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Ólafur Arnalds – Re:member [eng]


Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds gives new purpose to accidental notes with "re:member"


What is going on in Iceland? The music industry has known for some time that this tiny country of fire and ice produces some of the most unique and avant-garde artists in the music scene. There were the enigmatic art-pop sounds of Björk, then came the soaring falsetto of Jónsi and the post-rock anthems of Sigur Rós, and now the swelling quiet revolution of neoclassical scores by pianist and composer Ólafur Arnalds. But why Iceland? That mystery must spring from something unlocked in the melting waters of 3,000 year-old glaciers.

In August 2018, Ólafur Arnalds’ fourth official solo album, "re:member", was released with much anticipation due to its experimental nature (Mercury KX). This ground-breaking album is yet another solid reminder that neoclassical soundscapes are very much alive as a thriving genre. The fact that he is currently on a world tour playing to sold-out crowds is proof.

The title track re:member kicks off as a fully developed foreshadowing of his new material – encompassing every instrument in Ólafur’s tiny orchestra. Live instruments with piano and strings are decidedly woven together with computer-borne electronics and beats. As the melodies build we hear the first twinkling keys which lay down a bed of random notes generated by his new experimental music system called Stratus.

The Stratus Pianos are a pair of self-playing, semi-generative player pianos that are triggered by a central keyboard played by the composer. Two hands now become six and multiply the notes for a beautiful density that would not be possible by a single player in a live setting.

As Ólafur plays a note on the keyboard, new sets of random notes are generated by Stratus, creating surprising melodic sequences and unexpected harmonies. Essentially, this also means each song will never be replicated. The custom-built software is the brainchild of a two-year collaboration by the composer and audio developer, Halldór Eldjárn. During the process of writing material for the album, Ólafur occasionally borrowed accidental notes spit out by Stratus and recycled them elsewhere by other instruments as if they were created on purpose.

Ólafur continues his music and technology experiments into audio-visual elements as well. Working with FELD Studio for Digital Crafts in Berlin, they developed a generative tool that visually interprets algorithms from the Stratus data to design the supporting album artwork. Each track contains unique data, thus unique artwork was auto-generated for each track. “What you see is what you hear,” says Ólafur. “On the final album cover, each dot corresponds to a piano note in the title track, ‘re:member’. The more thick white dots mean a higher frequency of that note being played. Thin dots mean that note is not played very often.”

If there is one track on the new album that stands above the others, it is the masterful string arrangements of brot. Ólafur originally released this piece as a promo for his Chamber Evolutions music software collection by Spitfire Audio. It was composed entirely with individual string samples to showcase the range of various instruments. For the album version, Ólafur re-recorded the track with a full string orchestra at Air Studios in London. The new recording emphasizes the nuanced details and a dense richness that can only be attained with a full ensemble. The chord progression is minimal, but far from simple. Ólafur explains,


"My music sounds simple, and it is simple in a way, but simple music or minimalistic music is, a lot of the time, a lot harder to play than music that is maybe more technical. When you have just a long note for four bars you have to give everything into that one note. That one note needs to become music." 


Tracks inconsist and undir explore the more poppy side of the collection. Both are upbeat tracks that may rub the wrong way against a few of his purest followers. Ólafur explains that the core concept of re:member is to not put himself into a box. Some critics might suggest that his strongest works are those which adhere more closely to his classical roots. He’s admittedly stated that he listens to far more hip hop these days than he does classical music.

The Stratus notes within they sink present the sonic equivalent of glittering stardust raining down from the cosmos. For contrast, the notes are balanced against the sparse, warm bow of cellist Unnur Jónsdóttir and a slow bass beat to underscore the patience of the tempo. With the haunting track ypsilon, Ólafur’s keys provide melodic harp-like tones while showcasing more complex rhythmic structures.

Parital and ekki hugsa (Icelandic for “do not think”) begin as simple sequences of piano and string chords and fade seamlessly into a crescendo of electronic synth loops and pulsating bass beats. These tracks could easily fold neatly into any Kiasmos release – the experimental techno side project of Ólafur and Janus Rasmussen (Erased Tapes Records).

The album’s closing track nyepi is patient and delicate. An honest and mature piece that trails out as the composer allows the fading Stratus notes to take the final bow.

With careful hands, Ólafur Arnalds possesses a highly refined talent of crafting, which might at first sound like sad, brooding and melancholy compositions, but are ultimately transformed into optimistic harmonies of hope and wanderlust. In such an increasingly chaotic and turbulent world, these songs are the balancing forces we all long to hear and experience. They rise above the uncertainty and doubt with a comforting reassurance that everything is going to be okay. We will be safe. We are going to be alright.

Mercury KX, 24.08.2018


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