13 Dec 2023

Songs of the turf

From Three to Seven, 4:00 pm on 13 December 2023

Dr Kimberly Cannady talks to Bryan Crump about her exploration of Iceland's historic turf houses, and how houses made of sods of earth affect the music made in them.

Turf house in Iceland.

Turf house in Iceland. Photo: Kimberly Cannady

They don't make houses like they used to in Iceland.

A combination of cold and a lack of trees forced Icelanders to build their homes out of the earth they stand on.

An Icelandic turf house is simply that: a dwelling with walls made of sods of earth. Sometimes even the roof is covered with them.

Up until the 20th century, this was the way many Icelanders lived. This is also where they relaxed and, during those long Arctic winter nights, made music. Turf houses, with walls made of earth, have a very distinct acoustic.

Interior of turf house, Iceland.

Interior of turf house, Iceland. Photo: Kimberly Cannady

Ethnomusicologist Dr Kimberly Cannady

Ethnomusicologist Dr Kimberly Cannady Photo: Gerry Keating

Victoria University Ethnomusicologist Dr Kimberly Cannady is fascinated by those spaces and the sort of music made in such an intimate environment and acoustic.

She spoke with RNZ Concert host Bryan Crump about her recent trip to Iceland to listen to traditional Icelandic music performed in traditional Icelandic dwellings.

Because these days, most Icelanders live in houses made of wood, brick or concrete, built on foundations that sit on top of the ground and they make their music in halls with reverberant walls, floors and ceilings.

Cannady wanted to hear the old songs in the acoustic they were originally made for.

She found one of Iceland's leading folk singers, Linus Orri, put him in a turf house, and listened.

The result blew her mind.


"You know, what I noticed was when Linus was performing, it became awkward to look at him... because it felt like it was so close and so intimate I felt I needed to insert some space. It almost felt like I was encroaching on a private act."

Gone is the distance usually placed between a performer and listener in a concert hall.

And in Icelandic tradition, these songs – which are often stories with music – might have lasted for a hour or more, in a single room with walls made of turf. This is where a typical family will do all its work, play, eating and sleeping and even having babies – especially in the long winter nights.

Most Icelanders abandoned their turf houses in the 20th century, when new technology and materials made it possible to build above ground.

Reykjavik, Iceland.

These days most Icelanders live fully above ground. Photo: tomas1111/123RF

Cannady says many also abandoned the old way of singing.

So why does a country of less than half a million people produce so many great musicians? Cannady mainly credits Iceland's education system. It values music and doesn't put music in silos, which is why many of Iceland's rock musicians can transition so seamlessly into classical music.

But she also suspects that Iceland's desire to establish itself as a modern independent nation led – ironically – to it embracing modern western music at the expense of its traditional songs, and traditional ways of making them.

Cannady says it was Iceland's 1980s punk rock scene that began a renaissance in traditional Icelandic music, with the performances at punk gigs by Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson, one of the leading exponents of Iceland's folk music at the time.

It was an unlikely partnership, but Cannady argues the young Icelandic punk rockers saw and heard something in Beinteinsson's traditional rhymes that their parents didn't.

One of those 'young punks' was a woman named Björk Guðmundsdóttir.


Photo: Supplied

Could Björk's incredible musical intensity be related to those turf house songs?

Cannady is reluctant to draw the bow of her hypothesis that far, but she'd love to talk to the singer about it.

Björk, if there's one interview you should give next year, maybe it's that one.

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