Olafur Arnalds Programs Pianos to Improvise Beautiful Music

Icelandic producer/composer Olafur Arnalds started off as a metal drummer, but beauty and brutality often go hand in hand

Olafur Arnalds by Benjamin Hardman
Benjamin Hardman

Iceland has become known for churning out strange beauty in music, from Sigur Ros to Bjork and producer/composer Olafur Arnalds.

Arnalds, who started off his career as a metal drummer, made the transition to more composition-based work between 2004 and 2007, after composing and recording two instrumental tracks for German metal band Heaven Shall Burn. That might seem like a far cry from what NPR's Bob Boilen calls "some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard at Tiny Desk, made all the more mysterious through its presentation," but beauty and brutality often go hand in hand.

"[Bringing classical music back to the mainstream] is not a particular mission of mine, although I do enjoy making the occasional poke at the lost ghost that is mainstream classical music. With the years I have come to realize more and more how far outside classical music my music really stands -- sure, there are classical instruments, but what else? For me, there seems to be a new thing brewing and that’s more exciting to me," Arnalds told me over email last week.

Where classical- and composition-based music really operates within the mainstream -- even if it is largely secondary in nature -- is in the television and movie industries. Hence, Arnalds' soundtrack credits, including the score for the British serial crime drama, "Broadchurch."

"When writing for TV or film means there is usually a pretty clear guideline in the script, storyline, or feel of the project. It doesn’t always tell you what to do, but at least it tells you quite clearly what not to do. Whereas writing an album there is no such limits. The album is a process of experimentation and exploration that often goes way beyond the world of music to define those limits," Arnalds said.

Arnalds has found his own ways of defining the limits of musical experimentation when it comes to album writing. He's utilized programmable player pianos to improvise alongside him, developing a software called Stratus with his friend Halldor Eldjarn.

"It [Stratus] controls two player pianos that react to what I play on a third piano. What makes it really exciting to me is that I can't always predict what the other pianos play. There's a semi-generative element to it that make the pianos react a little different each time. This little unexpected responses have an effect on what I play. It becomes almost like improv. I play something and Stratus responds," Arnalds said.

"We spent almost two years on it. Probably the longest I’ve ever worked on anything, really. It gave me a new way of thinking about my music and how I create it. Making it automatically put an emphasis on the process of writing, helped me get lost in what I was doing. It made me realise how being creative is often dependant on doing things in a new way, getting out of your rut. This whole process of experimentation was really the inspiration for the new album," he added.

That doesn't mean he's a die-hard futurist, however. At heart, he's still an idealist about the creative process and the purpose of art.

"I'm really not interested in music written by AI [artificial intelligence]. What's interesting about music, to me, is personal expression. Technological advancements on the other hand can be great as a tool. Although definitely not a requirement. So much of the world's greatest music was made with very limited gear. Sometimes art thrives on boundaries. In the end it's up to the musician to make good music -- with or without technology," Arnalds explained.

Olafur Arnalds headlines Observatory North Park on Saturday, Feb. 2. Get tickets here.

Rutger Ansley Rosenborg has been an Associate Editor at NBC SoundDiego since 2016. Find out more here, or contact him here.

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