The Weight of Lightness: An Interview with Composer Olafur Arnalds

Erin Lyndal Martin

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.

Olafur Arnalds

...and they have escaped the weight of darkness

Label: Erased Tapes
Release Date: 2010-06-08

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.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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