Pétur Jónasson, Icelandic guitarist

Pétur Jónasson, Guitarist, Head of Classical Guitar Studies, Iceland Academy of the Arts, Iceland

For the story, I met Pétur when I have been invited to the IMMERSION 2015 in Reykjavík, Iceland, a festival that welcomed nine of the best Scandinavian contemporary music ensembles. I had been impressed by the community spirit and the pride of the Icelandic artists for their thriving artistic life and the beautiful Harpa (concert hall and art centre). This piece of architecture is a real jewel what shines and glitters like a crystal at the tip of the bay, throughout the day and even the night. I hope by this interview will give you the taste to discover the artistic life of this country of fire and ice.

Pétur Jónasson was born in Reykjavík, Iceland. At the age of nine he began studying the guitar with Eythór Thorláksson at the Gardar School of Music, later continuing under Manuel López Ramos at the Estudio de Arte Guitarrístico in Mexico City. Since graduating in 1980, he has also studied with Abel Carlevaro, David Russell and José Luis González from whom he received private instruction for two years. In 1986, Mr. Jónasson was awarded a scholarship from the Spanish Government to study with José Luis Rodrigo at the Santiago the Compostela Master Classes. That same year he was one of only twelve guitarists selected to perform for Maestro Andrés Segovia in the Segovia Master Classes and Commemorative at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
Mr. Jónasson has given numerous solo performances in all the Nordic countries, Great Britain, Continental Europe, North America, Australasia and the Far East. He has recorded programmes for radio and television and released CDs. Pétur is also an active chamber musician and has as such been the leading guitarist for the CAPUT Contemporary Music Ensemble for many years and, more recently, the London-based RIOT Ensemble.
Pétur has given first performances of a number of new works for solo guitar which have been written especially for him.
In 2011, he was appointed artistic director of the Nordic Music Days international festival of contemporary music and co-artistic director and manager of the Dark Music Days Festival of contemporary music in Reykjavík. In 2015, he was the director of IMMERSION, a unique one-day festival presenting five leading Nordic ensembles. Pétur Jónasson was awarded the Sonning stipendium in Copenhagen and became the first Icelandic soloist to be nominated for the Music Prize of the Nordic Council.
In 2015, he was awarded an MSc degree in Performance Science from the Royal College of Music in London, where he is currently undertaking doctoral studies, focusing on the memorization of contemporary music. Since 2004, he has been Head of Classical Guitar Studies at the Iceland Academy of the Arts.

Marie-France Mathieu Hi Pétur. Thank you to meet me here in London for this interview as we both meet out of our native Country since you are from Iceland.

Pétur Jónasson It’s a pleasure to see you and to speak about my professional life and the music in Iceland.

MFM For the benefits of our readers, let’s start by telling me a bit about your professional path.

PJ I’m a performing musician, a classical guitarist; I have a career of being a soloist and also a chamber musician. I perform regularly with two contemporary music ensembles, in the last years I have been focusing more on contemporary music than other styles.

MFM Is there a reason for focusing especially on contemporary music?

PJ It always interested me, ever since I was very young. Just after my debut concert, one of the first things I did, was to commission new music. I have no idea why. (Smile) I think it just expands the repertoire, it expands the mind. I use to play in a rock band…I still do.

MFM Really? Wow! How interesting.

PJ Yes I have a concert on Saturday night with my rock band.

MFM Is it important for you to touch to every possibilities regarding music?

PJ Yeah. Well, I think it’s a state of mind as well. I like playing in a band. I like the playing together. Sometimes, I feel the contemporary music ensembles remind me of this power of being together. What the rock band gave me when I was much younger.

MFM Do you want to tell us more about your present collaborations and professional commitments?

PJ Yes! I perform with a contemporary music ensemble called CAPUT, based in Iceland, and now I am also playing with an ensemble called the Riot Ensemble, based here in England. Right now I am preparing to premiere three new works with the Riot that we have recently commissioned. Then I teach at the Iceland Academy of the Arts in Iceland (Reykjavík).

MFM Tell us more about what are your main tasks as teacher at the Academy of the Arts in Iceland?

PJ I teach the instrument (classical guitar). I also teach chamber music and I give some lectures on different aspects of being a performer, being a musician. I supervise the writing, reading essays for the final exams. So I have different things to do and it’s a lot of organisation.

MFM You recently told me that you are also doing a PhD in music.

PJ I am studying at the Royal College of Music (London, UK) in the department of Performance Science. This is empirical research on different aspects of performance and performers. It’s a very wide field and my speciality will be memorisation into the cognitive part of it and memorisation of contemporary music especially.

MFM Is there another side of your professional career you haven’t mentioned yet?

PJ Yes!! I am also a manager and director of music festivals. I should not forget about that! (Laughing)

MFM No, you should not!

PJ I can say that, I have about four main lines in my career at the moment.

MFM What kind of path have you took to reach the place you are in your career at the moment?

PJ When I was studying, the path was just to be a soloist you know! All my studies were directed in that path and I had like fifteen years of just giving solo concerts all over. Only focusing on that, no teaching, nothing else. Then, time passed and I did different things.

MFM How did you manage to become a soloist in first place?

PJ I studied music when I was a kid and then I did further music studies in Mexico, with a famous Argentinian maestro focusing heavily on classical music. Then I was in Spain for many years as well, for private studies and masterclasses.

MFM Speaking about studies, since you are now yourself a teacher, tell me more about the music studies in Iceland. How is it? What’s going on over there?

PJ In Iceland there is a quite good network of music colleges all around the country. You know, Iceland has only one city, the capital (Reykjavík) and the rest are much smaller places. But there are small towns and villages all around the coast, and in every single one there is a music school. Some forty years ago the Minister of Culture and Education, who was a brilliant man, decided to promote music as education for everybody all around the country. So, you go to a small place which maybe only has 500 people or less and there will be a music school there. And sometimes, you have all the kids in the town all studying music. After school they go and have lessons.

MFM It’s an amazing initiative. Is it still working?

PJ Yes it’s still working and we see the fruits of that now.

MFM What kind of fruits, of results do you see?

PJ A lot of high quality musicians, taking in fact that it’s just a small country (332.529 inhabitants in 2016). We have a very good symphony orchestra, a few semi-professional choirs and there’s a lot of pop and rock music and cross-genre projects. Music is a very organic thing in this small country.

MFM Do the fact of having a music school in every village, have an impact on the communities around Iceland and the country as well?

PJ Yes it has, because all these teaching positions needed to be filled attracted a lot of people from for instance the UK and Eastern Europe, coming over to teach. All these high quality musicians put the standard of music education very high form the very start. They would come and make a change in their life, settle in a tiny village and start to teach. They would also form choirs, they would be the organ player for the church, and then each place ended up with a choir as well. So, this feeds the community very strongly. People meet in the music school, they all do music.

MFM How is the music industry in Iceland?

PJ Well, in Iceland the music industry is thriving; there is a lot to do. I think we benefit from being right between Europe and North America. Iceland was a Viking settlement and Vikings like to travel. I think it is very strong in our mentality, we look in all directions. It sounds like a “cliché”, but it’s true.

MFM How this mentality influences the music education?

PJ Because it’s an island, this travelling has also been by necessity, because until 15-20 years ago there was no higher education, there was no conservatoire. So everybody who wanted to continue studies had to go abroad. Now, we have the academy, so young people have the choice to continue to study in Iceland or to go abroad.

MFM Do the academy or government have plans to expand the higher education or the academy.

PJ Yes, there is, but without closing on the option for students to travel abroad to study, we keep it very open. For instance, in the instrumental and vocal department at the academy we don’t offer Master’s degrees, only Bachelor degrees. So to do a Master’s, students have to go abroad and we encourage them to go and get to know something else… we’re a small community.

MFM But do you think it would be nice to welcome students from abroad at a higher level in order to share knowledge and ideas?

PJ I know! We do receive students from abroad via the ERASMUS exchange project, and I think this will be increasing in few years, but, yes, this would be good and I believe it will happen before too long.

MFM Would you talk about the music tradition in Iceland?

PJ I think that the fact that being an island nation and being from Viking descendants, it means being open and looking in all directions. One thinks to conquer the territory! (Laugh). In the exportation way. Another thing is that we are not bound by tradition, like Germans with this incredible tradition of Bach, Brahms. We don’t have that. For instance, classical music in Iceland is a very young field. Our tradition is more in literature actually, through the ‘sagas’ which have been written in the middle ages. Then there was no music, even in churches, for ages.

MFM Let’s speak about the professional possibilities in Iceland?

PJ They are in a certain way, limited, of course, because it’s such a small place. But I think that it maybe applies to anywhere. We all look for career on a worldwide basis. With the new technologies, the new medias and the way the industry is changing all over, young people are more citizens of the world, they make their music not only for the local community, but to be heard all over.

MFM Do the musicians tend to start their own business or to develop more the existing ones?

PJ I think they try to do it their own way.

MFM What about the established institutions, like the orchestra, the chamber ensembles, opera, academy, etc.? How they make their way in Iceland?

PJ There is one professional symphony orchestra. There is a smaller orchestra in the northern part of the country, which is a semi-professional orchestra, in no way comparing to Iceland Symphony though which is funded by the government and is very established. The quality of the Iceland Symphony has changed dramatically over the last years, with the new generation of players joining the orchestra, and now they have a world-class concert hall as well! (Harpa). Then we have a national opera with an orchestra filled with both the Symphony and freelance professional musicians.

Harpa, Reykjavik, Iceland

MFM To conclude our interview, would you have any advice for musicians and artists from abroad, in order to attract them to Iceland and Icelandic culture?

PJ It’s a land of opportunities, with a lot of open-minded colleagues. The standard of living is very high, being on the Scandinavian level. People are very interested in all the latest technologies. There is a growing field of cross-disciplinary, cross-genre, projects and artists. Some might be composition students at the academy, but then they are rock stars at the same time. They use their knowledge of composition and merge it with new sounds. The most famous example is Björk of course! Everybody knows her. She has a traditional musical education first and of course she is a very creative person as well. New-sounds word! It’s what I can say. Also, it’s very easy to get things done in Iceland, because we help each other. We have a verb that perhaps doesn’t exist in other languages I think, which is called “redda”. “Redda” means: it will be ok, we’ll do it. It’s very special, in the sense that people help each other in that way. So, for instance, if time is running short we just do things anyway, make them happen – together. It’s part of the way people think and work in Iceland.

MFM Thank you so much for your generosity and you time!

PJ My pleasure!

Petur Jonasson’s website
Riot Ensemble
Caput ensemble
Iceland Symphony Orchestra