From Iceland — Kiasmos’s Ólafur Arnalds Discusses His Many Lives As A Composer

Kiasmos’s Ólafur Arnalds Discusses His Many Lives As A Composer

Published February 12, 2016

Kiasmos’s Ólafur Arnalds Discusses His Many Lives As A Composer
Hadrien Chalard
Photo by
Marino Thorlacius / Mercury Classics

The city is covered in fresh snow, and flurries keep whitening the windy shores of Reykjavík as we head to Ólafur Arnalds’s studio. Now that we see what he sees when he’s composing, the core of this talented and prolific artist’s music suddenly seem so clear. Ólafur’s pieces have a lot in common with Iceland’s weather during winter: they often start softly, like a whisper of wind in the silence of a snowfall, before gradually expanding and releasing their emotional might with a blizzard ardour. Whether on his own or as half of the techno duet Kiasmos, his music always carries that same melancholic passion that has brought him international recognition—such as a BAFTA for his work on the BBC’s critically acclaimed ‘Broadchurch’, and the opportunity to give his own reinterpretation of some piano works by Chopin, in collaboration with the accomplished German-Japanese pianist Alice Sara Ott.

Back in Iceland after a year of extensive touring, Ólafur receives us in his recording room, where most of his recent works were born, to talk about Kiasmos, his interest in new technologies and the future of (his) music. We start by talking about what excites him in the Icelandic music scene these days, and learn that just like the Grapevine, he’s really digging on that new Icelandic hip-hop thing. “I love Úlfur Úlfur, Emmsjé Gauti and all this mainstream hip-hop that’s going on,” Ólafur says as we get settled for a conversation. “I think it’s really cool, and it’s new in Iceland—we’ve never had this kind of hip-hop before.”


The year 2015 has been a really busy one for Kiasmos, touring almost every month, all over the world. How important is the project to your career at this point?
More than we meant to [laughs]. Just after our album came out [in October of 2014], the project kind of just blew up and we decided to seize the opportunity and take it on tour and just concentrate on that for a while. But we’ll be slowing it down a little bit this year, although it’s great and refreshing for me to do something so completely different.

How would you say your work with Kiasmos has influenced your solo work?
I think my solo work might start leading a little bit more towards what I am doing with Kiasmos, because I had so much fun playing all those festival shows, which I couldn’t really do before as my music has been so quiet. Now I kind of want to make my music a little bit louder [laughs]. I would like to keep a bit more electronics in it, introduce some more techno-inspired beats, but I think they will really stay pretty soft and subtle. I just want something maybe more danceable…

But aren’t you afraid that some of your fans might not like this new musical direction?
It’s hard to tell, because I have so many different fans, and I can’t always please everyone. I have decided not to make that my goal. I just do music that I enjoy making and playing.

Now you’re back in the studio and working on a new solo album. What can you tell us about it?
Actually I can’t tell much. I’m working on four different projects, but at the moment, I’m just writing music, without really aiming for anything. But I’m planning a release pretty soon, for one of my projects, just not a full-length album. I’m planning that for 2017.


The Chopin Project marked another step forward in international recognition for your music. How was it, working with a musician like Alice Sara Ott, from the classical scene?
Working with her was amazing, because she’s just amazing [laughs]. One of the reasons why we chose to do this together was because we became very good friends, and she is very open, she’s willing to try new things as long as we still respect the original work. That was kind of the main rule we had in the project. And touring with her was also a great experience. To her, that was a totally new thing—touring with a band, a crew, lighting designers, etc.—but she had a lot of fun, and that brought me a lot of fun.

Could this be the beginning of more classical reinterpretations?
I don’t think so, it was a one-off project for me, and it came from Chopin’s music, it didn’t come from the idea to reinterpret just any classic music. If in the future I discover another composer that inspires me, then sure, I’ll do it. But I’m not looking for another project like that.

Why do you love Chopin’s music so much?
I grew up with it, it’s very personal and nostalgic to me, it reminds me of my family, my childhood… It really influenced me to start writing classical music myself, and I think the music that I have written very often takes elements of what Chopin did. It felt right to pay him a tribute.

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Tell me about Arnór Dan (Agent Fresco), who contributed vocals to your last solo album (‘For Now I Am Winter’, 2013) and has been a part of your journey on ‘Broadchurch’. Is he the “official voice of Ólafur Arnalds?”
Well, at the moment I guess he is. We keep doing these one-off projects together, we’re currently recording a cover song, as a single, and he might come back for the next season of ‘Broadchurch’, but I don’t think I’m really looking to have vocals on my next album. I think it’s also an identity thing, I don’t really want to have someone else as the identity for my music, so I try to limit myself in these collaborations.

You have never stopped experimenting, constantly trying new approaches on each of your releases. What are you currently interested in doing that you maybe haven’t tried before?
I’ve been really interested in technology recently. I’ve been working with a couple of software engineers to build software for creating music. I’m interested in seeing how technology changes the way we write music. I’m exploring the way you create and play those sounds, and how we can use technology to take our creative intuition to a place that it wouldn’t otherwise venture.

Let’s go back to Kiasmos. How is a Kiasmos song usually produced? Does Janus first come up with a beat and then you sit at the piano to try and come with something to play over it, or is it perhaps the other way around?
It goes both ways. Usually, we make some kind of a beat first, and then I very often play some piano on top and improvise until we find something. But other times, we just use synths, and the piano or strings only come at the very end. It’s joint work, we’re usually in this room together, experimenting and trying out different things.

What does Kiasmos’s 2016 look like?
We will do a lot of festivals in the summer, Sónar is the first one. It starts more or less in April and we have a lot of festivals until the end of August, mostly in Europe, and some in America. But there’s no album planned at the moment, because I’m concentrating on my own work.

Kiasmos storms Sónar Club Friday 19th at 23:30

See Also:

Ólafur Arnalds On the Icelandic Music Scene and the Dance Project That Accidentally Happened  by Gabriel BenjaminÓlafur Arnalds On The Icelandic Music Scene And The Dance Project That Accidentally Happened
Although he may be young in years, 28-year-old Ólafur Arnalds is no stranger to the limelight. He first stepped onto the stage as a drummer for hardcore bands Celestine and Fighting Shit. He then forged a career for himself as a classical music composer, releasing three well-received albums. He followed that up by writing the score for British TV series ‘Broadchurch’, for which he was awarded a BAFTA in 2014.

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