Music Review: Ólafur Arnalds
Bath Forum, 26 September 2018
by Alice Lacey
I was like a moth to a flame. No less than three pianos (two of which were twinkling away, as if by magic), synthesisers, a drum kit and clearly the makings of a string quartet greeted the audience on entering the venue; and I was instantaneously filled with a childish glee of what lay ahead. A veritable amuse-bouche of instruments if ever there was one.
Arnalds, for those unfamiliar with the name, is a multi-instrumentalist and BAFTA winning composer from Iceland, best known for this work on the Broadchurch soundtrack and Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams.
For such an old hand, Arnalds is deceptively young. When all the vestiges of the 32-year old’s career are tallied – music for TV and film, instrumental works, collaborative techno records, early punk recordings, drumming for metal bands – the full spectrum of releases totals well over 20 (and that’s just on Spotify).
As if he needed more projects on his plate, more recently, Arnalds has also invented an innovative piece of software called ‘Stratus’. In a badly formed nutshell, Stratus is designed to control two self-playing, semi-generative pianos; triggered by one central piano. It allows the controller to play complex sequences and progressions which otherwise would be unplayable by conventional, old-hat methods such as, I don’t know, human hands. In essence, by touching one key on his piano, Arnalds can trigger three pianos playing at once – a neo-luddites’ sweat-soaked nightmare but a celestial dream for the likes of myself (i.e. born with a piano strapped to their hands).
Olafur Arnalds is memorizing to watch and more so to listen to
For all his technical wizardry, it is never too hard to locate Arnalds in any of his projects. He possesses a particular music language primarily through simple beautiful piano structures that melt into quiet sadness. That night at the Bath Forum with its lush acoustics and lofty ceilings– this was more or less what was on offer. Arnalds was in town off the back of recent, and critically applauded release: Re:member.
During the performance, Arnalds based himself at a grand piano at the front of the stage. However, through each piece he flitted with unabashed energy between his customised Stratus uprights and custom made analogue keyboards (building a loop, setting off a melody) before turning back to play another counter-melody, signalling to his string quartet and pouring himself into solo piano mood. It was memorizing to watch and more so to listen to.
Much of the evening was devoted to his latest work and the most emblematic and thrilling passages came during the new album’s title track, and its segue into the gorgeous ‘Unfold’ – where the magic of Stratus comes into its own – piano keys twinkling away, enchanting, ethereal and ending far too quickly. ‘Brot’ was another moment of sheer, captivating joy and showcased Arnalds’ talented string players to great effect. During those few moments of shimmering strings, time seemed to be suspended, such was the weight of silence the descended upon the audience.
The more upbeat, dancier ‘Ekki Hugsa’ was also a standout moment – and an effective counter-point to some of the more minimalistic pieces (‘Saman’ and ‘3326’) that preceded it.
The likeable Arnalds punctuated his songs with self-deprecating interludes, in which he spoke about his first visit to Bath in around 2007, when he was the drummer in hardcore punk band Fighting Shit (great name). He also seemed charmingly titillated by the fact that earlier that day, he had taken a hot bath, on Hot Bath Street, whilst in Bath. Perhaps more touchingly, he explained that back during his metal loving teenage years, his grandmother had made him listen to Chopin every time he visited. When she passed away, he wrote ‘Lag Fyrir Ommu’ (“Song for Grandma”) for the piano, which subsequently became the last song of the evening.
The 90-minute performance ended far too quickly – and I was not alone with that thought. As the last few droplets of piano notes scattered into the ethos, a pregnant silence descended upon the audience - only to be broken moments later with ragged, roaring applause and a well-earned standing ovation. Whilst seemingly simple, Arnalds’ music encapsulates all that is beautiful about sadness, and sad about beauty and lying within that, is something truly remarkable.
Re:member (Mercury KX Records) is out now and available at all good record shops for purchase. If you can catch him on the last leg of his European Tour, I urge you to do so.
Alice Lacey is an ardent music lover, piano player, sporadic scribbler and red wine drinker. Having graduated from King's College in London many moons ago with a degree in English Literature, she is now enjoying the delights of Bristol life whilst working full time as a Solicitor.
Listen to Ólafur Arnalds on Spotify, and follow him on social media to keep up to date with upcoming concerts.
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