by Chris Sea, photos by Markus Moises.

It began with a procession of kids, mostly bespectacled, getting on a large bus from BSÍ to Hljómahöll, weathering a grey day. From the drab that was that grey came a burst of color that was evidently Ólafur Arnalds’ responsibility.

After an orderly check-in, we found our seats within the venue, an intimate, unassuming hall in Keflavík’s city center.

We waited as subtle, droning music blended in with the light buzz of the amplifiers. Stage hands made final preparations, adjusting and organizing. Eventually, a silhouette of a man donning a simple, informal performance attire through a single light and smoke appeared. After a few informal remarks, he asked us to sing a musical note on the concert scale together as a crowd.  This became the drone which morphed an audience into becoming Ólafur’s earliest accompaniment, as he began producing chords, spelling out each individual note, note by note. All the while, a quartet of stringed instruments  blended with us, fading in and out of sight through the houselights.

A subtle Fender Rhodes patch carried itself atop his piano formations at times. All I could think to myself, sitting in my chair, was that in 500 years people will remember this sort of work as Iceland’s very own classical music, with all of its peculiarities that nod to both the past and future – digital sequences complimenting centuries of compositional tradition.  Ólafur would receive a well-deserved applause after each piece was completed.

At one point, a graceful minor keyed phrase built up to a long, flawless violin solo by one of his performers. Stunning, just like the way in which his string quartet added a tremendous and thundering boost of energy whenever it met alongside Ólafur’s passages, and the subtlety it provided was key. The effect of the unobtrusive harmony produced a sound reminiscent of such seminal works as Ambient 1: Music For Airports. He is this country’s Brian Eno.

His stage lights had a simple, tasteful florescent lighting, illuminating each major alteration of sound with sticks of light. Videos of twirling, fanciful designs projected left and right on screen to produce a minimalistic atmosphere of splendor. This country takes care of its own . This venue is the perfect setting for this, a very icelandic music. indeed the quiet is a s maximal as the loud. this music is delicate, like a figure made off porcelain.

Such great care goes into performing with these gentle crescendos. The lack of on-stage theatrics makes the musicians appear like musical technicians more than anything else. Every nuance is composed. Every – from the gliding fret whispers to the most distant and short bursts of delay. Some of his musical ideas reminded me of Arvo Pärt’s work, as well as that of Claude Debussy and Erik Satie. Imagine what they could have done with an iPad, as well. What skill it requires to be so exact and organized as to perform this material, and perhaps the technology is integral.

Electronic music has been a huge force in this culture, and it’s evident in  Ólafur’s work, which often reminds me some sounds present in Homogenic and Vespertine by Björk, Von or Takk by Sigur Rós. Interesting, I even hear British and American influences, like that of  Aphex Twin’s ambient work or even as way detached as Trap music with its snare rolls and subbass drops.

At a fitting moment under the cover of darkness, Agent Fresco’s singer, Arnór Dan Arnarson, takes to the stage to play their collaborated work. His voice fits well for  Ólafur’s compositions, particularly when in the higher range. His voice had an interesting backing vocal track behind it.  The synth patch for For Now I Am Winter is simply gorgeous, a sort of simple Moog-like monosynth. An underlying higher range note pattern is particularly jarring.  One can submit that this music is very much on par with Boards of Canada in terms of an ability to haunt and mystify. It is a sort of medieval, Gregorian electronica.

After some pieces, Ólafur spoke. His words were lightly toned and good humored. When an encore ensued, he told us a particularly funny anecdote, with an instance of its retelling linked here.

As his set came to a close, his final track had him drenched in a red hue, the on stage lighting affected by his reverberating piano. His piece begins to come to a close. The music dissipates with samples, and his quartet, which has now left the stage, can be heard in the distance, perhaps behind the stage. He slouches back when done.

What more can be said.  His work is simply Masterful, arresting and alluring; It embraces you firmly, enriching and inspiring you to soar to the highest of heights. Ólafur presents a tangible cadence to our lives in a way that few could orchestrate, and I for one am glad to have gone see him.

Setlist:
Þú ert Sólin
Þú ert jörðin
Tomorrow’s Song
Beth’s Theme
Hands be still
Only the Winds
Gleypa Okkur
3326
Brotsjór
For Now I am Winter
A Stutter
Old Skin
Near Light
Ljósið
Lag Fyrir Ömmu