Maxim Meyer-Horn

8 Jul

Interview: Ólafur Arnalds Is the Enfant Terrible of Modern Music

Ólafur Arnalds is not a usual musician. The Icelandic multi-instrumentalist is a composer and is gifted with a remarkable talent. His music knows how to transfer emotions without using a single word, only by using melodies and harmonies. Arnalds is truly a one of a kind artist and it’s interesting to see how big he’s become within the last years. We talked with the enfants terribles of the modern classical music at Rock Werchter and were even more impressed after the interview.

Hi Ólafur, welcome to Rock Werchter! How are you?

I’m good, very good.

It must be a special show for you, because it’s your first time at a major festival in Belgium…

I played Pukkelpop with Kiasmos before, but it’s my first time as a solo act. I didn’t even realize that…

You’re performing in between two rock bands. Does that put any pressure on your shoulders since your music is quite different?

I’m not worried at all, because of the festival scenario. There’s enough time in between bands, so after Mogwai (i.e. played before Ólafur at the same stage) which is maybe the loudest band of the festival, there’s one hour before I’m coming up. People are going somewhere in that hour and reset their mood, so I’m absolutely not worried.

While listening to your music, it feels like a new, magnificent world is opening up. What do you hear or feel when you compose your songs?

It’s always a little bit methodical to me. When composing, it’s not really about the feeling of the music, it’s a bit more about mathematics and logistics because you have to put together all these different elements and get a strong structure. Of course, I feel happy doing that, because I just enjoy composing. The emotional quality of the music happens in my mind after it’s done. It isn’t happening while I make it.

You don’t use any words in your music, but how do you transfer your emotions into your sound?

Yeah, I’m quite manipulative in that way. To be honest, it’s really easy to make sad music, but it’s difficult to make music that sounds happy, but is still tasteful, content and beautiful and puts a smile on someone’s face. Lately, like on the last album re:member, that was more my intention. I got kind of bored of making sad, melancholic piano music. You know all the tricks from the books and you know exactly which notes go together. I found it a bigger challenge to try to make it up-lifting.

You’re originally from a small town in Iceland with about 11.000 people. Does your home and the landscape around your hometown inspire you a lot while composing?

Absolutely, but I think it’s less how it looks around you and more how it feels around you and what kind of community you’re living in. For me, it was a little bit isolating living there. Not just because it’s a small town, but also because of my personality which didn’t totally seem to fit in. It’s in my opinion more in the aspect of how the community pushes you to what and how you’re doing things.

A lot of young people think that classical music is boring, but they still feel a connection with your music. What makes your music so special compared to the typical classical music?

Well, I don’t think that my music is classical music. I see it more as a magic trick or illusion because there are classical instruments. So, on the surface, it looks like classical music because of the grand piano or violin. Apart from that, there aren’t a lot of classical techniques, approaches or structures. The essence of the music has, in my opinion, way more to do with modern electronic and pop music. I can continue with many arguments, but what I find interesting is how music is presented. You wouldn’t see a classical artist on a 20.000 capacity stage at Rock Werchter with a big light show, smoke machines, blinking lights, … That’s also part of it, because it gives you the idea that it’s modern music rather than it is classical.

Do you feel flattered when I tell you that some people call you the new Mozart?

I think that’s bullshit. I don’t even know if it’s flattering because it’s so far away from my own perception that I just think it’s bullshit… You can say it about any artist that you like, if you think they’re genius.

Your other project Kiasmos is completely different, but still has many similarities with your solo music. What’s the main difference and the main similarity between both projects?

The main difference is that I’m not the dictator and don’t control everything in Kiasmos. I have to listen to and respect the opinions of others and my partner in Kiasmos. From my approach, it’s not completely different. Often, I just sit down, start writing and afterwards feel if it’s a Kiasmos or if it’s a song for Ólafur.

In 2018, you released an album called re:member. How would you like to be remembered by the world?

The album title actually doesn’t mean remember. The way the words are split in ‘re’ and ‘member’, it’s about becoming someone. It’s the opposite of dismemberment, the feeling of falling apart and putting yourself together. It may be boring, but how I want to be remembered is as a generous, kind and giving person…

What a beautiful way to end. Enjoy the show and thank you. 

Photos by Maxim Meyer-Horn for Enfnts Terribles

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