From Iceland — Total Transcendance: Ólafur Arnalds Talks Programming Pianos And Subverting Genres

Total Transcendance: Ólafur Arnalds Talks Programming Pianos And Subverting Genres

Published August 9, 2018

Hannah Jane Cohen
Photo by
Benjamin Hardman

The trademark of Ólafur Arnald’s music can best be described in the feelings it evokes: stirring, emotional, and perfect in its simplicity. With delicate piano, poised string arrangements and a deft understanding of drama, his work merges the traditions of classical music with contemporary trends.

The other trademark of his career has undoubtedly been ambition. Never content to sit in any one box, Ólafur has continually pushed himself with unusual collaborations and thoughtful concepts. He’s been a rock drummer, become a techno star, won a TV soundtrack BAFTA, and in November, he even sent one of his compositions to space.

The culmination of his talent and drive will come in the widely-anticipated release of his album ‘re:member’ on August 28th.

Expanding the creative process

“Re:member has been a long time in the making,” Ólafur says over the phone, his voice tinged with both excitement and exhaustion. He’s in Lithuania with Kiasmos, his techno project with Janus Rasmussen, as part of their summer festival tour. He pauses, as if not sure to start. When he begins again, he sounds tentative, but once he dives into the specifics of the album, the weariness fades into pure joy.

“How can I play the piano in a different way? How can I change the relationship I have with the piano in order to get different results?”

The album is centred around an innovative concept. For ‘re:member,’ Ólafur collaborated with a software programmer to employ two self-playing pianos in the creation of his work. “The software makes the self-playing pianos play with an algorithm based on the grand piano that I am playing,” Ólafur explains. “This idea expands the creative process. How can I play the piano in a different way? How can I change the relationship I have with the piano in order to get different results?”

It’s a tricky method, but one with an undeniably beautiful outcome. The second single from the album—a collaboration with SOHN titled ‘unfold’—is an expansive and mellow track that’s both cleansing and energising. On other tracks, in typical Ólafur style, he sought out more unusual collaborators, such as beatmaker BNGRBOY, known for his work with rapper GKR.

“I felt like I needed another way to break out of my comfort zone,” Ólafur says. While not all of their collaborative experiments ended up on the album, Ólafur emphasised that his work with BNGRBOY helped to evolve the wider sound and purpose of his new work.

Discomfort zone

Pushing himself out of his comfort zone has become one of Ólafur’s main goals in making music. “That’s a big part of it for me,” he says. “To be honest, it’s so easy to write it off as piano music. The concept of it can so quickly become boring or even clichéd, so I have a need to take each project out of the box, somehow.” He laughs. “So you can’t so easily just put it on the Spotify playlist that plays in the background when you study. I needed to become something bigger than that.”

The idea of that easy listening Spotify playlist seems to loom in Ólafur’s psyche. He understands that listeners might immediately lump him into the neo-classical genre and leave him there. This goes some way to explaining his professional choices. If he constantly seeks new ways to challenge himself, he’s not only pushing his own musical boundaries—he’s making listeners rethink their own.

The irrelevance of genre

For Ólafur, the neoclassical classification is irrelevant and even reductive. He doesn’t see himself as a member of any musical genre, but rather as part of a new movement of creating, one that revolves around the philosophy behind the music rather than the sound.

“It’s so easy to write it off as piano music… I have a need to take each project out of the box. I needed to become something bigger than that.”

“In that neoclassical bracket, we don’t even make the same music. It’s a genre that isn’t really a genre,” Ólafur says, before pausing. While he doesn’t see himself as musically related to the others he’s often grouped with, he does see a common thread between them: that of the desire to break out of restrictive labels and rules. “A lot of people are trying to break out of that box, especially with classical music and its struggles.”

Quiet revolution

This newfound attitude behind creating is directly related, Ólafur explains, to the democratisation of the music industry. “We’re not dependent on radio any more, so we don’t need to fit in,” he says. “In the past, I would have to make classical music and get played on classical radio, or make pop music and get played on pop radio, but now, anything has the same chance in the music business no matter what genre you call it.”

He attributes his success to this radical shift in accessibility. “The current state of the music industry, with Spotify, makes it much easier for people to discover someone like me,” he says. “We act like we have made some sort of revolution, but we live in the right time and are doing the right thing, and suddenly people can discover it—and it’s something they wanted the whole time.”

Mindset Bowie

In ‘re:member,’ Ólafur also seeks to subvert the classical label further at his live shows. “I am using classical instruments and I am playing piano but if you come to a live show of mine you will see a show. You will not just see me onstage playing a Steinway,” he says. “The whole thing is approached like pop music is.”

He counts David Bowie as his biggest inspiration for live performances. “Of course I am not remotely on the same level,” he laughs, going on to explain how this mindset “helps people connect with [the music], and that makes it bigger onstage, in a way.”

Arena style

The concert lineup will include Ólafur’s grand piano, the two self-playing pianos, a string quartet and a drummer who will also do electronic percussion and synths. “Aside from that, we have an arena style light show,” he says. “It’s very different from my previous shows. It’s bigger. It’s louder.”

This album will mark a turning point for Ólafur. It’s more ambitious than anything he has attempted before, and in completing it and the subsequent tour, he’s hoping to cement his status as a musical innovator. “I am trying to make an impact with this,” he says. “I am putting everything into it.”

Info: Olafur’s new album “re:member” is released by MercuryKX on August 24th.

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