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Olafur Arnalds: "Found Songs"

img  Tobias

How many cliches can this man take? „Rare is the modern composer that edges above and makes classical music cool“, a reviewer recently wrote of Olafur Arnalds and he can neither have been listening to a lot of modern composition nor classical music to arrive at that claim. No matter how much Arnalds would infuse his arrangements with beats and electronica, play against a backdrop of sampled acoustic instruments or work on a personal style, the moment he hit a note on the Piano, critics would hear Bach, Beethoven or Debussy. His Icelandic breeding did the rest: Geysirs spouting fountains of hot water, cold winds blowing across endless planes of snow and the taste of icicles on your tongue: All of this was supposedly mirrored by releases like „Eulogy for Evolution“ and „Variations of Static“. And in a way, with their melodic minimalism, pristine sound design and harmonic clarity, they actually did. Melancholia and chambermusical aspirations dominated Arnalds' public image - for a while I was even under the assumption that his new EP was called „Lost Songs“.

The irony of it all is that his latest effort is possibly the most obviously classically-influenced work he has ever published. Not just because these pieces all but exclusively feature a traditional constellation of Piano and Strings, with electronic effects outwardly degraded to second tier. References on „Found Somngs“ are not just plentiful, they are open and there for everyone to see: „Erla's Waltz“ has the tenderness of touch and striking simplicity of a Chopin nocturne. „Raein“ echoes Satie's style of self-circling motives. „Faun“ has the dark, desolate tone of a Baroque fantasy, while other pieces make prominent use of canon techniques and romantically-tinged chord progressions. Perhaps the only composition to hark back to the vocabulary of Arnalds' first two publications is „Ljósið“, which plays an ostinato Piano line against a yearning Violin theme. What seems to be a single, repeated phrase turns out to be an idea in constant flux: All but imperceptibly, the melodies shift against each other as the Violin is doubled and the Piano discreetly varies its accompaniment, gently propelling the music forwards.

Much has already been written about the compositional process at the heart of „Found Songs“. For a week, Arnalds would write and finish a new piece every day. The move came unexpected, because of the minute attention to  detail one had come to expect from him. With the results now compiled, the intentions are starting to shine through more clearly. When Arnalds told me that „there has been room for spontaneity and improvisation in classical music already for many, many years“ in our interview last year, he was not just refering to Keith Jarret's take on the genre, but on a fruitful tradition of many centuries. It is this stream of tradition he is tapping into here. After all, there is no reason to believe that depth of emotion, vision in form or richness in structure should be the privilege of „serious artists“ tearing at their hairs for years over which cluster chord to progress to next: These „Found Songs“ have all the qualities that made „Eulogy for Evolution“ a noteworthy debut, while combining them with a whiff of immediacy and straight-to-the-heartness which should win over the most cynical of souls.

Compared to the live shows from his String Quartet tour last year, there is also a decidedly more palpable tension arch to the album. Even though still eschewing wild mood swings, Arnalds has reverted to discreet contrasts between pieces, counterpointing pure acoustic lullabies with crackling abstractions and textural cuts with accesible thematic material. Contrary to expectations, this approach has only made the experience more immersive. Nonetheless, it is those tracks which employ samples and manipulations as compositional techniques which just slightly stand out from the fold. Whenever Arnalds answers one of this melodies with an ethereal echo, makes use of reverse loops or transforms a particular passage into sheets of harmonics and pure resonance, all quotes from the world of classical music sublimate to a higher state where they are nothing but fleeting elements in an infinite pool of possibilities. And in these instances, even the most diehard cliches can't harm him.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Olafur Arnalds at MySpace
Homepage: Erased Tape Records

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