Ólafur Arnalds is a composer, producer, and pianist from Iceland, whose intimate, minimalist music has traveled far beyond the rocky shores of his Viking home. But Ólafur’s music is truly an Icelandic export, as it carries within its DNA the sombre landscapes and darkened skies of Scandinavia.
A diverse musician who has dabbled in styles as wide as punk, jazz, electronica, and film score, Ólafur’s solo output (he also collaborates with Faroe Islander Janus Rasmussen in the duo Kiasmos) perhaps most perfectly captures the aesthetic of “neo-classical” (although the artist would deny the label).
Ólafur’s music combines minimalist pianism with the spatial and tonal palette of modern studio production. He infuses sentimental and memorable piano melodies with a distinctive rhythmic drive – a quality that Ólafur traces back to his time as a drummer and percussionist.
Let’s take a look at five albums that have defined Ólafur’s career to date.
1. Ólafur Arnalds – some kind of peace (2020)
2020’s some kind of peace is the culmination of Ólafur’s lifelong search for human connection. This album gives us a peek behind the curtain into Ólafur’s life, in the form of intimate voice memos that blend seamlessly into a filmic soundworld.
Standout tracks include the collaborations ‘Loom’, (with American producer Bonobo), ‘Back To The Sky’ (with Icelandic singer/songwriter JFDR), and ‘The Bottom Line’ (with German producer and composer Josin).
Ólafur’s STRATUS pianos (featured heavily in 2018’s re:member) make a return. And a new, larger studio space afforded Ólafur the luxury of unprecedented time with his string players – resulting in delicate and personal textures teased from the supporting musicians bows and strings.
2. Ólafur Arnalds – re:member (2018)
Ólafur is no stranger to the concept album. Extra-musical concepts provided the framework for Island Songs (2016) and The Chopin Project (2015). The concept framing re:member is STRATUS – a piece of musical software developed by Ólafur in collaboration with musician and software developer Halldór Eldjárn.
The STRATUS software can transform a single chord played by Ólafur into a shimmer, or ‘swarm’ of cascading musical notes. A pair of acoustic pianos – connected to MIDI – can emulate the sound of a tape delay or synthesiser. And it is this warm, acoustic ‘swarm’ effect that gives re:member its enveloping, immersive, yet tender soundworld.
Technological tricks are one thing, but it takes great musical content to make a great album. And on re:member Ólafur delivers some of his most memorable melodies and most creative productions. From the trickling rainforest of ‘unfold’, to the dark electronic seascapes of ‘ypsilon’, to the lonely Nordic lighthouse of ‘momentary’, the listener is engulfed in a deep emotional journey.
3. Ólafur Arnalds – The Chopin Project (2015)
Classical music (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, etc.) has been a driving force in the development of recording technology ever since the medium was invented. The esteemed classical music label Deutsche Grammophon is the oldest in the world – celebrating its 120 year anniversary in 2019. Classical music was there at the birth of stereo recording, and the compact disc.
And yet, since achieving the long-desired hi-fidelity of digital recording in the early 1980s, little has changed in the way traditional classical music has been recorded. Typically a pure, unaffected tone is the unchallenged status quo – with few notable exceptions.
On The Chopin Project – a collaboration with pianist Alice Sara Ott – Ólafur throws down the gauntlet. A lover of classical piano music since childhood, Ólafur applies a healthy disregard for the “way things ought to be done”, applying innovative recording techniques, methods, and rearrangements to the classical source material – piano music by the 19th Century composer Chopin, performed by Ott.
Ólafur’s rap sheet of musical vandalism includes frequency crushing Alice’s piano through a wartime analogue audio compressor, drenching Chopin’s music in minimalist string arpeggios, and recording “in the field” on an dusty old upright piano in a Reykjavik bar.
The listener may discover that they do like classical music after all…
4. Ólafur Arnalds – Island Songs (2016)
Another concept album, Island Songs follows Ólafur’s travel around Iceland’s ring road. Each track is a collaboration with another Icelandic artist recorded “on location” at a variety of locations across Iceland.
There are notable contributions from poet Einar Georg Einarsson – who opens the album with a spoken word recitation in Icelandic – and Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir, lead singer and guitarist of Icelandic indie-rock band Of Monsters And Men, whose minimal and sentimental collaboration was recorded in a lighthouse.
A 70-minute documentary film chronicling Ólafur’s journey across Iceland can be viewed for free on YouTube. Throughout both the album and the documentary Ólafur allows his guests and the impressive landscape to take centre stage – demonstrating the artist’s modesty and love for the people, places and culture of his island home.
5. Ólafur Arnalds – For Now I Am Winter (2013)
In 2013’s For Now I Am Winter was Ólafur’s we hear Ólafur’s musical voice developing.
For those familiar with Ólafur’s later work the piano and strings will sound unusually grand and cinematic. The intimate moments will sound more like traditional chamber music, rather than the modern productions found on re:member and some kind of peace. The synthesisers and electronic beats will sound heavier, more artificial – here Olafur does not quite achieve the subtle blend of electronic and acoustic elements heard in his later albums.
There is much beauty to be found, of course. Particularly effective are the collaborations with Icelandic singer/songwriter Arnór Dan (the title track ‘For Now I Am Winter’ in particular), which appear throughout the album.
Yet, as is always the case with an artist’s earlier work, one looks back to witness the formation of ideas, the slow crystallization of an artist’s identity over a period of decades. And it is important to remember that in 2013 there were few artists producing “neo-classical” music. Few artists for Ólafur to emulate. In fact, it was Ólafur’s creativity and musical vision that would go on to inspire an entire movement of bedroom pianists from all corners of the earth.
For Now I Am Winter is a testament to Ólafur’s pioneering spirit. Here is an artist composing and producing music true to his inner vision many years before the “neo-classical” sound became a template for other artists to follow.
Such is Ólafur’s global influence – from Iceland to the world.