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Interview with Olafur Arnalds

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Hi, I am fine thank you very much. I am sat in our tourbus somewhere in Slovenia on our way to Croatia where we will play in Zagreb. We played Vienna last night and it was great!

You’re currently touring European clubs. With regards to the sound qualities and ambiances of these venues, how well have they been suited to your setup?
I am actually not only touring European clubs, half of the venues we play are theatres or cinemas. The theatres and cinemas usually have better sound and generally fit the music better to make a beautiful show, but there is a certain quality and lightness in the club atmosphere that becomes a really interesting and nice contrast to my music. So I really like both types of venues.

Compared to previous performances, how much have repertoire and arrangements changed for the concerts? Are you already premiering pieces of the still-to-be-recorded next full-length?

We are slowly transitioning the set-list to more newer songs and less older songs. I think half of my live set-list now is new, unreleased songs. I usually premiere pieces shortly after they are written. Trying them out in front of an audience gives me good perspective on them - what atmosphere they create in the concert, and it helps me realize the song is really finished.  

You were very enthusiastic prior to touring with Sigur Ros in August. How did things turn out in practise? Did you gather any kind of experience which proved valuable for this tour?

This was a great tour, Sigur Rós’ audience is some of the best crowds we have ever played for and this was a very good way to expand my audience. But most of all we just had a very good time and met some very good people.

How did you go about selecting the members of your string quartet? After you’ve performed a couple of gigs, are you already experiencing a change in the way you interact on stage?
It was a lengthy process, finding the members of my current quartet. It’s pointless to go in depth into how I found each member but most are friends of friends, or something like that. There aren’t many young string players in Iceland that are able to go on tour for such a long time so I just took the first people I found, and they have proved to be great!

You mentioned that you wanted to take classical music away from its stuffy image. Does this, to you, also mean that there’s room for spontaneity and improvisation during the concerts?

There is room for whatever the composer and the performers want to do, but my words about classical music’s stuffy image were more related to the culture around classical music than the music or the concerts themselves. There has been room for spontaneity and improvisation in classical music already for many, many years.

One of the reasons why classical concerts are mostly serious and quiet is that they require a high degree of concentration from performers and because their mood can easily be broken by unwanted noises. How has this worked out for you in locations whose audiences have become accustomed to a high level of volume?
If the audience comes to the show to see us play they will stay silent during the show so this is not usually a problem. However, if we are playing at a place where the audience didn’t necessary come only to see us play but also for some other reasons, we have had problems with noise. But I usually talk to them and ask them to be quiet so they don’t ruin the performance for the rest of the audience. I also ask people to sit down, even in non-seated venues, and they always do so and seem very happy about that. They get a much better view of the show and are less likely to resort to talking to each other while we play.

Your music, in general, operates on a remarkably quiet level. Is this at least partly because you can draw an audience in more effectively when you’re subtely forcing them to listen closely?

In general, my music is just quiet because it’s not the kind of music that is supposed to be loud, there is not really anything more to it than that. It would be pretty silly to blast strings and piano at 105db.

But yes it is true that people do listen more closely when the music is this quiet, I am lucky to have that and I like to play around with that sometimes. Sometimes, when we finish a song with a particularily silent ending, the audience doesn’t always know when the song is finished and sometimes they just end up listening to silence for a while before someone starts clapping… this can be really amazing. People can also be really afraid to break the silence with clapping so sometimes it really takes a while before people start applauding after a song. I really like that… I believe silence can also be music.

With regards to your aim of presenting classically inspired music in a different light: Is there also an educational aspect in what you do? Do you personally find it important that young people find out about Bach, Shostakovich and contemporary composition?
Hmm, no not really. I just want people to realize that classical music and popular music can exist together in harmony, and these are not opposing poles at all. If I happen to open some people’s minds up in the process to search for new music within the classical genre then that is just a really good bonus!

However, I feel the need to say here that I don’t think that the music should get lost within some “aim” or a concept, in the end it’s all just about the music itself.

You’ve mentioned that vocal music tends to place the voice on top of everything else, thus distracting listeners from the background. How are you avoiding this when performing in a setup where the Piano often carries a similar lead function as the vocals?
I might have said this sometime but I never said this was a bad thing and I think you also might have misunderstood this… I don’t try to avoid this, and I don’t see any reason to. It’s pretty hard for me to answer this question without knowing what you are referring to, but yes of course the main melody, whether it is on vocals, piano or something else, is always going to take some attention away from the background but people shouldn’t think of it like that – those are not 2 separate things fighting for attention, they work together to create a musical piece.

What I find more interesting about music without vocals is the lack of lyrics – not a lack of a lead melody (because there usually is a lead melody anyway even without the vocals). I think what you might be referring to is me saying that lyrics always tell you what the music is about, but without them the music is completely open to the listener’s own perception.

Are you always composing pieces on the Piano before completing the arrangement for the other instruments or do you also sometimes begin with, say, the String Quartet section, scoring the Piano part to fit in with that?
I do both. Variations of Static is mostly written for strings and then the piano came more as a layer over the strings, while most Eulogy for Evolution is the opposite. Often I also write something for piano and then arrange it for strings instead of piano and then add another piano melody over that…

Aside from bands with overlapping elements in their music, do you feel that there is a scene of similarly-minded artists starting to grow, which you feel related to?

Yes, recently I have been noticing more and more people that are, like myself, somewhere between classical and pop music and yes I definitely feel related to them in some ways.

You have released your work both on CD and LP. Are you personally enjoying the return of Vinyl?
Yes, I love Vinyl but I mostly listen to mp3. My favourite is Vinyl including an mp3 download code, so you can own the artwork in this great, big format that the vinyl is, but also be able to listen to the music wherever you like. My Vinyl player has been broken for a year now and I have barely been home for the last year anyway…  but I still buy Vinyl.

Your first published pieces were intros and interludes on a Metalcore album. Have you ever considered going down a sort of inverted route and including Metal pieces on your own albums?
No. Not at all.

By Tobias Fischer



Olafur Arnalds is currently on an extensive European tour. Check his MySpace account for details.


Eulogy for Evolution (Erased Tapes Records) 2007
Variations of Static (Erased Tapes Records) 2008

Olafur Arnalds

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