From Iceland — Making Solar-Powered Music

Making Solar-Powered Music

Published October 8, 2012

Making Solar-Powered Music

As his Iceland Airwaves performance of Solaris with Ben Frost nears, Daníel Bjarnason walks us through the process of recording the piece

By Thomas L. Moir


A tall and dapper gent strolls into the café, pauses and scans the room with a concerned expression. He’s waiting for one of us to make eye contact with him to indicate we’re the one he’s meeting. I wait until his eyes wander downwards to me. He stares at me inquisitively, but doesn’t speak.

I stand up and say ‘Daníel?’ His face relaxes. ‘I am sooo sorry,’ he says.

He is apologising for being late. It’s not a big deal; in fact I couldn’t care less. I’ve been looking forward to meeting him. He tells me he’s been at home painting his windows in preparation for the incoming winter. “There aren’t many days left, before it gets too cold to do it,” he advises.

The Daníel in question is Daníel Bjarnason: Icelandic classical musician, conductor and member of the highly revered, rather select Bedroom Community roster of artists which he shares with the likes of Nico Muhly and Valgeir Sigurðsson.

He is also a co-pilot on ‘Solaris,’ an album of music inspired by the 1972 Andrei Tarkovsky sci-fi classic of the same name. Together with Bedroom Community stablemate Ben Frost, he has been working on the project for the last two years alongside the Sinfonietta Cracovia.

“We were thinking about doing a new soundtrack with the film. But we would always have to show it with the film, and it just didn’t feel as interesting,” Daníel says of the collaboration. “So we decided pretty early on to do music based on the film or inspired by the film that would be like a new soundtrack. But it wouldn’t be a soundtrack that would fit on certain scenes. It would just be music inspired by the film.”


Solaris was recorded over a two-day recording session where the duo sat down in front of the film and improvised along to it. “We had never talked about what we wanted to do or anything. We just met in the studio, I prepared the piano, Ben had some guitar processing going on, and we did that twice,” Daníel recalls of the process.

“It was just those two sessions. It was just like day one, we put the film on, we started playing. Day two, same process,” he explains. “After that, we never watched the film again.”

It wasn’t until 6 months after those initial recording sessions that the two reconvened to arrange Solaris into a piece of music. Daníel took the material from the initial improvised sessions and transcribed it into sheet music for a string orchestra. What followed was two days of workshopping with the Sinfonietta Cracovia to flesh out the material proper.

“Originally there was actually also some brass, but they didn’t turn up for the rehearsals. So we ended up just not using them,” he laughs to himself. “It was such a great coincidence; it became this music that was missing a part. At the same time it was complete, really sparse.”


For the recordings, Daníel elected to play a prepared piano. He took a regular piano and fitted it with screws, wooden pegs and assorted rubber bits and pieces, skewing the sound of each note. “It becomes sort of a thing in between playing percussion and playing piano,” he explains.

While recording, the composer underwent a process of ‘unlearning’ his classical music education in order to play the instrument. “You sort of have to figure out, ok that note sounds like that, that one has that sound, and these ones sound nice together. I just love playing the prepared piano,” he enthuses. “I like it more than playing normal piano.”

Given the imperfect nature of the sounds produced by the instrument, recreating the piece live can make for diverse outcomes from show to show. The duo, who will be performing Solaris at Iceland Airwaves, have been touring the piece around Europe, and noticing considerable differences between performances. “Everything me and Ben do is improvised within a structure, but inside of that structure it’s all free. It can be quite different,” he says of the live shows.


It all sounds like it was a very smooth process, I comment. Were there any real obstacles or disagreements? “It was actually incredibly smooth,” he says. “The one thing that was the most complicated part of the process was actually the artwork for the album.”

The contentious cover art in question sees Daníel and Ben recreating a scene from the film, one where the protagonist Kelvin is seated on his bed, being caressed by a regeneration of his dead wife. “It was kind of a joke to begin with,” says Daníel, who plays Kelvin in the image.

I confess to Daníel that when I first saw the image I thought, ‘oh someone is re-making Solaris, great. But I guess a bearded guy is playing Kelvin’s wife.’ I realised my mistake when a closer look revealed said bearded guy to be Ben Frost playing the part of Kelvin’s wife.

“Yeah, Ben was walking around in a dress for a while, but that didn’t work out too well,” Daníel recalls, staring into the middle distance, reflecting on the photoshoot. “It was terrifying actually” he laughs. “But I think the picture’s good,” he pauses, his mind still ticking over, “in a really weird way.”

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