Published July 18, 2016
I arrive at Reykjavík’s small domestic airport early on Midsummer’s Day, for a morning flight to Ísafjörður. I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to join the composer and musician Ólafur Arnalds, and his crew, on a trip to the Westfjörds. Our destination is Holtskirkja, a remote church located on the beautiful fjord of Önundarfjörður, where the group will record “1995” the second part of Ólafur’s intriguing new project, ‘Island Songs’.
At the airport, Ólafur mingles with film director Baldvin Z and their crew. There are far more people involved in the project than I’d have imagined. Along with Ólafur and Baldvin, there are three string musicians, Ása Guðjónsdóttir, Ásta Kristín Pjetursdóttir and Sólveig Vaka Eyþórsdóttir; a three-person camera crew; two sound men; and the person tasked with keeping everything under control: Ólafur’s personal assistant, Sólveig Ásta Sigurðardóttir.
There’s tangible excitement in the air as we take off for Ísafjörður. The weather is beautiful, and as we soar over Reykjavík, the crew exchanges stories from many of their previous projects together.
Seven is the magic number
Ólafur Arnalds has been well-known in Iceland’s music scene for many years. His solo albums have garnered much praise and attention, at home and abroad, as have his collaborative projects: ‘The Chopin Project’, which he took on with Alice Sara Ott; his electronic duo Kiasmos; and a recently released improvised album with Nils Frahm. He’s also reached many ears with his film scores, including what’s perhaps his biggest claim to fame: his BAFTA-winning score for the ITV television series ‘Broadchurch’.
Amongst this prolific output, Ólafur released the album ‘Living Room Songs’ in 2011. This album was the result of a project in which he created one new song a day for a whole week, recording and filming each one in his living room, and streaming them online the same day. Now, five years later, Ólafur has launched ‘Island Songs’—a more ambitious continuation of the same idea. This time, Ólafur will travel to seven places in Iceland in seven weeks, each time recording a new composition with a different collaborator.
The first song in the series was “Árbakkinn,” recorded with poet Einar Georg Einarsson in Einar’s hometown of Hvammstangi. The second phase of the project, on which we’re embarking, will involve Ólafur recording and filming the song “1995” with his cousin Dagný Arnalds.
Arriving in the West
An hour later, the plane banks steeply, swooping into the fjord to land on the tiny airstrip at Ísafjörður. The blue skies over Reykjavík are long gone—it’s a cold and misty day in the Westfjörds. We pack into cars, and head out into the murk, passing through the long single-lane tunnel to the village of Flateyri.
We get a warm welcome from Dagný Arnalds and the priest of Holtskirkja, Reverend Fjölnir. I’m told that Dagný is a busy musician herself, conducting three different choirs, as well as being a church organist at Holtskirkja and a piano teacher in Flateyri. “When you live in such a small community,” she says, “everybody contributes and does what they can.”
It’s a happy meeting. Dagný and Ólafur reminisce about their childhood, and talk about his last visit. She updates him with stories of her children, and insists he must take home some of the spinach her son gathered for him.
Holtskirkja is a beautiful little church, set amongst the green grass and vast mountains of Önundarfjörður’s southern shore. Upon our arrival, we’re delighted to discover that Dagný and Reverend Fjölnir have already prepared food and coffee. As the crew sets up for filming, the string players tune their instruments, creating a warm and homely atmosphere.
As Dagný and the string players start rehearsing the song, which none of them have heard before, Ólafur tells me that he tries to connect the songs to the location in which he records them. Thus, the song “1995” refers to an avalanche that descended upon Flateyri that year, in which 20 people lost their lives. “‘1995’ is darker than the other songs from the series,” he says, “which is why I immediately connected it to the avalanche and the impact it had on the locals.”
All seven compositions of the compositions were written earlier this year. “I see them as a series of individual songs, rather than a whole,” says Ólafur. “But they’re connected by the fact that they were all written with an accompanist in mind.”
Casting a light
In selecting his collaborators, Ólafur aims to emphasise the importance of people who are sometimes forgotten in the Icelandic music scene. “The purpose of this project is dual,” he explains. “I’m able to meet and work with people who have had an effect on me and my music, and to cast a light on them, too.”
“Some of the most important aspects of the Icelandic music scene are almost never mentioned, such as our traditional choirs, rhyme and poetry culture,” he continues, citing Dagný as an example. “She’s an accomplished professional musician whose work is extremely important for the local music scene. And people need to know that.”
As the crew finishes setting up, Ólafur and Dagný step into a nearby boarding school building to conduct another interview. This quickly turns into a free-flowing chat between the cousins, who seem to have a wonderful relationship. They speak fondly of their introduction to classical music courtesy of their grandfather, who’d listen to Chopin in his armchair, smoking a cigar.
Dagný speaks about her multi-faceted life as a mother, teacher, choir conductor and performer in Flateyri. She describes how music plays a part in the local culture, and says the calm atmosphere makes Flateyri the ideal place to bring up children. “I was raised in the city,” she says, “but my attachment to Flateyri has grown stronger each year. I don’t think we’ll be leaving just yet.”
Magical sounds and pizza
As the group gathers once more to rehearse, Reverend Fjölnir prepares pizza for everyone. The players are in high spirits, but as they take their positions, a hush falls. I listen as they begin to play, picturing the avalanche in my mind. “1995” is a dark piece, but the viola’s sound, and Dagný’s organ melody, also create a hopeful feeling. The crew and the players continue to run through the piece, sinking into a deep reverie. Later, the violinist Ása will tell me: “Performing Ólafur’s music is unlike anything else. It puts you into a sort of trance.”
After the fifth run-through, Baldvin says: “So! There’s pizza. Should we eat?” Dagný’s children Einar and María, who are seen in the beginning and end of the video, arrive just in time. They’re happy to see Ólafur, and excited to be a part of the project.
Musician and producer
As we eat, Ólafur tells me about overseeing the many different aspects of the project, from carrying out interviews with his collaborators, through to the rehearsals, livestreaming and filming. There are many people on set, and numerous things to consider, but he handles it all with a sincere and calm approach. “What I like about being an artist is the whole process of creating an overall image,” he says. “That’s why I love working on these kinds of projects. I might even call myself more of a producer than a musician. I love curating art, and pulling the best out of people.”
A serial collaborator, Ólafur wrote the scores for Baldvin Z’s two feature films, ‘Órói’ and ‘Vonarstræti’. Baldvin explains that their collaboration began when he used Ólafur’s music while editing ‘Órói’, and fell in love with it. ‘Island Songs’ is their third project together, and the first in which roles are reversed—this time, Baldvin is creating movies for Ólafur’s music, instead of the other way around. Next year, the dynamic will revert to type when they begin work on soundtracking Baldvin’s next film.
After the pizza, the crew gets into position for the recording. The mist has deepened, and the drizzle has become a downpour. The hiss of the rain on the church’s roof complements the performance perfectly. Baldvin directs Einar and María as they run and play together in the rain—a task that comes naturally to the young brother and sister.
After many takes, Ólafur, the crew, and the musicians are all pleased. They gather around Baldvin to see the video, and María and Einar are praised for their star performance. “I wouldn’t have imagined how fun this day would be,” smiles Ólafur. Dagný excitedly agrees, adding: “We should do more of these projects together!”
Living room movie premieres
As we return to Flateyri, Ólafur is tired but happy after the long day of filming. Throughout the day, he was livestreaming the process, and updating his fans online. “I use social media a lot,” he says. “I enjoy it. An artwork isn’t complete until it reaches the ears of the listener. That’s why it makes so much sense to involve the listener in the process and livestream an ongoing project like this. It’s simply a part of the artwork.”
Ólafur has a very engaged fan base, and stays in regular contact with them. Twenty thousand people have been watching the livestreams. He says that even though artists might say that they don’t listen to comments about their work, they’re still affected by it, which he thinks is good. “When people say they like my work, the creative process is directed towards that,” he says. “That’s why the audience has a lot to say about my work.”
He tells me how the series will be compiled into a full-length film and released later this year. The premiere is very unusual—rather than a red carpet event, Ólafur has decided to offer his fans the chance to host their own premieres in their homes, or anywhere they like. They just have to apply at a website, which will be announced later. Universal will then distribute a link to the people who wish to show the film. This way, the movie will be premiered at the same time all around the world, and probably on scale as intimate and personal as the recording process.
Trapped in the West
Back in Flateyri, the rain is heavier than ever, and has turned into quite a storm. We shelter in Vagninn, a restaurant and karaoke bar. “I’ve sure partied here,” Ólafur says as we walk in, shaking the rain from our coats. The whole group are overjoyed when the staff bring out glorious fish courses of all kinds, even though everybody is still quite full after the pizza party. Fjölnir entertains us with stories from his eventful life, including the time he took part in a Japanese documentary.
After dinner, we receive some news: our return flight has been cancelled. It doesn’t come as a big surprise to anyone—this is quite typical in the Westfjörds. We order beers, and contemplate whether or not we should try the karaoke, amongst rumours of Ólafur being quite the closet hip-hop star. But the group is exhausted after the long day. We finish our beers and head for bed.
A new chapter in life
The next morning, the weather is better. Dagný takes us to the airport, and we bid her farewell and thank her for her wonderful hospitality. Ólafur and Dagný hug each other goodbye, and she remembers to give him the box of her son’s homegrown spinach, much to Ólafur’s delight.
As we fly back to Reykjavík, Ólafur tells me that his favourite thing about being a musician is to know that he can have an affect on people. “Receiving a letter from someone who I’ve had some kind of impact on—or even putting a smile on someone’s face—is the best,” he smiles. “I don’t care how big or small of an impact it is—I just love the fact that I can create a connection between me and someone else, without even meeting them.”
Ólafur is, to put it mildly, a workaholic. In fact, he hasn’t had a day off since the summer of 2015. I ask if he even has time to sleep, and he tells me that his motto in life is to work as much as he can, sleep as little as he can, and drink a lot of coffee. Baldvin laughs, and agrees with this method, saying they practice the same lifestyle—except he also has three children.
But Ólafur does find some time for himself. If he isn’t working, he can be found at the pool, where he goes for a daily swim. In 2017, he’s planning a vacation. He wants to take two months off, and travel alone, without any electronics, to study different cultures, meet new people, listen to music, and become inspired. “I want to experience new things to bring with me into a new chapter of my life,” he says. He tells me starting a family isn’t next on his agenda quite yet. “Sometimes I feel the longing to start a family,” he explains, “but then I get another idea, or start another project—and that becomes my family.”
“I’ve always said that I’ll continue making music as long as I enjoy it,” he finishes. “Perhaps I’ll get bored of it, and that’s okay. I don’t see that happening just yet, though. And right now, it’s the only thing I want to do.”
Three songs have now been released from ‘Island Songs’ so stay tuned for the next four, to be released every Monday.