The Work-Stay: Reykjavik

Olli Aarni and Okkyung Lee at the Nordic House

In early February 2020, Finnish musician Olli Aarni met up with his mentor, Okkyung Lee, for a work-stay at the Nordic House in Reykjavik, Iceland. In this new element of the Forecast program, the mentee and the mentor—who usually live and work in different parts of the world—come together for a period of creative exchanges and concrete mentoring.

The unique cultural institution, which opened in 1968, was designed by acclaimed architect Alvar Aalto, and bears the Finnish modernist’s distinct signature in every detail, down to the furnishing, door handles, and light fixtures.

Both musicians lived in the spectacular building for nearly two weeks and worked together on Aarni’s piece, Ajoittua ja sijaita, which uses the kantele, a traditional instrument, as well as field recordings and electronic sounds to convey an idea of everyday life in Finland. They also undertook a number of trips, soaking in Iceland’s spectacular natural landscape. In addition, Aarni and Okkyung gave a joint concert as part of the Nordic House’s Museum Night, on February 7.

© Nordic House, Reykjavik

Forecast’s Artistic Director Freo Majer met with the two musicians to discuss the importance of meeting face-to-face for a work-stay, and how each of them experiences the mentorship process.

Majer: What’s interesting about meeting for a work-stay in this context?

Aarni: The Nordic house is culturally significant for both Reykjavik and the Nordic region; it’s inspiring to be here and see this collaboration between the Nordic countries. You feel the history here and it’s nice to be able to do something within this continuum. It’s also a good opportunity to revisit the things I’ve done—simply being in a different environment is incredibly important for me, especially since my project is related to my own surrounding.  To be able to look at it from a different place is important.

Lee: The reason for the work-stay is to spend time together and have a more immediate response and reaction to what the other person brings to the project. Even though we’ve been working through Skype chats, lots of texting, and listening to the samples Olli has been working on, the immediacy of working together is extremely important. As is the fact that this is a place that’s neutral for both of us.

We’re dealing with sound, but not only sound. Also with space, and audience … it’s great that we get to meet and share ideas.

Aarni: In a way I’m thinking more about this other stuff than about sound. There are a lot of new things for me. Also, I had no idea of the cultural life in Reykjavik and it’s nice that this coincides with some music and art festivals here. We’re doing a concert here, and don’t really know what to expect in term of audience.

Lee: Not knowing who our audiences is going to be—that’s exciting! Even though it’s a joint concert, we’ll be featuring Olli’s work more. I thought doing a concert would be a great way to check where our process is at. It made sense to do it in preparation for the Forecast Festival in April. You learn so much by doing it: Just thinking about a new space, and what a concert is, how to utilize the lobby situation … it’s always interesting to go into places you don’t know and think about ways to make it interesting, both for us and the audience.

Aarni: Yes, when I saw this space and thought about what I can do with it, I actually also got some new ideas for what to do at radialsystem in April.

Majer: How has the mentorship process been so far? And how do you see your role within it as a mentor or a mentee?

Aarni: As a mentee I pretty much know what I’m after. I was familiar with Okkyung’s work before I applied, and there was something there that wasn’t part of my work before, so I was eager to get as much of that as possible. I recognize things in her work that don’t usually come up in certain contexts: Elements from noise music and electronic sound that she brings into the acoustic realm and a more tactile format. But also how to use different spaces creatively, how to be site-specific in interesting ways, how to structure things and use a more limited set of tools.

What I appreciate in Okkyung as a mentor is that she doesn’t go into the technical details so much but focuses on the content, and she has a good way of asking “What if …” to introduce things I wouldn’t have come up with myself. I often talk to other musicians about my work, but nobody has asked me the questions that Okkyung asks!

Lee: That’s because I don’t know anything about the technical aspect! (laughs) I come at it from a very different angle. I want to encourage Olli to focus on the material and visual element of what he’s doing, not just the aural element.

I always thought about the role of the mentor as someone who can ask certain questions that open a new perspective. Never to insert my opinions or agenda, but just as someone with more experience who’s able to advise and ask unexpected questions.

Olli has always been able to come up with his own ideas in response to my advice, so that’s always exciting, and in turn offers me a different perspective from which to reexamine where my advice came from! That is, in my opinion, the point of the Forecast program.

There’s this calmness to Olli, and a sense of gravity, so whatever I throw at him, he comes back with a response that’s entirely his. To be able to do that means that he has a strong sense of who he is and is in touch with where he’s from and what he wants to achieve. Meaning, he is strong and flexible enough to truly take advantage of this program.

Majer: How is the work you’re doing here flowing into what we’ll see and hear at the festival?

Lee: I’m hoping the performance in April transforms the space into something personal. We intend to intervene with the entire building in a way. Within this work-stay we will see how far we can go. My focus was to push him to go all the way, to get as ambitious as possible. Go for it, how many chances like that do you get? It’s really all about the process and what you take from it for your future.

Aarni: I’m not used to having so much choice in a concert situation, and here at the Nordic House I get to cherry-pick the spaces I can activate for our joint performance. It’s interesting to observe: if I have all these possibilities, what will my choice be?

It’s also cool to see in April how the other mentees have developed their projects since July.