Ólafur Arnalds is an Icelandic composer who creates fragile and stark instrumental music. In the beginning of 2011, he made a short sojourn around the States, which he rarely frequents, with stops on both coasts. At the Highline Ballroom show, Arnalds’s audience witnessed a short but intimate and at times visceral performance. His stage setup is similar to Jóhann Jóhannsson’s performance as both feature accompaniment from a string quartet with the musician at his piano (or keyboards) and supplementing it all with samples from laptops. Though there was a video backdrop, it was kept restrained to images of a lighthouse or some plants and birds or enigmatic themes from the …And They Have Escaped the Weight of Darkness album.
Just after he took the stage, Arnalds encouraged the crowd to sit on the floor, an uncomfortable position for many but fitting for the instrumental concert. For a good portion of the show, Arnalds immersed the audience in his music, which made knowing the names of the songs irrelevant. At times the music floated lightly along with wafting voices from the violins, but midway through it took a dramatic turn. Electronic pulses were synchronized with the flashing of naked incandescent and florescent light bulbs. The strobe effect created a powerful rawness to the evening as the seated crowd watched the transfixed musicians.
Before the final trio of song Arnalds poked fun at the “lazy Americans” who liked to sit on the floor. He then introduced a song discernible from much of the rest for being a standalone cinematic pleasure, “3055” greeted by much applause from the crowd. Continuing his story, Arnalds mentioned he has yet to do any of the touristy stuff in NYC since he has only seen the venues. But before this show he met a couple that incorporated “Ljósið” (from Found Songs into their wedding. Very gracious to these newlyweds, he dedicated this next song in their honor. And as the fluid violinists intertwined with Arnalds’s delicate piano melody, it generated positive, vibrant sensations.
And just before his final song, everyone shared a good laugh when someone in the balcony shouted for quiet. Arnalds replied, “I was literally about to say” “you guys are wonderful” and though he didn’t admit it, everyone could sense it was true. Arnalds introduced the melancholic “Himininn Er Að Hyrnja, En Stjörnurnar Fara Þér Vel”, which he fortunately deciphered as the “sky is falling but stars look good on you”. The piece certainly exemplified a void with its mournful strings and a mechanical yet disenchanted young voice. Yet it was characteristic of Arnalds’s message. He had preceded it by saying “it doesn’t have to be sad in a bad way. Like you can also see beautiful things in everything. Also just in life in general. I think everyone should look at life in this way”.