Describing Ólafur Arnalds as “slightly Nordic” during his performance at Thalia Hall earlier this month would be an understatement. This characterization stems less so from his favoring a certain Viking aesthetic or a strong preference for death metal (although he did start out as a hardcore drummer and composed music for Heaven Shall Burn), but rather because of his incredibly humble and soft-spoken demeanor on stage. Every couple of songs he would pause for a moment to stand up from his piano and tell the crowd an anecdote or crack a joke or two. During one of these breaks, for example, he asked the audience to hum a tone in unison, which he then recorded “for possible later usage – if it’s good enough.”
Despite Arnalds doing all the talking and a good bit of the playing too, the 32-year-old is not alone on his world tour: while starting his first piece solo on the piano with the spotlight centered on him, after a few minutes additional spots reveal the string quartet and later on the percussionist that support him on his journey to sold-out concert halls throughout North America and Europe.
Arnalds’ music, a mix of ambient, neoclassical, and occasionally also electronica, is striking because of its fluidity – every song flows into the next as if they are part of one giant piece, only interrupted by the musicians’ occasional pauses and Arnalds’ conversation bits. While most of his compositions are rather short, he always finds something to add to them on stage, explaining how, despite only having played eleven distinct songs, the show filled a good hour and a half. The best example is “unfold” from his 2018 album re:member, which measures only four minutes in the original, but stretches itself into a kind of mini-pathétique of about twice the length on stage.
Without a doubt, there also is a good portion of experimentation in Arnalds’ music. Aside from frequently shifting between his grand piano and two synthesizers, he incorporates plenty of electronic beats into his compositions, and showcased his newest piece of musical pioneering: his so-called Stratus Pianos feature two upright pianos which are connected to Arnalds’ grand piano, and which produce a randomly generated note whenever he plays one himself to create new and unexpected harmonies. Aside from his creative endeavors, Arnalds’ also gives some of his touring band members a chance to shine, such as nestling a performance of his solo violin work “3326” between his other pieces.
One of the last songs of the set, “nyepi,” is a piece which warranted some additional introduction before being presented. It was written during one of Arnalds’ many trips to Indonesia, which he is captivated by and traveled to repeatedly due to a self-proclaimed “fascination for island life.” On the eponymous New Year’s holiday, which is particularly pronounced in Bali, all traffic is stopped, nobody is supposed to leave their houses, and no festive or noisy activities are allowed to take places, which is why it’s also called the “Day of Silence.” To put it in the words of Arnalds’ himself, it is “one day a year in which we give the Earth time to regenerate for the 364 days when we are treating it like shit.” It is out of this self-reflective root that the minimalist piano piece springs, seemingly providing the motto for the entire event through its theme of quiet introspection.
After frenetic cheers and a whole-audience standing ovation, Arnalds’ gives in to play a final encore piece: “Lag Fyrir Ömmu” literally translates to “Song for Grandmother,” and is just that – an ode to the woman who used her baking skills to rouse in her grandson the love for classical music in general and Chopin in particular that underlies his entire canon, so much even that he dedicated an entire collaboration album to covering the latter’s works. He plays the piece on one of the two upright pianos towards the far side of the stage, his back facing the audience. Every note is filled with so much passion and pathos that one is afraid each will be the last. After he is done, Arnalds’ leaves as he entered – in silence.