INTERVIEW: Ólafur Arnalds

Olafur Arnalds

by Ed King @edking2210

A relatively recent pleasure has been my foray in the work of modern composers.

The rise of labels such as Erased Tapes (UK), Denovali (Germany) and New Amsterdam (US) have been bringing an array of fresh classical approaches and avant garde electronica for the past decade; exciting stuff.

As I began to explore, my Tori Amos hangover happily evolved into a toe dip of contemporary pianists – landing feet first in Italy amongst the likes of Ludovico Einaudi and Fabrizio Paterlini.

Then there was the other side of the rainbow; the more electronica based artists, from the subtle intricacies of Nils Frahm to the chill out euphoria of Message to Bears, peppered amongst the classically trained and ‘Live at Scala’. And don’t get me wrong, not every overturned stone shone gold; but as I ploughed through the Spotify ‘Related Artists’ roster I was increasingly engaged. I have not been this turned on by new music since my friend gave me a cassette tape with ‘RAVE’ sellotaped to the front.

But one of the artists who significantly stood out for me (and at one point left me sobbing like child on Harborne High Street) was Olafur Arnalds – the Icelandic ex-Punk drummer, who has been churning out consistent beauty since his debut Eulogy for Evolution EP in 2007.

I was on the hunt for something that would break and inspire me, much as Little Earthquakes did many years ago, and Arnalds has it; the pitch perfect ivory and string compositions that would make me sob like a… I think we’ve established the ‘heart wrenching’. And just as my musical history includes the Ghostbusters’ soundtrack, both Use Your Illusions and several grainy recordings from Dreamscape, it wasn’t all ethereal for Olafur Arnalds.

“It’s just what I grew up with. I always loved the music,” explains Arnalds about his Punk and Metal band beginnings. “There is some great expression in it which you don’t find anywhere else, and the whole culture around it is fascinating and healthy for teens to grow up around. I actually have more of a pop/jazz background, studying drums. I moved slowly over to classical theory in my late teens and ended up enrolling in a Classical Composition major at the Icelandic Academy of Arts. But I dropped out after 1 year.” Arnalds‘s ‘classical’ debut eventually took form in 2004, as three short incidentals on the unashamedly heavy album Antigone for German Thrash Metal heads Heaven Shall Burn. “I do miss it sometimes, yes.”

But since signing to Erased Tapes in 2007, Olafur Arnalds has carved out an identifiable corner in the burgeoning scene of contemporary composers – akin to, but not as like, once label mates Nils Frahm and Peter Broderick. How does it feel to be writing and performing these days? “

“The scene is very trendy right now,” describes Arnalds, “and people are showing up to our concerts and buying our records. Orchestras are showing interest in working with us and the big classical venues like to program our concerts. It wasn’t like this five years ago, but now it’s great. We have really achieved something…”

A shift that has arguable roots in the popularity of TV and film soundtracks – Olafur Arnalds himself gaining recent notoriety (and BAFTA Award) for his score to Broadchurch, the UK TV crime drama with David Tennant and Olivia Colman. Is this route to recognition create problems for modern composers, does someone else’s agenda reduce your creative control? “I’m not sure if we really have problems?” defends Arnalds, “I think that’s up to each and every composer to really decide for him or herself; how do you look at your creative process? Is working for ‘someone else’ really reducing? Or can you just look at it as collaboration? I personally see it all as collaborations which help you grow as an artist.” 

I still struggling with this; call it naivety or arrogance, but when I’m hopscotching through Max Richter’s back catalogue I only land on the autonomous albums. Although the success of the ‘collaborations’ is certainly fueling a welcomed fire, as Arnalds himself is currently touring the UK with Broadchurch very much on the set list. And it is a welcome change to see him booked at The Glee Club as opposed to the Hare & Hounds, which hosted his last Birmingham visit in Oct 2008 – not a bad venue by any means but not the most obvious choice for a man who warrants an orchestra.

“That must have been on my first tour. I have done around 400 shows since then, but back in those days I was very DYI (still am to a point!) and I knew a bunch of club promoters from my days touring with punk bands. I also always wanted to make a point of playing classical music in these smaller club environments. Production wise it can be a pain in the butt but sometimes some kind of magic was created.”

Is technical support is a large factor in what kind of show you can perform? “Yes indeed. We have quite a large technical setup, we are carrying a big trailer with lights for example and I’m an absolute perfectionist when it comes to sound quality,” explains Arnalds, whose current tour visited the Barbican on Feb 22nd. “So the amount of venues that we are actually able to play these days is very limited. The light show is designed by Nico De Rooij and Stuart Bailes (www.SIDF.eu) and is absolutely amazing – capturing something you never really see at concerts. Looks more like an art installation…”

So what would be your ideal stage set up?

“I always want to try everything. We did an orchestra tour last year with 35 people on stage. It was amazing and epic. But traveling with a crew of total 50 people is not exactly economical. I have always wanted to try doing a tour alone – without a band. But so far haven’t found a nice way for that to work… Strings are so integral in my music. I’d love to go crazy with some kind of interactive technologies too, involve the audience in what they see and hear. I’ve been doing this on a smaller scale but to go big is very hard…”

And if your Tour Manger Genie could grant you one venue to perform in? “My dream venue, that I still haven’t played, is Royal Albert Hall and Sydney Opera House. I’d love to bring an orchestra to those.”

But The Glee Club in Birmingham will have to do for now, with fingers crossed it won’t be another half decade until Olafur Arnalds returns to the city. But in the meantime there is a collaboration with pianist Alice Sra Ott to keep us occupied, an homage to the Polish virtuoso titled The Chopin Project.

“I have always had a special personal connection to his music through my family and growing up. But also his melodic way of thinking is something I find myself in a lot. So doing recompositions of his works felt like something which could make sense and not sound too disconnected.” But a cornerstone of classical music none the less; what was working with such established material like? “It was definitely a process. Months of brainstorming and thinking. But once it got together and Alice was on board it was super fun.”

It’s refreshing to see nouns such as ‘fun’ appear next to names such as Chopin – a more colloquial coupling than the sometimes aloof rhetoric I have found whilst exploring ‘the classics’. I imagine an evolution from Punk drummer to contemporary composer has created some interesting attention too.

“I think if we can change something around us, then people will come to appreciate this,” describes Olafur Arnalds. “If we can remind people of these moments where they are just completely lost in evocative music. But to do this we might need to start changing how we think about mainstream culture.”

Olafur Arnalds plays at The Glee Club (B’ham) tonight / Tues 2th Feb. For tickets & info, visit https://booking.glee.co.uk/12043

For more on Olafur Arnalds, including details on The Chopin Project – set for release on March 16th through Mercury Classics, visit http://olafurarnalds.com/

For further listings for The Glee Club (B’ham), visit https://www.glee.co.uk/birmingham/

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