‘Darkness’ Prevails

Icelandic composer brings fresh blast of Neo Classical air

Jan 25, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Ólafur Arnalds, the 24-year-old Icelandic pianist and composer of trance-inducing, classically informed New Music, is bringing his string quartet to Cincinnati on Thursday to perform from his quietly beatific album …and they have escaped the weight of darkness.

You might assume, given the evident influences on Arnalds of composers like Eric Satie and Philip Glass, that he would be performing at Music Hall or Memorial Hall — or maybe at a CCM recital. (He has performed with a symphony orchestra in Manchester, England.) Or maybe at a foreign-language institute, since his songs bear titles like “Loftio verdur skyndilega kalt,” Haegt, kemur ljosio” and “Pau hafa sloppio undan bunga myrkursins.”

Instead he’s at Newport’s Southgate House, a well-worn roadhouse that frequently is awash in booze, noisy bar patrons, cigarette smoke and loud Rock & Roll. It’s the antithesis of the streamlined, minimalist Modernism that Arnalds’ music exudes.

Yet Arnalds is looking forward to the date, although he is banning smoking to protect the 100-year-old stringed instruments (two violins, a cello and viola) from the ravages of air pollution. He thinks it’s a good site for his music, with its Pop influences, a rhythmic presence and use of electronic soundscapes.

“Many of the best shows we play are in places that shouldn’t technically fit the music but somehow do,” he says by phone from Iceland. “Somehow, when we bring this kind of atmosphere to a bar where people maybe are used to standing and rocking out, and you just ask them to listen and relax, it’s so informal people can really get into it. In big theaters, it’s very formal and people don’t feel that comfortable, especially people not used to hearing this kind of music.”

Arnalds come from a Rock background. He was a drummer in an Icelandic band called Fighting Shit. And since the band never officially broke up, he’s still in it, technically.

“I’m very proud of that band,” he says. “We started off joking around — that’s how we got this horrible, horrible name. It was Thrash/Hardcore, really fast with really short songs. Our motto was if you can’t say it in 10 seconds, it’s not worth saying.”

At the same time, he was playing piano and composing his contemporary Classical music.

“I like many different kinds of music,” he explains. “I liked Classical music and I liked Punk and Hardcore and some Pop. I always liked Classical, but there were not people around me doing it.”

As a composer/performer, he has released two albums and three EPs since 2007. He has also toured with Sigur Ros. His music now is infused with the kind of awe for nature one might expect of someone from a nation as beautiful, but cold, as Iceland. The album’s title was inspired by a scene from the 2000 film Werckmeister Harmonies by Hungarian director Bela Tarr. And the song titles translate to cosmic imagery like “You are the sun” and “Moon.”

“The album is really about the journey from light into darkness and, most importantly, back into light,” Arnalds explains. “When you have music without lyrics, it can be hard to express that. So I was trying to find a metaphor for that. I came across a scene from the film where (there is) a solar eclipse, and when it’s on everyone is scared and everything is cold. The moment when the sun comes back everyone is so happy because they have escaped the weight of darkness. It was a beautiful scene and made me think I should use the solar eclipse as a metaphor.”

Contemporary Classical (or Neo-Classical) music has been finding more and more Rock fans. Cincinnati’s MusicNow Festival, like numerous other new fests around the world, has been devoted to the intersection of Classical and Rock music.

Really, to Arnalds, there’s not that much difference between the two.

“In the end it’s just a sound frequency coming out of a speaker,” he says. “There’s no fundamental difference between genres of music. It’s just music and chords. Often it’s the same chords, played with different feeling. Whether it’s with distortion on a guitar or played softly, it’s the same music.”

ÓLAFUR ARNALDS performs Thursday at the Southgate House. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.