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Concert Report: Olafur Arnalds & String Quartet

img  Tobias

An Icelander comes to Germany and it starts to snow: Ever since the announcement of Olafur Arnalds’ visit to Münster first started popping up in local event mags, the city seems to have died its street white in his honour, covering trees and roofs with wooly plumes of welcoming candyfloss. It is the last evening of a long and exhausting tour for Arnalds and his string quartet, but it only takes a casual look at his MySpace site and its page-long accolades, cudos and salutes to also mark it as an extremely succesful one. The organisors of the Gleis 22, Münster’s number one spot for Independent Rock and alternative culture, even moved the performance from their medium-sized location to the huge auditorium of the Cineplex movie palace to meet demand – almost completely selling out a hall usually reserved for blockbusters like “Die Hard” or “Max Payne”.

It is not a new situation for the 21-year old. Half of his gigs during the tour have taken place at cinemas and theatres – a conscious decision to make use of their intimate ambiance and “usually better sound” compared to noisy rock clubs. With regards to the latter, the Cineplex must probably be labelled an exception. Its acoustics are dry and disembodied (Arnalds himself will later refer to them as “so dead... It feels like I’m playing in a really small room”), adding a claustrophobic sensation to the already slightly unorganic sound of string instruments being played through amplifiers. As the performance progresses, however, it strangely benefits from this compactness and compression, subtely accentuating the brittle character of the Icelandic fivepiece’s compositions.

Before the band open tonight’s set, however, the audience is treated to a ten-minute extract from the upcoming movie “Music from the Moon”, a “scenic documentary about music in Iceland and Greenland” realised by the Münster-based GUCC movie team. Crystaline images of cold, glistening waters and of nocturnal traffic pulsating gently through the dreamy veins of Reykjavík merge with interview snippets and a wild jam session fueled by insistent Glockenspiel Octaves and funky brass impulses. “Everybody knows everybody in this town”, members of banss such as Benni Hemm Hemm and Mum intone, reinforcing the image of the island’s scene as one big family.

How does Olafur Arnalds fit into the picture? By combining acoustic and electronic instruments, blending glacial serenity with hopeful melancholia and presenting floating tracks in a pointed song format, his music is certainly never all that far away from the sound of a befriended band like Sigur Ros, with whom Arnalds has already triumphantly toured in the past. With its classical associations, chambermusical purity and the notable absence of vocals, however, his style clearly sets itself apart. Essentially, his pieces are ornamented chord progressions, whose two- to three-note motives discreetly cancel out typical notions like lead melody and accompaniment. Rather, he weaves palpitating sheets of melancholic harmony somewhere between suspenseful reticence and sourdined outbursts – Philip Glass seems a maximalist in comparison.

The soothing effect of this approach becomes apparent a mere ten minutes into the set. All around me, pairs of lovers are snuggling up to each other, their heads leaning onto each other’s shoulders and their eyes closed. Arnalds seagues different tracks into long blocks of sonic ice, carving out epic modular compositions made up of several sections. There is not much variation between these different segments, which always appear to begin with a repeating theme on the Piano, which is gradually embellished and enriched by undulating sheets of string lines – or the other way round. This strict formal scheme, meanwhile, reinforces the comforting sensation of deep immersion, of becoming one with these unrushed and tender pieces. At one point, the instrumentalists circle the same passage for minutes, only gradually fraying out into a solitary viola meditation loosing itself in the darkness of the hall.

As if to underline the puristic musical presentation, there are no visuals whatsoever. Only on „Himininn er að hrynja, en stjörnurnar fara þér vel“, which closes the main program, do flocks of birds float down the wavy curtain at the back of the ensemble – most likely a joke on the eve of the tour’s end by Arnalds’ crew, because, as he later elucidates, “they were supposed to fly up!”. Even though this sobriety doesn’t sit well with everyone in the audience as post-concert talks reveal, it represents a refreshing return to the core values of a concert for me. The amplified violins and cello reveal every silent scratching on their strings and body, while Arnalds dims some of his plentiful backwards loops, ethereal overtone-drones and autumnal electronic effects down to a whisper, embedding them wholy into the texture of the music. It all makes you especially sensitive to every tiny detail and every grain of sound.

Arnalds uses this perceptional awareness to play with the dynamics of the gig. At times, he abruptly raises the volume of the group or allows glitchy beats to kick in at a moment when the music seems about to stand still. Never, however, does he force himself upon listeners or fully releases the tension. His tension arch is a flat, oscillating curve with temporary dips and brief peaks, undulating softly towards the sparkling emotional climax of single “3055”. But even this melodically recognisable moment of emphatic accelleration is presented in a contained version tonight, as the propulsive percussion of the studio cut is replaced with a fragile click and cut rhythm. Similarly, new tracks seamlessly juxtapose with familar ones to create a smooth and warm quilt of sonic tranquility.

With regards to individual tracks, it sometimes feels as though Arnalds were always cutting his pieces at their highest intensity. This, however, seems to be exactly what he wants. Awarding a recognisable feeling to the overall performance is more important to him than simply playing a typical crowdpleasing program of hits and highlights. His reservation is neither modesty nor shyness but a conscious decision aimed at awarding his work an absolute quality. When I asked him whether he had ever considered including Metal sections into these soundscapes in our interview prior to the show (a reference to his connection to Hardcore bands like Heaven Shall Burn), he simply answered “No. Not at all” and it is easy to see why: Even the slightest trace of egoism and acoustic violence would tear the sussurating fabric of his oeuvre apart.

The impact proves him right. The audience, caught in a state of gentle hypnosis, awards only muffled applause in between pieces, but ecstatically jumps to their feet after Arnalds has finished the final piece and only encore he will play tonight. When we leave the Cineplex, it has stopped snowing, the streets gleaming with moonlight and small streams of shining wetness: The Icelander is leaving town again, but his romantic soul has molten the ice.

Picture by Frank Vollmer

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Olafur Arnalds
Homepage: Erased Tape Recordings

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