Music

Pianist Gabriel Ólafs Champions Brevity Over Showmanship on 'Piano Works'

Photo: Courtesy of Sacks & Co.

Gabriel Ólafs' Piano Works is a testament to the power of melody and mood. The music is both concise yet brimming with beauty.

Piano Works
Gabriel Ólafs

One Little Independent

26 June 2020

Much like Yann Tiersen and Ludovico Einaudi, the young pianist Gabriel Ólafs comes from the modern school of instrumental performers centered on mood over virtuosity. Based in Iceland, Ólafs' music shares more in common with the art-rock artists of his homeland (Sigur Rós, Sóley) than prominent contemporary classical pianists (Timo Andres, Nico Muhly). Piano Works, his latest release featuring eight rather stunning solo instrumental pieces, is devoid of empty showmanship, technical posturing, or any shallow attempts to dazzle the listener. Instead, Ólafs focuses on mood and emotive gestures to develop pieces, both concise yet brimming with beauty.

With its high-range arpeggios and repeated bass notes, "Intro" reveals shades of Philip Glass. The work is about soundscape, articulating a placid aura through minimal means, and at less than 90 seconds, it accomplishes all it needs to with brevity. Second track "Birta" opens with a melancholy melody set against a spacious introduction before leading into a charming toybox waltz. It's not difficult to hear the influence of Tiersen here, but Ólafs pivots the melody just enough to sound innovative and evade the pitfalls of a pastiche exercise. Credit is due to Ólafs' performance as much as his compositional prowess. The touch of his left hand makes the accompaniment sound steady yet not without soul, a micro-study in motion and gentle drive.

A solo rerecording of "Absent Minded", the title track from his previous record, places Ólafs into Chopinistic territory. The murmurs and leaps of the melody have enough quirk and character to bear repetitions without sounding tired or monotonous. Compared to his previous recording, this version sounds more direct, less contemplative, yet no less sincere or serene. "Absent Minded" also reveals the rawness and intimacy that makes Piano Works feel so special. You can hear the workings of the piano–the clicks of the hammers, the ticks of the sustain pedal–elements most engineers may consider imperfections, but here they sound perfect. Hearing these physical artifacts of performance makes the record sound human, giving the perceptive listener a sense of life beyond the notes and the chords. In effect, you hear Ólafs not only as the composer and performer, but the individual as well, a figure of musical talent and intimate delivery.

Amidst all of this, "Loa (variation)" feels strikingly different with the inclusion of electronics and backward sounds. The piano takes a back seat to a dreamlike digital ambiance, an electroacoustic palette cleanser that, even if for less than two minutes, reveals another dimension of instrumental music. "Cyclist Waltz" is another gentle miniature that effuses a reflective, almost cinematic quality. Again, the ambient sounds of the piano reveal something deeper about the performance, something personal that a cleaner recording couldn't capture.

While the moody pianistic aesthetic tires a bit as the record reaches its conclusion, Piano Works is an undeniably beautiful record. Thoughtful and pensive, Ólafs understands how to craft short yet expressive piano pieces that recall the intimate sensibility of 19th-century salons as much as modern Icelandic indie groups. It's stirring to think how much he has accomplished by this point, and enticing to anticipate what we can expect in the future.

8
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

The Texas Gentlemen Share the Powerful and Soulful "Last Call" (premiere)

Eclectic Texas band, the Texas Gentlemen return with a vibrant, imaginative LP that resists musical boundaries. Hear their latest epic single, "Last Call".

Music

Vincent Cross Pays Tribute to Folk Hero via "King Corcoran" (premiere)

Gangs of New York-era James "The Rooster" Corcoran was described as the terror of New York's east side. His descendent, Vincent Cross, retells his story with a "modern dark fairy tale".

Music

Eddy Lee Ryder Gets Lonely and Defiant with "Expected to Fly" (premiere)

Eddy Lee Ryder explores the loss of friendship and refusal to come of age, cloaked in the deeply dramatic and powerful song, "Expected to Fly".

Playlists

Rock 'n' Roll with Chinese Characteristics: Nirvana Behind the Great Wall

Like pretty much everywhere else in the pop music universe, China's developing rock scene changed after Nirvana. It's just that China's rockers didn't get the memo in 1991, nor would've known what to do with it, then.

Film

Creative Disruption in 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire'

Portrait of a Lady on Fire yearns to burn tyrannical gendered tradition to ash and remake it into something collaborative and egalitarian.

Music

Fave Five: The Naked and Famous

Following two members leaving the group in 2018, synthpop mavens the Naked and Famous are down to a duo for the first time ever and discuss the records they turned to help make their aptly-named fourth record, Recover.

Evan Sawdey
Books

Fleetwood Dissects the European Mindset in His Moody, Disturbing Thriller, 'A Young Fair God'

Hugh Fleetwood's difficult though absorbing A Young Fair God offers readers a look into the age-old world views that have established and perpetuated cultural rank and the social attitudes that continue to divide us wherever we may reside in the world.

Music

Art Feynman Creates Refreshing Worldbeat Pop on 'Half Price at 3:30'

On Half Price at 3:30, Art Feynman again proves himself adept at building colorful worlds from unexpected and well-placed aural flourishes.

Music

The Beths Are Sharp As Ever on 'Jump Rope Gazers'

New Zealand power-poppers the Beths return with a sophomore album that makes even the most senior indie-rock acts feel rudimentary by comparison.

Music

Jessie Ware Returns to Form on 'What's Your Pleasure'

On What's Your Pleasure, Jessie Ware returns to where it all began, the dance floor.

Music

The Jayhawks Offer Us Some 'XOXO'

The Jayhawks offer 12-plus songs on XOXO to help listeners who may be alone and scared by reminding us that we are all alone together.

Music

Steve McDonald Remembers the Earliest Days of Redd Kross

Steve McDonald talks about the year that produced the first Redd Kross EP, an early eighth-grade graduation show with a then-unknown Black Flag, and a punk scene that welcomed and defined him.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.