Iceland’s Musical Allure: How an Oscar Winner Found His Muse in the Land of Fire and Ice (Guest Column)

Composer Volker Bertelmann turned to Thorvaldur Bjarni Thorvaldsson during the pandemic

Composer Volker Bertelmann and producer/composer Thorvadur Bjarni Thorvaldsson

Just over 60 miles from the Arctic Circle, in the northern climes of Iceland, lies the town of Akureyri. While it may be a bit hard to pronounce, Akureyri is fast becoming known as the Arctic Abbey Road. Iceland is quickly emerging as the leading supplier of musicians and the cutting-edge facilities that record them, with musical directors from Netflix to Disney flocking there. And Akureyri is the gleaming sonic gem in this crown of sound.

Amid this Nordic cacophony is a man known as Iceland’s George Martin – a producer and composer whose long tenure in Icelandic music (his band Todmobile just celebrated their 35th anniversary) has fast become legend to music directors and composers all over the world.

Thorvaldur Bjarni Thorvaldsson — or as he is affectionately known to classic composers and rockstars as simply “Tod” — is an unassuming man who can multitask and summon forth timpani players and charter planes for visiting composers while having Iceland’s Minister of Culture on speed-dial. When the coronavirus pandemic had all but shut down the world’s sound stages and recording studios, Tod became the poster boy for Iceland’s can-do attitude when it came to providing the talents of her musicians and the allure of her stages and studios, no matter what the challenge.

One composer who sought out Tod was Oscar winner Volker Bertelmann. Affectionately known as “Hauschka” by his legion of fans, Bertelmann clinched a Best Original Score win in 2023 for “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

It took a pandemic for Bertelmann to entertain the thought of recording Netflix’s “The Old Guard” and “Against the Ice” in Iceland. “We are normally booked at Abbey Road with the London Philharmonic” Bertelmann explained. “And then the Corona came, and all the studios were closed. The only studio still open was in Iceland.”

COVID-19 cared not for pedigree or Academy stature. And safely social distancing a 44-piece orchestra would require a sound stage the size of a football field.

It was Hauschka’s friendship with Icelandic composer and conductor Atli Örvarsson that enabled him to pierce the veil of coronavirus limitations. Amy Dunning, Netflix’s VP of Music, had given Atli a call to ask him if Iceland was open for Bertelmann. Atli handed Amy over to Tod, and as Tod put it, “the ball started to roll.”

Bertelmann had never worked with Tod before. They began corresponding with each other daily in the lead-up to Bertelmann’s Icelandic sessions during the pandemic. They also struck up a friendship. “Personally, we really liked each other,” Bertelmann reflected. “Had we not liked each other, we could not have gotten through this. It felt in a way, easy.” As it turned out, it was anything but easy.

“I received an e-mail from Atli that Volker was again interested in using the resources of SinfoniaNord to perform and record,” Tod explained. “Of course, because of COVID, Iceland was one of the very few options that were available. We scheduled a Zoom conference with Amy Dunning at Netflix along with some other executives and a couple of medical compliance people. I was made aware of a video that showed a french horn player emptying the spit from his mouthpiece next to another brass player. They were horrified that this might happen and I assured them it was impossible since we were only scoring strings, harp and percussion.”

For the month leading up to Bertelmann’s arrival in Akureyri, preparations for Bertelmann was challenged by the sheer enormity of another studio’s occupation of SinfoniaNord. Disney was also taking advantage of one of the only open studios during the pandemic to record the soundtrack for the 50th Anniversary of Disney World in Florida. The day that Bertelmann’s plane touched down, Tod was saying goodbye to Disney and the musicians of the 90-piece orchestra that Tod assembled for them. “It was so close, that they just met each other coming and going,” laughed Tod.

Recording sessions were held at the Hof, an architectural marvel that arches upward from the Akureyri village terrain. Medical personnel stationed each musician precisely equidistant apart, and each musician had to pass a temperature test before they entered the auditorium. Off-stage, each musician had their own table where they could park their instrument and eat lunch. I asked Tod where they rehearsed. I wasn’t prepared for his response. “Rehearse? There are no rehearsals. These are professionals. Each musician has a Masters Degree in music, or the equivalent, and many come from the Iceland Symphony Orchestra.”

Tod’s ability to adapt to any given challenge may be characteristic of the mind-set of the Icelandic musician. Every musician, composer and producer that I talked with for this piece agreed: There is something very different and very unique about Icelandic musicians.

Lilja Alfreðsdóttir, Iceland’s minister of culture, explained this characteristic: “Icelandic musicians are organic and explosive. While Iceland has all the traditional components and forms of music, the music hierarchy is less complex due to the size of the population. Musicians tend to need to wear many hats, which encourages cooperation across all genres. In some cases, this has produced artists that transcend genres and music that are not necessarily commercial in a traditional sense.”

As for the signature sound, Bertelmann’s engineer Stephen McLaughlin agreed with Hans Zimmer’s quote on Icelandic musicians: “There’s a uniqueness. You can tell the London sound, the Los Angeles sound – and you can tell when you are using Icelandic musicians. There is an ethereal ‘darkness,’ something magical.”

Listen to Todmobile in concert below:

Richard Stellar was the winner of the Los Angeles Press Club’s best blog award and a Southern California Journalism Award for his HollyBlogs at TheWrap. He lives in Woodland Hills, California, with his wife of more than 30 years, Nuala, and much too much Beatles memorabilia.


One response to “Iceland’s Musical Allure: How an Oscar Winner Found His Muse in the Land of Fire and Ice (Guest Column)”

  1. Miles Avatar

    An interesting and unexpected story about a part of the world I don’t hear enough about. Music has many homes.

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