The Non-Serious Classical Music of Ólafur Arnalds

Ólafur Arnalds & Nils Frahm

“Everyone is trying to sound like Hans Zimmer, but that’s so fucking boring.”—Ólafur Arnalds

The Icelandic national character is a little too modest to fully embrace the concept of celebrity, but it’s a safe bet that at least a few of the patrons of this café in central Reykjavík, recognize the young man in the corner, chatting enthusiastically into his laptop. Ólafur Arnalds is still buzzing about the events of the weekend. Last Friday, he and his friend and collaborator Janus Rasmussen brought their electronic project Kiasmos to the main hall of Sonar Reykjavík, filling the space with their signature glitchy rhythms and samples of billowing strings. To play a packed hometown show such as this is validating, says Arnalds, particularly when you’ve spent a portion of your career feeling like an outsider. “It feels like Icelandic people have been the last to get me,” he says. “I was touring around the world for three years before I even sold 100 records in Iceland. Of course you shouldn’t strive for this kind of appreciation—but it feels good.”

The success of Kiasmos’ self-titled 2014 album has kept Arnalds and Rasmussen busy over the last year, but the project is just one outlet for the 29-year-old artist. Arnalds’ work is a searching fusion of modern technology and contemporary classical music characterized by its somber poise and emotional resonance. In the last six weeks, Arnalds says, he’s been back in the studio, trying to put the dance floors behind him and remember how to write alone. “When you produce music like Kiasmos, you’re thinking in loops—there’s the kick drum, add the snare, and that goes on for seven minutes. But my solo music is supposed to evolve,” he puzzles, “and I’m finding that hard to get back into.”

Ólafur Arnalds & Nils Frahm

If all this genre-skipping poses a mental challenge, you get the impression it’s the kind Arnalds appreciates. Since he vacated the drum stool of his teenage hardcore band Fighting Shit to focus on classical composition and tour with Icelandic post-rock royalty Sigur Rós, Arnalds has zig-zagged between projects, guided by artistic curiosity and a taste for collaboration. On last year’s The Chopin Project, he interpreted the music of his late grandmother’s favorite composer with the help of German-Japanese pianist Alice Sara Ott. Meanwhile, his haunting score for the British crime drama Broadchurch won him a BAFTA and opened up a sideline in soundtrack work. He’s mostly offered TV commissions, but would like to do more movies. “The trouble is, they all want to hire Hans Zimmer because he makes them money,” he laughs. “So now everyone is trying to sound like Hans Zimmer, but that’s so fucking boring.”

Arnalds’ latest release is Trance Frendz, which continues his string of collaborations with the German composer Nils Frahm, a longtime friend with whom he shares a special chemistry. “Even though our music can be classified in the same genre, we have a very different approach,” says Arnalds. “Nils is an improviser: he sits down and goes through 10 themes a minute, searching. I decide on a theme in the first 10 seconds, and spend the next 10 minutes perfecting that theme. I keep him locked in a little bit, he brings me out a little bit.”

Ólafur Arnalds & Nils Frahm

Originally, the session that became Trance Frendz was conceived as a short promotional film to plug the pair’s earlier recordings. But the pleasure of one another’s company, lubricated by a bottle of whiskey, sparked a recording session that lasted long into the night. The album’s track titles—‘20:17’, ‘00:26’, ‘03:06’—refer to the hours in which they were recorded. Keep them in mind, and you’re right there as the track comes together: Frahm plugging in a synth at the midnight hour, or the pair chuckling as their faculties finally fail them around 4am. They gave the project a silly name—“I don’t think the label really liked it,” grins Arnalds—and doubled down on the cheekiness by giving out glittery pink friendship bracelets at Germany’s Haldern Pop Festival. If there is an unspoken message to the project, it’s: “This is classical music, but does it need to be so serious?”

Even as he’s trying to find his way back into solo composition, Arnalds is already thinking ahead to future projects. He’s currently reading scripts for a new season of Broadchurch, jotting down musical ideas as he goes, and there’s a new EP in the works, collaborations with a number of Icelandic musicians—“a little bit of a homage to my culture, I guess.” His real focus, though, is in the field of technology. He’s currently working on some new software with a couple of programmer friends, “to see what happens with our cognitive responses in writing when you change the approach to playing an instrument. What if you could play a piano like you might play a guitar… what if you messed up that whole response system? Because when you pick up a guitar, you write completely different music to when you sit at a piano.”

The parts are still slotting into place, but he’s got big ideas—a record, live shows, an iPhone app (how Biophilia of him). “I want people to experience it, not just watch me do it,” he says. If there’s anyone out there equipped to rewire our understanding of music, it might just be Ólafur Arnalds.

—Louis Pattison

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