Olafur Arnalds: Sound that defies description

The Icelandic musician talks to The Jackal about how he invented an instrument, his latest single and why he’s anything but a classical composer

It’s not every day that you come across something that simply doesn’t sound like anything else. Something so distinctive, and so at odds with musical convention, it stops you in your tracks.

But, believe it or not, this is precisely what Ólafur Arnalds’ music does. A description-defying mixture of classical, electronic, and techno sounds, the Bafta winning artist has been turning heads (and ears) of late – if you’ve yet to hear his music, now’s the time to listen in. Arnalds’ star, already shining brightly in the neo-classical world, is also on the rise in mainstream music. He’s about to commence a huge global tour, including a sold-out performance at the Royal Albert Hall.

‘Just because I’m using classical instruments, that doesn’t mean I’m part of the classical world’

His striking sound aside, there’s an undeniable sense of cool about his person, too. With his tall, slight frame, pale Icelandic skin and shock of blond hair, he appears half-White Walker, half-philosopher. His voice is resonant and his humour distinctly dry. But, despite his assured sense of self, even he’s not quite sure how to define his talent.

‘I don’t look at myself as a musician, or a composer, or a producer. When people ask me, I usually fall back on “artist”. Of course, this week I might be a producer and next week I might be a composer, but in terms of my solo work, I don’t really know if composer is the right word. I think what I do has more in common with producing.’

His music reflects this complexity, and although its classically-informed, it’s a mistake to label him a classicist. ‘Just because I’m using traditional instruments, and taking some influences from classical music, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m a part of the classical world,’ he says, bluntly. ‘I enjoy it but I don’t feel that I have much in common with classical composers.’

This is a valid point. Many of Ólafur’s compositions offer up a striking, almost haunting spectrum of sound, much of which is supplied by his own invention – the Stratus. Ostensibly it’s a piano, but it’s connected to two other pianos using a primitive piece of software and two robots. When Ólafur plays a phrase on his own piano, the software reinterprets it, passes it onto the AI and they play their respective pianos in response.

The result is never quite what Arnalds is expecting. Code in the Stratus’s software ensures that the other two pianos don’t repeat his music back to him, but twist and extrapolate it, yielding a consistently surprising sound. ‘I developed it as a way to trigger new sounds I wouldn’t otherwise think of creating. It’s almost like playing in an improv group – you have these other players insisting “I’m going to do something different”. Anything I play on my piano gets turned into rhythmical textures on the others. I then hear those and react to them in turn, so it’s almost like we’ve created a jazz trio – but with robots.’

‘I’d been going through a time where I was stuck. This song symbolises creative struggle’

The irony is Ólafur’s music is anything but robotic. Critics have consistently praised him not only for its inventiveness, but for its emotional depth, too. His latest single, Re:member, came out earlier this month, and both its narrative and the music accompany video, are designed to tell a story.

‘For me this song is very important. Writing it took weeks, I’ve never spent so long on a single piece. I’d been going through a weird period in my life where I was stuck. I wasn’t inspired, I felt like I was just doing things that people expected me to do and I wasn’t being honest with myself. This song changed all of that. It symbolises working through a creative struggle and coming out the other side. When it came to making the video, we wanted it to do the same. It’s about finding a connection without words.’

And what’s the significance of the colon, you might well ask? ‘It makes you question the meaning of the words. For me, “re:member” means the opposite of dismemberment. It’s about finding yourself again, finding the real self and not anyone else’s version of who you think you should be.’

This all sounds rather serious, which prompts the question, what does Arnalds’ do for fun? ‘There’s hardly ever a time when I’m not thinking about music,’ he quips, ‘I enjoy going to concerts but I don’t think that counts. Every time I get some time off I try to jump on a plane. I’m in love with South East Asia right now, so I disappear over there and discover islands or quiet places. I like to travel to parts of the world where people wouldn’t expect to see me.’

So, even when he’s not working, it seems Arnalds is impossible to pin down.

Ólafur Arnalds is on tour now