Quiz question: if you had the choice between John Adams, Thomas Adès and Ólafur Arnalds, who, in your opinion, would be the most listened to composer on the biggest service in the world?
Adams Hallelujah Junction and that of Ades Traced overhead would both receive respectable scores, but neither comes close to Arnalds’ music.
See also: Contemporary Composer – Hildur Guðnadóttir
In fact, you could select any of his top 10 online tracks and he would always win hands down.
Popularity isn’t always a sign of quality, of course, and the fact remains that a composer with a strong social media presence (like Arnalds) is likely to do better.
Social media or not, however, there’s no denying the enduring appeal and attraction of Arnalds’ enigmatic, ethereal and evocative music to a large number of listeners.
In short, this unpretentious Icelandic has become something of a musical phenomenon.
Become a composer
Born in 1986 in the town of Mosfellsbaer, located about 11 km east of the Icelandic capital, Reykjavík, Arnalds developed an interest in music from an early age.
At the beginning of his semi-autobiographical short film When we are born (2021), directed by Vincent Moon, we see him flipping through old family photos – one of him as a child behind a drum set, another giving his very first concert in his parents’ garage.
Watch ‘Ólafur Arnalds – A Sunrise Session’:
Other photos lead him to believe that his family “traveled a lot”, which may partly explain the research qualities of his music.
Finding a voice through thrash metal
Arnalds’ path to composition came by an unusual route.
Having started his musical life as a drummer for an Icelandic hardcore punk/thrash band, he shared with German metal band Heaven Shall Burn demos of music he had written for piano and strings.
Impressed by what they heard, the band invited Arnalds to contribute some atmospheric intros and outros for their 2004 album ‘Antigone’ (the album’s opening track echoes is an example).
Other invitations followed. Arnalds had created a success formula almost by accident.
This early style is captured on Arnalds’ first solo album, “Eulogy For Evolution” (released in 2007).
Although stylistically uneven and lacking in focus, the album contains an abundance of creative ideas that span an eclectic stylistic range, from dreamy ambient soundscapes to anthemic post-rock.
There’s even a nod to thrash metal on the final track.
A clearer, more distinct voice begins to emerge on ‘Found Songs’ (2009), by the Satie-inspired band Erla Waltz which opens the album with pastiche harmonizations à la Grieg in Romance.
Allt var hljótt (“Everything Was Silent”) uses lines of strings moving slowly, falling and overlapping like sighs – a technique reused by Arnalds in several later compositions to great effect.
“Found Songs” reflects Arnalds’ interest in setting self-imposed boundaries.
For this project, he composed and recorded a composition every day for a week, making each track immediately available online.
Shocking musical simplicity
A similar approach was taken in the case of ‘Living Room Songs’ (2011), but this time with the additional aim of capturing the sound, mood and atmosphere of the composer’s living room and the instruments playing there.
The almost shocking simplicity of pieces like First (“First”) and tomorrow’s song relies on sophisticated sound design and recording techniques. (Arnalds started out as a sound engineer recording Icelandic rock bands.)
A real piano sound
The sound of the piano is softened and muffled using felt (or, as it turned out in this case, an improvised cut-out t-shirt).
Altering the sound of the piano in this way (which others like Chilly Gonzales, Nils Frahm and Dustin O’Halloran have also done) serves to heighten the lyrical impact and expression of his music.
The microphones have been carefully positioned to amplify pedal squeals and creaks.
The very body of the instrument seems to breathe and speak with the music, adding character to its sound.
It’s a technique that Arnalds continues to use, as heard most recently in the country folk-tinged piano solo Saman on ‘Re:member’ (2018).
“For Now I Am Winter”
While “Living Room Songs” presented Arnalds’ music as close and intimate, his follow-up album, “For Now I Am Winter” (2013), was crafted on a much grander scale.
Featuring the haunting vocals of pop singer Arnór Dan alongside swirling symphonic string arrangements by Nico Muhly, Retrieve and only the winds capture Arnalds’ music through a wide-angle panoramic lens, while the album’s standout track Words of Amber returns to the stripped down approach of ‘Living Room Songs’.
Watch ‘Ólafur Arnalds – For Now I Am Winter ft. Arnor Dan’:
Arnalds’ ability to paint musical perspectives using both large and small brushstrokes—to zoom in on a detail before zooming in again—distinguishes his music from others working in the postclassical and postminimalist vein.
Music for TV movie
Epic and epigrammatic aspects were used to powerful effect in his music for the popular British television series. Broadchurch (2013-17, with David Tennant and Olivia Colman), its dark, sinister music accompanying every moment of almost every scene, being as much a part of the fabric of the drama as its script, characters and setting. Arnalds received a Bafta for music in 2014.
More recent hits have included music from the drama series Defend Jacob and for the award-winning film nomadland (both 2020).
“The Chopin Project”
As well as affirming the influence of 20th century figures such as Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass and Brian Eno, Arnalds regularly acknowledges the impact on him of Chopin’s music, an interest instilled in him from an early age by his grandmother.
When I interviewed him in 2013, he told me: “You wouldn’t call Chopin a minimalist, but in a way he is a ‘melodic minimalist’.
His music isn’t hugely complicated, but it is beautiful and expressive and comes from the expression of emotions rather than the communication of cerebral thoughts, concepts and ideas.
Clear evidence of this influence can be heard on the nostalgia-tinged album “The Chopin Project” (2015), which includes Chopin nocturnes performed by Alice Sara Ott alongside Chopin-inspired reflections on piano and electronics. by Arnolds.
A fervent collaborator, Arnalds has produced electronic pop experiments with Janus Rasmussen under the name Kiasmos (since 2009), a “duo” album entitled “Trance Frendz” (2016) with Nils Frahm, and songs with several other artists including Josin ( aka Arabella Rauch) and Bonobo (aka Simon Green).
‘Songs of the Islands’
“Island Songs”, released in 2016, saw Arnalds set himself the task of visiting seven different locations across Iceland over a seven-week period and working alongside local poets and musicians.
Some of these contributions add a rougher touch to its smooth, polished surfaces, confirming the composer’s view that “ultimately it is people rather than places that inspire music and art”.
Arnalds’ music often displays these imperfections. As he once said, “It’s the tiny little mistakes that make a piece come alive.
As album titles such as “Found Songs,” “Living Room Songs,” and “Island Songs” indicate, Arnalds’ compositions often gravitate toward some sort of verse-chorus structure, even when vocals are absent.
Nonetheless, he often places the song’s format in a larger, more classical, arch-like design.
Watch ‘Ólafur Arnalds – Doria’:
When I asked him if it was a conscious approach, he replied, “I’m aware of it, but it comes in a way. I don’t decide how to do this. It kind of turns out that a lot of the songs that I write end in this long arch that has a climax somewhere near the end.
The last track of ‘Island Songs’, Doriafeatures a piano player playing minimalist-style looping patterns digitally triggered by Arnalds from another keyboard.
Indeed, the process reverses the idea that synthesizers replace pianos, because in this case MIDI technology is used to capture the acoustic reality of “flesh and blood” instruments, full of subtle nuances, anomalies mechanics and sound imperfections.
Tradition and technological innovation continue to inform the Arnalds aesthetic.
More recently, British music technology company Spitfire Audio has turned some of its most innovative technological inventions into commercial products.
One example is Stratus, which Arnalds originally developed with his friend, musician and programmer Halldór Eldjárn.
A custom piano sensor recognizes notes played in real time and transforms them into MIDI via the Stratus program.
It may all sound like the geeky invention of a mad musical scientist, but beautiful floating qualities can be created with this advanced technology, and these can be heard on Loomthe opening track from Arnalds’ latest album, “Some Kind of Peace” (2020) – further proof that this popular composer continues to push technological and musical boundaries in invigorating and creative ways.
Ólafur Arnalds – best albums
‘Songs of the Islands’
Olafur Arnalds pf/synth Nanna Bryndis Hilmarsdottir voc et al
Those who criticize Arnalds’ music for its lack of variety should check out this album, which showcases his stylistic breadth through the talent and artistry of his country’s musicians and communities. It remains one of the composer’s favorite projects. The performances are also captured on an excellent accompanying DVD directed by Baldvin Zophoníasson.
Arnor Dan voc Olafur Arnalds pf et al
This Bafta-winning soundtrack underscored the engrossing crime drama TV series with a subtly crafted set of clues that are suggestive rather than prescriptive. The ominous tone of the drama is perfectly captured in Philip Glass’s “Beth’s Theme.”
Olafur Arnalds pf et al
It is an excellent introduction to the enigmatic, fragile and refined style of Arnalds. Very centered on the composer’s favorite combination of piano, strings and electronics, the serene, uplifting near the light became one of his most successful plays.
Ólafur Arnalds – life in brief
1986 Born November 3
2007–8 Studied composition at Iceland University of the Arts, Reykjavík, for a year before dropping out to focus on his career
2011 Breakthrough album: “Living Room Songs”
2014 Bafta TV Craft Award for Original Music, for Broadchurch
2015 Edda Award for Best Music, for the film Vonarstraeti (“Life in a Fishbowl”)
2020 Emmy Nomination, Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Score, for Defend Jacob
2021 With Atli Örvarsson: Icelandic Music Award, Best Album – Film and Theater Music, for Defend Jacob
2022 Nominated for two Grammys: Loom – Best Dance/Electronic Recording; The essential – Best arrangement, instruments and vocals
This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of Gramophone. Never miss an issue – subscribe today