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Interview with Ólafur Arnalds III

img  Tobias Fischer

While some of the pieces on your previous releases tended to linger within a particular mood, the new ones almost always appear to be „going somewhere“. Is this something that happened  intuitively over time or rather a conscious part of your constant will to evolve as a composer?
Well I think in some ways I have to disagree here. I think my pieces have always been ‘going somewhere’, they just maybe didn’t go as far. It was more of a subtle thing. But yes, there has definitely been a big development… there better be, as this album took me a long time to make! 

So is arranging the material as much part of the compositional process as the actual placing of notes?
Yes definitely. And it’s definitely the most time consuming part. The melody might be the most important thing - it’s not always that way though! - but it’s far away from being the hardest or the most time consuming. 

Simply put, one of the ideas behind „...and they have escaped the weight of darkness“ was that there is always light after darkness. When did this conceptual angle start to emerge?
This has been an ongoing thing for quite a long time now... I think the first time I thought about this was actually in a review about my first album, which said that even though my songs were sad, I never left them without a sense of hope... This was an unconcious thing at the time, but I found it really interesting and decided to try to work more conciously with this. 

Was there a personal, emotional reason for the approach as well?

For me, writing and producing music is not a release for emotions… playing it is though. But writing and arranging is a whole different process. Sometimes to express emotions, but not to get some sort of an emotional release. 

The album offers a fresh angle on your oeuvre. Was the idea for the album immediately connected to a particular sound?
In some ways it was. As soon as I had written a few songs for it I knew that I wanted to take it in this direction – a more acoustic, bigger and fuller sound. It of course developed on the way. For example, track 6, ‘Gleypa okkur’, used to have really heavily distorted electronic drums - and it still does on my live shows – but it changed into a very soft beat on the final album.

What made it interesting to work with this increased sense of dynamics and a broader timbral palette on this one?
It wasn’t really that kind of a conscious decision to move into this… I’m just interested in both sides and feel the need to explore both sides. In fact I was already working on this album when I made both Found Songs and Dyad 1909. So I would rather say that I was taking a break from this fuller setup and working on these minimal things in between. 

Your Piano lines were recorded at the Schimmel Piano Factory. Were these, then, the basic tracks around which the rest of the album was later wrapped around?

By the time I started recording the piano I had already written everything else and got the basic ideas for how I wanted to produce it down. I had programmed demos of everything and basically then just replaced the programmed instruments one by one. So while I was recording the piano I had a pretty full backing track on my headphones. 

You mentioned that you like working with people because they can give you something you could not play or come up with yourself. How much freedom was there for the contributors on „...and they have escaped the weight of darkness“ to offer their own ideas to the tracks?
Not much actually... (laughs). No no, I definitely give them freedom to explore and come up with suggestions, but in the end we are not really collaborating on something that we put out together, we are collaborating on my album. And I alone have the image or the picture of how I want the album to end up. So I was looking more for personality in the people I chose to work with… Some character they could add to the mix. 

As you were a drummer in your early bands, why didn't you play the drums yourself on this occasion?

I wanted to be behind the glass, with a complete overview of everything... Hearing how the things sounded as soon as they were played and being able to suggest changes. 

As you can freely choose between acoustic instruments, guest musicians and software, what will usually prompt your decision for either one?

It’s not really a decision between electronic or acoustic. It’s more just a decision between many different induvidual instruments. A lot of the time I will just try anything with no concrete plans before I commence playing... then later I'll see whether it fits or not.

At the Erased Tapes office, Robert played me some of the pieces that ended up as bonus tracks on the limited edition. I though they were incredible. Were these extremely minimal, repetitive and spacey pieces rather just experiments or were they originally intended to somehow become part of the project?

Those are actually tracks from a dance piece I worked on here in Iceland with the Norwegian choreographer Alan Lucien. The piece was written for the Icelandic National Dance Company. So the fact that they are minimal, repetitive and spacey has a lot to do with the fact that they were written for a pretty minimalistic dance piece where I wanted to give the dancers a lot of space. 

You're in good contact with composer Nico Muhly. Despite the obvious differences between your styles, do you sometimes discuss, criticise and encourage each other's work?
We are not really close, but yeah we do hang out occasionally. But no we haven’t talked about that yet… We usually just drink gin and tonic and discuss fashion and hairstyles…

By Tobias Fischer

Ólafur Arnalds' „and they have escaped the weight of darkness“ is out May 14th on Erased Tapes Records.

Ólafur Arnalds Discography:
Eulogy For Evolution (Erased Tapes Records) 2007
Variations Of Static (Erased Tapes Records) 2008
Dyad 1909 (Erased Tapes Records) 2009
Found Songs (Erased Tapes Records) 2009
And They Have Escaped The Weight Of Darkness (Erased Tapes Records) 2010

Ólafur Arnalds

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