Photo by Anna Maggy, provided courtesy of Universal Music Group
About one year after our conversation with Ólafur Arnalds on his audiovisual piece, When We Are Born, the Icelandic composer, multi-instrumentalist, and producer returned to London for his two-night performance at Eventim Apollo on the 16th and 17th of September. These dates formed part of his tour of his 2020 hit album, some kind of peace. STRAND had the pleasure to attend his show on the first night, and catch up with the artist for a second time shortly after he finished his performance.
As we sat in the concert hall on the night of the 16th, we were first greeted by darkness. Then, there was Lhasa de Sela’s enchanting voice: “My father says that birth is so chaotic and violent that he’s sure that at the moment of birth, we’re all thinking ‘That is it. This is death. This is the end of my life.’ And then we’re born and it’s a surprise, because it’s just the beginning.” So began the night with the memorable line that appeared in the film, When We Are Born. Upon hearing this, it was evident to us that what we were going to experience was not a simple show of recorded tracks being played live, but an indulgent feast of audio and visuals.
Ólafur then appeared on stage with his band. The lush sound of the piano started to flow as soon as his fingers landed on the keys. Vertical lights began gliding upwards, capturing the meditative atmosphere as the strings joined in. The music continued beautifully as we listened to the crisp tone of drum beats that added an additional layer to the luscious soundscape. Songs off the album like ‘Back To The Sky’ and ‘Woven Song’ tugged at our heartstrings. The night was also captured by an extremely respectful audience, who applauded and cheered enthusiastically after silently listening to the performance, which was just as tranquil as it was passionate.
An indispensable instrument used in Ólafur’s music has been his self-playing piano. The unique sound can, for example, be heard from ‘Loom’, a track that the artist produced with Bonobo, another British electronic music luminary. The self-playing piano is often a source of inspiration for the Icelandic composer. As he revealed to us, the whole idea of the song, ‘Light of Day’, originated from a phrase played on the instrument. He and ODESZA then just built around that idea.
Ólafur’s works have always been wonderfully diverse. Over the past year, we’ve seen live recordings under the name ‘Sunrise Session’ and a full-length record of soundtracks made for the TV thriller ‘Surface’. Just on the 28th of October this year, the artist released yet another new record, containing complete piano reworks of some kind of peace. Ólafur has always demonstrated incredible agility in working with different artists, encompassing genres from electronic to jazz. He was nominated twice at the 64th annual GRAMMY Awards for these works, with ‘Loom’ nominated for ‘Best Dance/Electronic Recording’ and ‘The Bottom Line’ for ‘Best Arrangement, Instruments and Vocals’.
In terms of future works, Ólafur said that there is no such thing as dream collaborators for him, but rather people that he likes to ‘hang out with’. And that’s perhaps the origin of the creativity and spontaneity that we’ve observed from his existing works. Though, one thing is for sure––we are more than thrilled to hear about any new project from this contemplative artist.
It’s been one year since the screening of When We Are Born at Rough Trade East. How do you feel about this piece right now? Has anything changed since then?
I haven't had the opportunity to see [the film] for a long while, because most of the screenings and festivals that I was attending myself have finished. So I don’t know what I will feel if I watch it right now. But I still feel very proud of that work. Looking back, it was a pretty intense time. I see more and more clearly how intense it was to make this, how much we had to give, and how hard we had to work to actually make it happen at the time that we did it. At the moment, apart from the story that the film is telling, I kind of see it as a proof of concept for me. This format of art is something that is possible. It’s something that I enjoy. And I would love to explore it a bit further.
Are there any plans to create more audiovisual pieces in the future?
Yeah, I think so. I think this [project] will lead to that. Maybe a longer format work, maybe a full-length piece or something like that. But I don’t know, yet. I feel like this worked, you know? It was our first try, so of course, it was not perfect. But I think it’s beautiful. I would be really curious to explore how it can be expanded and brought forward to a larger piece of work.
Over this year, you also worked with other media, such as producing soundtracks for a TV show. What draws you to these productions?
In the end, it’s always about finding new inspirations, new ways of exploring new ideas. That’s usually why I would do, for example, a TV show. There’s something in it, whether it is the script, the actors, the writers, or the directors that I find inspiring. They are people who I can learn something from. I can have an opportunity to make some kind of music that I wouldn’t otherwise have made. That’s what attracts me to it.
In some of your pieces, you are using a piano that can play by itself. How does this influence the way you compose?
What the self-playing piano does for me is that it removes a part of the creative process which has to do with muscle memory. If I play on the piano, I’m being directed by my muscle memory a lot. It’s like cognitive responses in a way. My idea to create this self-playing piano was to mess all of that up. Of course, muscle memory is still gonna be involved, whatever you do, but you'll still get something unique. The instrument makes me work in a different way. And as a bonus, it often gives me music that I couldn’t actually play, like really fast notes, for example, that anyone’s fingers just cannot do. So you can push the sound of the piano out of what is ordinary. You can make sounds from it that are completely new.
Do you think this instrument is something that you’ll continue to use?
It’s hard for me to leave it because I like it a lot. But I’m also at a point right now where I don’t want to get stuck with it. I’m trying to think of what could be the new thing for me––something else to get obsessed with.
Watching you perform live is very different from streaming your music, so I’d like to know: how are live performances different for you?
It’s about the different contexts of music, right? When we listen to music on vinyl, Spotify, or whatever, we are in control of our environment. I might put the vinyl on while I’m cooking; we might put Spotify on while we’re eating dinner. In these situations, music is secondary. It’s almost the background. But even if you are not using it as a background, if you choose to sit down and listen, you are still the one who controls it. The listener controls its purpose. Whereas in a live environment, I’m in control of everything. So it becomes a really beautiful open canvas for creativity that we just don’t have otherwise.
So my approach is to think about it completely differently from the album. I don’t think songs should be structured the same way in a live environment. I think concerts should have a story, an arc, a high point and a low point. And this matters more than which songs you are playing. My approach is to almost never go to Spotify and see what’s the most popular song that people want to hear. I’d rather spend time creating something new, something specific for that live environment that is specifically catered to the synchronisation with lights, sounds, and so on.
Sometimes you play at music festivals. Is there anything that you think or do differently?
Yeah, the festivals are tricky because they’re hybrid. You’re less in control. People there didn’t all come just to see you. They’re there to go to a festival. So I do structure my setlist a bit differently. In those cases, I may lean more towards popular songs and less towards 10-minute improvisations [laughs], just because you have to grab people’s attention. Otherwise, they’re gonna go to the next stage and see who else is playing. There are a lot more variables to deal with as well, in terms of production. I have weird experiences at festivals, where I’m playing on one stage, and on another stage there are some loud hip-hop bands. You can just hear them from my stage; I’m playing really quiet music. It can be really tricky for us [Ólafur's team] production-wise. We rarely do them, actually. We only do festivals if we can be promised a perfect environment for the music.
Is there anything you do differently with the sound system?
We try to make it a bit louder [laughs]. On my touring show, we play with silence quite a lot. In terms of the sound system, we make it very dynamic. There are some very loud parts and there are some very quiet parts. We don’t do this at festivals; we can’t. If we were to go very quiet, then people would just start talking like they're at a bar. So it’s not really music made for festivals, but it can be a good challenge. When it works, it can be amazing.
You can also read Delia's interview with Ólafur Arnalds's opening act, Sandrayati, here.
Edited by Talia Andrea, Music Editor