Ólafur Arnalds beautiful in the same way the arctic is…
by Headphone Commute
Thórhallur Gunnarsson hosts a popular Icelandic talk show, Kastljós. The show is broadcast six nights a week on a national television network. Almost a hundred thousand viewers tune in each night. That's about one-third of the population of Iceland, which is located in the North Atlantic Ocean just south of the Arctic Circle. The climate must be cold. My hands are cupped around a hot coffee mug; I'm halfway across the globe, sitting in my pajamas, waking up to the latest post on YouTube. In the clip that I'm watching, Gunnarsson opens up with an introduction in Icelandic, a language I don’t understand. No matter. The music that follows requires no words.
The show cuts to a boy sitting behind a grand piano. He is skinny and wearing a white T-shirt and jeans. Next to him is a string quartet. The camera zooms in on his hands. The boy plays a single melody composed of exactly six notes. In the background there is an echo of digital hiss. After an introduction of four repetitions, the quartet joins in. The accompanying harmony and chord progression is indisputably classical. But at about two minutes, the bass kicks in.
The boy in a white T-shirt and jeans is a twenty-one year old Ólafur Arnalds. Born in a suburban Icelandic town, Mosfellsbær, he composes melancholic, emotionally fueled, and undeniably beautiful music. Ólafur studied piano when he was very young. After about a year of lessons, he decided to switch to drums instead. He kept his studies in drums up until two years ago, when he switched over again, this time adding classical theory and composition. Influenced by electronic, post-rock, and modern classical music alike, Arnalds incorporates various stylistic elements into his work. He seamlessly embraces contemporary symphonic composition and instruments but also makes use of electronic instrumentation. After I listened to Arnalds's 2007 debut, Eulogy for Evolution, I wanted to express my feelings and thoughts about it. Majestic, graceful, gorgeous and sublime are words that popped into my mind. But they are meager words when compared to the emotion in that music.
Signed to Erased Tapes Records, Ólafur quickly followed up his album with an EP, Variations of Static. The first track, titled “Fok,” is the one performed live on the Icelandic talk show. The music on the twenty-one minute release continues to drench a listener’s soul in sadness, and you begin to wonder about the story behind the music. It seems that only someone with a huge heartache could write something this touching. Perhaps the spoken interludes in a computerized child's voice may shed some light:
Do you still remember when we were little? When we were playing in the park and you asked me what happens when you die. I said you forget everything ... everything. “Even you?” you asked. Yes, even me. You did not want to die. Never forget. The remains of what we used to have were taken away with the softest squeeze. How did I forget? How...
Arnalds’s simplistic melodies somehow bring me back into my childhood, when I was encouraged by my parents to practice the scales and the classical pieces by Mozart and Chopin. The music of classical composers remain with me well into adulthood.
Listening to electronic music since I was very young, I always felt like an outcast. No one seemed to be on the same wavelength with my taste. I found myself lurking on underground forums, speeding on weeknights to private gatherings, and clipping short write-ups from low-budget publications. When I did find a likeminded soul, bridging the gap between electronic and classical remained difficult. The genres seemed to be on two opposite spectrums.
Would it be a wonder that Ólafur has fulfilled my dreams with his compositions? You can imagine my glee at discovering such an artist. Throughout the album, the strings walk up and down the classical scales created during the Baroque era and perfected by the Romantics, and the glitchy percussion integrates itself into the familiar progressions for the contemporary ear. Arnalds manages to remix my memories and create a nostalgic soundtrack to my past.
I track down Ólafur for a mini interview and probe his mind for inspiration.
Inspiration is always a complicated thing to talk about. Everything inspires me on some level and it is very hard to tell which things have the most effect. It is very hard to realize for yourself what makes you do what you do. You just do it, you know? Sometimes I don't even think about it, I just do it and it comes automatically. I think that is one kind of inspiration, the one you don't notice, something that is more just hidden inside you, and it comes from everything around you; your friends, the music you listen to and whatever you experience. It doesn't even have to come from the outside... it can just be some impulses in my body that tell my hands to move in a certain direction on the piano.
The other kind of inspiration is the more obvious one: when I can actually feel this really big inspiration inside me. I have maybe experienced something and I feel like you just have to write some music right now, and before I even start, I know how it will end. I know completely how it is going to be. For me, that inspiration usually comes from movies. I love the art form that is films and some films are just like music. So beautiful, and I just want to turn them into music.
And is there a special story behind Variations of Static that you can reveal?
It's just something I started improvising with by total coincidence... I had the idea of having some poem or something before one of the songs or in a song, but I was on holiday and didn't have any recording equipment, so I tried using the speech function on my Mac instead... I just wrote down a few lines - the first things that came up in my head - and made my computer read it out loud. Just the surreality of hearing a computer talking about memories and feelings and all these human emotions inspired me so much that I decided to keep it this way. There is kind of a story there but it's not real, and the point of this is much more to get people to think about where feelings come from and why it is so weird to hear a computer talk about it... I mean, if someone would build a robot that was 100% like the human body, would it have feelings? And if not, why?
Arnalds is steadily gaining recognition worldwide. He has already performed alongside Aphex Twin, Amiina and Jóhann Jóhannsson. He will also accompany his fellow Icelanders Sigur Rós on their tour, and open some of their European shows in August. He will then set out on his first Asian tour before coming back to work on his second album. If this is the first time you're hearing about Ólafur Arnalds, jump on board to participate in the development of this unbelievably talented composer. Eulogy for Evolution and Variations of Static will be released in North America this summer, and will be accompanied by a free digital copy of the Erased Tapes Collection I compilation, to celebrate the label's first anniversary. Check out his website for upcoming tour dates. Highly recommended if you love Max Richter, Zbigniew Preisner, Jóhann Jóhannsson and Nico Muhly.
Ólafur Arnalds & Quartet joining Sigur Rós on stage to perform "Gobbledigook" (Remember Björk & Ólafur's cousin Ólöf Arnalds on stage @ Nature Awareness Concert @ Reykjavik (June 2008)
Ólafur Arnalds Opening Up Spaces
by The Milk Factory
Twenty one year old Icelandic musician Ólafur Arnalds first appeared last year with his debut album, Eulogy For Evolution, released in the UK on the excellent Erased Tapes imprint, and instantly gathered some impressive critical praises for his widescreen contemporary classical music tinted with discreet electronics and hints of indie. Earlier this year, Arnalds returned with a more minimal EP, Variations Of Static, on which he let electronics texture his work more prominently. With an opening slot for Sigur Rós during the summer and a major tour already in full swing, Ólafur took a few moments to talk about his musical background, the elitism in modern classical music and the challenges of taking the genre to a young audience, and being the next big thing to come out of Iceland.
Ólafur, you are currently touring and are due to spend most of the summer on the road. Where are you currently, and how do you deal with being away from home for long period of time?
I’m currently in Haarlem, Netherlands. We played in Berlin last night and it was great. I will be on the road, with a few short breaks, until the end of November. I’m quite okay with being away from home for so long because I really like touring. Sometimes I miss my family a little bit but I’ve become quite good at dealing with that. Actually my little sister joined us today and will be on the tour with us for the next week.
You will be supporting Sigur Rós on tour later in August. What is it like to open for them?
I’m really looking forward to that! Should be great, and I think it’s one of the best bands I could possibly support because their fans tend to like my music too.
You were born and grew up in Iceland. How did you come to music? What were your influences when you were growing up, and do you think Iceland has influenced your work in any way? How?
I started music school at the age of five, and have never stopped since. I studied many various instruments but my main one for most of the time was drums. When I was fourteen or fifteen, I started to get really interested in film scores and classical music and decided to have a go at music like that. Some of Eulogy For Evolution was written around that time.
Of course Iceland has influenced me; your surroundings always influence you, no matter whether they live in Iceland, London or Dubai. But if you are hinting at the nature and scenery in Iceland then my answer is pretty much ‘no’. It’s much more about the community I live in and the people I am around and work with. Iceland is very small and the music scene is smaller, so everyone kind of knows each other; so in some way we must all influence each other.
You work with regular instruments (piano, strings) but you also use electronics in your work, and your music extends beyond purely classical forms to incorporate elements of ambient and indie. How did all this come about?
I want to make music that is kind of classical but still reaches the ‘normal’ listener. So many kids today close their ears when they hear the terms ‘classical music’ because it’s something old and something maybe their parents or grandparents listen to. It’s not very ‘fresh’. But there is so much good classical music out there, so I would like to take some of those classical influences and bring them to people in a more modern and accessible way. This does not only show in how I use elements from or indie music but also how I structure my songs, my chord progression and melodies.
Also, what I hate about the classical scene is how closed it is. So much of it is modernist composers writing music that no one understands apart from other modern composers. It’s some kind of an elite that I really don’t want to be a part of. I don’t want to write music that no one understands but the people who have studied it for many years. I experienced this a lot in my year at the Academy of the Arts in Iceland and it really bugged me. I felt like the teachers were kind of forcing us in this direction - to make music that nobody likes except our teachers and other students who will later grow up to be teachers.
At the end of last year, you released your first album, Eulogy For Evolution. On it, all the track names were numbers, with no apparent sequence to them. What was the meaning of these, and is this part of a concept for the whole album?
Yes the numbers are a part of the whole concept of Eulogy For Evolution. It’s pretty hard to explain it in a written interview where I don’t have the album artwork to show you what I am talking about. But I never meant for people to completely understand this, I think that most people get that this is somehow connected to the pictures in the booklet and that’s enough really. The album is a story, and I imagine the pictures inside the booklet being shot at certain points in the story, and the numbers are actually the times (minutes and seconds) in the album that I imagine the image being shot at. When I was working on the album it wasn’t divided into tracks, it was just one long track, so the numbers refer to the time that has passed of the whole album - not each track. So for example 3055 refers to the picture I imagine to be shot at 30 minutes and 55 seconds into the whole album, and when I divided the album into tracks, this picture turned out to be in track six, so that’s why track six is called 3055.
You said in an interview that you hadn’t had any classical training before you started working on Eulogy. How did you come to choose a largely classical setting, and how do you feel about being recognised primarily as a classical composer?
I had had a lot of musical training but most of it was jazz or pop orientated. It was not until after (or during, I can’t really remember) making Eulogy For Evolution that I actually started to concentrate more on the classical side of my studies. I just got really interested in this genre really fast (as I explained above) and I just went for it.
I think the term ‘classical composer’ can fit me quite well. I write a lot of music that is much more classical and traditional than the music that ends up on my albums. I have written serialist pieces, neo-romantic pieces in the vein of Shostakovich and even some fugues in the vein of Bach. But I don’t want to be ONLY classified as a classical composer because I do so many other things as well.
Was it a project you worked on for a while, and did you have a good idea of what you wanted it to sound like before you started?
Actually, I hadn’t even thought about making an album until I got offered a record deal (which happened through a job I did for the German metal band, Heaven Shall Burn. I wrote an intro, interlude and an outro on their album), but as soon as I started working on it I started brainstorming about how I wanted the final product to sound. I came up with the basic concept and started writing quite freely, not restricting my compositions to the concept. Then when I had written half of the album I finalized the concept and wrote the rest of it thinking much more about making the album sound as a whole and fitting it to the concept, using themes I had already used in other songs, etc.
Your new EP, Variations Of Static, is much more minimal than Eulogy, and electronics seem to be more prominent throughout. Was this a conscious effort? Did you approach this project in a different way to the album?
Well I had three songs that I had written after I finished Eulogy For Evolution but before it actually got released, I knew that I wasn’t going to release another full length for quite some time and I didn’t want these songs to be old news by the time I finally started working on a new album. So I decided to make this EP. I approached it in a similar way as EFE - ie. I came up with the concept before writing the rest of the songs and those remaining two songs I wrote with the concept strictly in mind. I had gotten really interested in electronics at this time so I decided to incorporate some of them into it, I also wanted to have the record less epic and less dramatic than the first one so that was also a conscious decision of making it more minimalist.
As a young musician and composer who, at just 21, has already released an album and an EP, did you find it easy to get noticed, and do you think the success of Icelandic artists such as Björk, Sigur Rós or Jóhann Jóhannsson have helped in any way?
I didn’t really think much about it at first, but yes I guess it was kind of easy for me to get noticed. At first I don’t think I really expected to get this much recognition amongst the ‘mainstream’ scene with an album that is basically classical. Yes other big Icelandic artist have gained people’s interest in Iceland and a lot of people look especially for new Icelandic music now because how much they like the other Icelandic artists.
You release music on the young London-based label Erased Tapes, which has quite a diverse roster, ranging from electronica to rock. How did you come to release your music there, and is the diversity of the music released important to you?
They actually just contacted me through MySpace saying ‘We love you! We should work together!’. I was already signed to the German Progression Records but they happily licensed some territories back to me so I could work with Erased Tapes on those territories - as Progression doesn’t have a worldwide distribution. But no, it’s not important to me what other bands are on the label. It’s much more about how the label is run and how well we can work together. I work really well with both Erased Tapes and Progression.
Your music often has a strong melancholic streak, something that is very prominent on both Eulogy and Variations. Are you a melancholic kind of person in life?
No I’m not actually. I think I’m a very happy and positive thinking person. And personally I disagree with that my music is very melancholic, but that’s the interesting thing isn’t it. My music can mean something completely different to me than to you. This is the interesting thing about not having any lyrics, and not making the concept too obvious, people can understand the record in any way they feel like. It is true though that on EFE there are many sad parts, but, at least to me, there are equally many parts that give me hope or make me feel good. As for Variations Of Static, it’s a lot about seeing beautiful things in everything, no matter how bad or sad it is. I don’t know whether that falls under ‘melancholic’ or not, but either way I don’t look at it as a depressing album.
There is also a cinematic aspect to your work. It is easy to see your music accompanying a sequence in a film for instance. Is that something you are interested in? Do you have any idea of what kind of films you’d like to work on, and how you would like to approach working on a film soundtrack?
Yes. It is something I am very interested in and I would like to try some day. I guess I’m just waiting for someone to ask me to write music to their movie. I think my dream director to work with would be Guillermo del Toro, his films deal with subjects that I would really like to write music to. It just fits really well with how I look at music and life. How I approach the subject of course depends on the film but I am really interested in films where the music tells people something that is not already on the screen, so the music actually has its own role in the movie and gives the viewer information that the film can’t do on its own. This is a big challenge but something I would like to try.
Both the album and EP have been very well received by critics. Does this put some pressure on your for your next record?
Yes and no. I just do what I do. I’m not thinking about the past when I am writing new material, and I try not to think too much about what people want to hear and what they don’t. But of course I’m always a bit worried that people won’t like it as much as the others, and I always want to better myself. It can seem kind of hard to better myself after my last record getting 9/10 in most reviews.
Do you already know which direction you want to take with your next record?
Not completely, no, but I have already written five songs, but I don’t know if they will all end up on the record. I have been thinking about trying to make some sort of a mix of both my previous records. Include the electronics and minimalism of Variations Of Static but still use some of the acoustic drums and the dramatic heights of Eulogy For Evolution.
Did you take any music on tour with you, and if yes, what are you currently listening to a lot?
Actually I didn’t take any music on tour with me apart from what is on my computer hard drive. I don’t have an iPod and I can’t really be bothered with taking loads of CDs. I don’t listen to a lot of music on tour either, I’m usually pretty busy from the moment I wake up in a new city and until after the show. Currently I’m loving the last Burial record (Untrue) and I’m still trying to get into the new Death Cab For Cutie album, I didn’t like it at first but it’s really starting to grow on me now.
If you had to highlight five records that have influenced your work in any way, which ones would they be?
Phew.. this is going to be hard.. I look at inspiration as something much more complicated than just the artists I listen to. 90% of it is subconscious so it’s really hard to tell what the biggest influences are.
But here are some albums/works that have been a big influence:
Arvo Pärt: Fur Alina: Part’s first composition in Tintinabuli style. A style that I studied a lot, using his works as the guideline. This technique has really influenced my compositions although I don’t use it directly.
Dmitri Shostakovich: String Quartet no. 8: I studied this quartet (around seventeen minutes long) note by note and learned very much from it.
Max Richter: Memoryhouse: I only heard this album for the first time a few weeks ago and I think it’s amazing! By far his best work and it’s already taught me a few things and a few techniques I would really like to try out for myself.
Hot Water Music: No Division (or in fact any of their albums): They never leave a song without some hope. They are always like ‘everything sucks, but don’t worry, it’s going to be OK’. This band has taught me a lot, not about music but about how I look at my life.
Death Cab For Cutie: The Stability EP (or almost any other album): I don’t know what exactly I have taken from them or how it has influenced me, It’s very unconscious, but there must be something. This is just too good to not influence me in some way.