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Musician Nico Muhly’s Guide to Iceland

By Andrew Richdale

May 14, 2014

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Illustration by Sam Kerr. Photos courtesy of Harpa, Brytta/iStock, Aja Þrastardóttir

Juilliard-trained pianist and composer Nico Muhly has never really taken an orthodox path. His undergraduate mentor at Columbia? Philip Glass. He has followed up indie albums full of dissonant lullabies by scoring Oscar-winning films. For the last 10 years, his quarterly trips to Iceland have become a sacred creative routine. Here, Muhly offers guidance
to the isle, which is ripest for travel now, when nearly 24 hours of daylight reigns. Here, Nico’s highlights.

Harpa Concert Hall

Where I Dream

“I’ve been working out of Greenhouse Studios in Breiðholt, a suburb of Reykjavik, since 2006. It’s such an idyllic place to write and record. Valgeir Sigurðsson, my collaborator, owns the place and lives there himself.”

The Best Music Experiences

“It’s wonderful how omnivorous Icelanders are about music. Everybody seems to have a sister who plays in the symphony. And also in a rock band. There are big music festivals in Reykjavik, such as Iceland Airwaves (held, this year, in the Harpa Concert hall at left) in November, but I prefer the small-town chamber music festivals in the Westfjörðs, like Við Djúpur in the town of Ísafjörður. That one is usually held in the summer, but you can find these local events all year long.”

Iceland highwayWhat Drives Them


“Icelanders are crazy about cars. The airport is pretty far from Reykjavik on this long, straight road through lava fields. It would seem natural to build a fabulous streamlined rail service, right? But there were strange things going on in Iceland’s boom years. I guess everybody wanted a Land Rover, and nobody was interested in building a bullet train.”


(Way) Off the Beaten Path

“I love going to Hvalfjörður (left), a fjord on the island’s west side. Rent a car and take the long way there, via the old scenic Route 1, not the newer Hvalfjarðargöng tunnel. There’s something so lonesome and gorgeous about this place. Don’t miss the abandoned Quonset huts.”

The Taste of Iceland

“I’m so into Icelandic lamb. The creatures nibble on mountain thyme and that flavor comes through. Try it at newcomer Kol in Reykjavik, which serves it grilled with blueberries.”

This appeared in the June/July 2014 issue. 

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