Sad tunes are not always about heartache and loss. Ólafur Arnalds wrote a tune called Poland after a nightmare journey in Eastern Europe. The combination of bad roads, too much drink and not enough sleep was his inspiration. Similarly Ljósið, which has many online admirers swooning over its melancholy beauty, was originally written as a commission for a TV commercial for bath tubs. (The piece was subsequently rejected on the grounds that it wasn’t dumb enough to be used in an ad).
This background to these two tunes was freely conveyed to an adoring audience at Ravenna’s Rocca Brancaleone – a beautiful open air setting under the stars perfectly suited to Arnald’s delicate tunes. These anecdotes help to take some of the preciousness out of the music and defuse any exaggerated air of ethereal mystery behind the simple compositions.
The response to the 75 minute set seemed quite muted but the success of the show was evident afterwards from the enthusiastic rush to buy T-shirts, CDs and get a signature from/photo with the young Icelandic artist.
Arnalds’ tunes are all built around minimalist piano notes and backed by an all male string quartet (who were playing with him in concert for the first time). They are so restrained that it’s hard to imagine that Arnalds has also performed as a drummer in a hardcore rock band (Fighting Shit) in Reykjavik and as part of a techno duo called Kiasmos.
At Ravenna, the sixth on-stage member produced complimentary effects on his laptop. I guess he also synchronized the visuals projected on the huge screen behind the musicians. These black and white images were in a similar vein to those used by Jónsi for last year’s concerts – digitalized shots drawn from nature: wind, rain, trees and birds. A flavour of these can be found in the official video to Hægt, kemur ljósið (see below).
Arnalds’ music exudes a calmness ,and a sameness, that works its magic delicately and without any grand gestures or apocalyptic crescendos. The absence of voice, guitar or percussion means that there is not a lot of variety or drama, just a quiet, fragile grace which on a sultry summer evening was just fine by me.