year to encourage people to think about nature.

All of these events and experiences are happening somewhat in isolation, though. There is power in a community and an experience that brings together all of these pieces into one shared space, which is what my project in Iceland is focusing on. By merging these elements together into a two-day transformative festival called Saga Fest, I believe a rich community can build meaningful relationships with each other and nature. I believe that Saga Fest has this incredible opportunity to deepen the impact of the arts, cultural and environmental movements in Iceland.

Right now Saga Fest is operating within an open space—akin to an empty night sky—and we are holding paintbrushes and have the ability to create something beautiful and transformative. Let’s paint the Northern Lights together.

11 thoughts on “Let’s Paint The Northern Lights

  1. Thanks Ameer, it’s crazy that just half a year ago I was couchsurfing with you in Eilat, Israel! So grateful to have you on the journey and to have you as a friend. See you soon my friend!


  2. What great insight into the wonder and creation of music in Iceland. It’s interesting to read that it’s more than just the stereotypical landscapes and nature scenes that are driving the music scene there. Great stuff, Scott, keep it coming!


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