The Weight of Lightness: An Interview with Composer Olafur Arnalds
In his third release, …and they have escaped the weight of darkness, Arnalds has temporarily left the synthesizers of his first albums behind, crafting a piano-based neoclassical masterpiece worthy of Debussy and his contemporaries.
Still in his early 20s, the Icelandic contemporary classical composer Olafur Arnalds has already made quite a name for himself. He debuted with the brilliant Eulogy for Evolution, an album which crossbred romantic classical music with electronic sounds to create something that ruptured the boundaries of both genres. He followed that up with the more minimal EP, Variations of Static, which paired brief instrumental phrases with slight electronic distortion. Now, on his third release, …and they have escaped the weight of darkness, Arnalds has temporarily left the synthesizers behind and created a piano-based neoclassical masterpiece worthy of Debussy and his contemporaries.
"I wanted to do something different. I don't want to stay in the same place my whole life," Arnalds says of his choice to make this a less electronic album than his previous recordings. "But I also got a co-producer for some of the songs and he obviously affected the sound of the album a bit. But before I got a co-producer I decided I wanted to make this album in the style that I am doing. He definitely affected this album a lot. He came up with the idea of having hundreds of tracks of different instruments just layered in the songs."
Listening to the record, it's hard to believe that the young composer had no classical training before releasing his first record. Raised in a large family in Iceland, Arnalds took to pop and jazz lessons, mastering various instruments at a young age. But it wasn't clear at the time that Arnalds would grow up to make such delicate and painstakingly crafted music. …and they have escaped the weight of darkness was roughly two and a half years in the making, says Arnalds: "I started recording it in May 2009 so it took seven months of recording, plus all the writing. I was working on it nonstop for the last four or five months. The recording process was a thousand hours."
Such immaculate attention to detail shines through on the record, which is understated enough that each singular detail is on display. While Arnalds says that the record's concept is "the light after the darkness," he likes leaving the album open to listeners' interpretations. "They [the songs] tell a story to me and I guess they tell a story to the people who are listening to them, but I guess for each person it's a different story. But I don't think it's up to me to decide what story it tells. It has no lyrics, so it's completely open to interpretation. I like it that way. I just hope that people make up their own story and connect it to their own lives rather than me trying to hand them what story there is behind it."
With so much potential for listeners to create their own stories, Arnalds is looking forward to hearing the stories people invent for his music. He maintains an active presence on social media and communicates regularly with fans through Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace, at one point using the social media environment as the inspiration and canvas for one of his earlier projects, Found Songs, where he released a song a day online. "I did release Found Songs initially to Twitter and Facebook and found that to be a very interesting experience,” says Arnalds. “It proved to me how important it is for people to feel involved in something. If they like something and you can get them to feel involved with releasing the music by telling a few friends on Twitter. And also I asked people to submit artwork through Flickr, and the reaction we got to that was interesting, very positive, and it really helped spread the music out and connect to the music. And it also helped to know that I was looking at their art and commenting on their art, and they would listen to and comment on my music, so it became an art collective."
Like many composers, Arnalds is inspired by visual art, and it may be moving pictures that reach him the most. "Movies in general are a really big inspiration. Lately it's been Pan's Labyrinth -- the soundtrack there is beautiful,” says Arnalds, who is eager to get involved in bringing his own musical sensibilities to bear on the medium. “I am in talks with some producers about a new movie coming out next year, so I hopefully will be doing a score very soon." Asked if there were any movies he wished he had scored, Arnalds politely declined. "I don’t think I would say that. There are movies that I really like that I would have liked to score, but I think all those movies are my favorite movies because everything came so well together, the film and the story and the score alike. There are a couple of Icelandic movies like Noah the Albino [that] I would have liked to score or go fiddle with. Those movies have really nice soundtracks, really," he adds.
While he isn't a visual artist himself, Arnalds maintains a keen visual eye and plays the role of artistic director on shoots for his music videos. That, and the importance of album artwork, showcase Arnalds' multimedia gifts and the full-on sensory experience that comes with each of his releases. Although drawn to the visual and the aural, Arnalds is also captivated by the science of things: "I like science. I read mostly physics. I'm quite nerdy when it comes to books. I don't read a lot of storybooks. I like history as well. I don't remember the last time I read a storybook."
Don't, however, take this to mean that Arnalds is all work and no play. On tour, he says, "all the attention goes into the shows. We do nothing constructive on the bus. On tour, we like to drink. Basically, we hang out in the back of the bus and drink beer and watch movies. Play Playstation, read books. The newest thing in my group is remote-controlled helicopters. They bought some and we play with them on the bus."
Currently, this video game and miniature helicopter fueled live show consists of Arnalds, a piano, a string quartet and some electronics. A few pieces from his first two releases appear live, but the concerts are mostly focused on playing pieces from the new album. For Arnalds, touring is a highlight because it brings him closer to his fans. "I find it really interesting to be in touch with the people who are listening to my music because I wouldn't be doing it without them. And at the same time maybe it's important for them to stay in touch with me."
The greatest way to connect with Arnalds, however, is to listen to his music. As the piano and strings meander through melancholia and jouissance, enough stories unfold to fill the Arabian Nights. Just the way Arnalds wants it.