Draumalandid is part of a full-on multimedia expose of Alcoa’s aluminum smelters in Reydarfjordur, Iceland. The company’s first plant was planned in 2002, built in 2005, and became live in 2007. The music is the soundtrack to a documentary based on the book Dreamland: A Self-Help Manual for a Frightened Nation, by Andri Snaer Magnason. The book came out in Icelandic in 2006 and was released in English in 2008, although it has not been published in the U.S. (I bought my copy on a trip to Iceland). It was written before Iceland’s economy tanked, but it addressed the existential crisis: what kind of nation should Iceland be?
Iceland is to countries as the platypus is to animals: it’s neither one thing nor another. Even its continental status is ambiguous, as the divide between the North American and European geologic plates runs through the island. It has just 300,000 people, highly educated, very sophisticated, and poor for most of the country’s history. Iceland has two major natural resources, fish and energy. Fishing the Arctic is hard and dangerous work, and unlike in Saudi Arabia, Iceland’s energy resources aren’t easy to transport. The country is rich in geothermal and hydro power. You can swim in outdoor pools all year round, which is great fun (and I know of no better cure for jet lag than sitting in a hot tub in bright sunshine on the day of arrival), but it doesn’t make for a robust economy.
Iceland’s government has long looked for ways to bring energy users to Iceland. Aluminum smelting is one of the most energy-intensive industries on earth, and both the bauxite and the smelted aluminum are lightweight that shipping costs are relatively low. Hence, the country’s economic development mavens struck on the idea of building smelters in Iceland, shipping the ore in and the finished product out. To make it work, new hydroelectric dams had to be built and new power lines constructed. And none of this was exactly good for Iceland’s pristine environment.
Magnason wrote Draumalandid, or Dreamland, as a meditation on the problem. What was Iceland like before, and why did people want it to be something different? What relationship should the people have with the land and the economy? The book was a bestseller in Iceland and started a national conversation. In 2006, the Icelandic economy was hot. By 2008, it was in serious decline; the nation’s banks had been speculating on exchange rates to offer high interest rates to depositors in the U.K. and the Netherlands, and they ran into trouble at the very front end of the global financial crisis. Now, it looked as though Iceland had sold itself out to international financial interests and had nothing but ugly power lines to show for it.
Dreamland was turned into a movie in 2009, and is now on a tour of the world’s film festivals and art houses. For the soundtrack, the producers turned to Valgeir Sigurdsson. Primarily a producer and studio musician, Sigurdsson has also composed music for other soundtracks. For this movie, Sigurdsson composed what can best be described as a classical version of ambient techno. He uses strings to pull the action along, creating a sense of urgency and dread.
The book, the movie, and the music are all very Icelandic in nature. (Of course Sigurdsson has worked with Bjork! And Bjork wrote the introduction to the English edition of the book! There are only 300,000 people in Iceland.) But no matter where you live, they all raise one question: what are you willing to give up for economic growth?
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