“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.”
Ólafur Arnalds is an ambitiously defiant artist and musical mastermind.
Atmospheric soundscapes, soaring melodies and crunchy beats are his modus operandi, mesmerising audiences and transforming concert halls across the globe with his immersive compositions and effects
Arnalds released his fourth album, re:member in August this year, revealing a contemporary artistic process that is nothing short of outstanding. To bring re:member to life, Arnalds collaborated with Icelandic musician and computer scientist Halldór Eldjárn over two years to create the Stratus software - a ground-breaking piece of technology which controls two self-playing prepared pianos that are triggered by an algorithm originating from a central grand piano which Arnalds’ plays live on stage. Arnalds elaborates in the Iceland Review:
“Technology has always come before music. Nobody was writing piano music before there was a piano. We wouldn’t have started writing rock music without the electric guitar. We have always been hugely dependent on technology, even before computers, to create new sounds… What’s interesting to me is that normally when you play an instrument like the piano, you press the note C, and it sounds. Nothing unexpected really happens. But with this software, I press a note and it becomes something else. The auditory feedback you’re getting is changing and that’s changing your creative, intuitive thinking as well.”
This also means that no live show performed by Ólafur Arnalds will ever be the same.
How? In essence, when Arnalds presses one key on his grand piano, a dynamic assembly of notes are returned, as told to NPR during his Tiny Desk Concert:
“The idea behind this is not to create a computer that makes music for me, it's to create an instrument that I'm playing… It senses what I play. Usually I am sitting at a grand piano, and I would play a chord. That chord goes into the software, which manipulates it and then sends it out as rhythmical textures to these two pianos. We're all here, and we're watching a concert that will never be replicated exactly the same. We're all living in this unique moment in time, which will never happen again."
Resident Advisor delves deeper into the programming setup of the Stratus Software specifically and in addition to generating multi-faceted notes and chords, Arnalds also used the software algorithm to generate the album’s cover art.
Arnalds continues to shake-off any lingering references that label him a classical artist.
In an interview with The Reykjavik Grapevine Arnalds discusses his subversion of classical instrumentation and tradition and his refusal to let the genre classify him and his music:
“We’re not dependent on radio anymore, so we don’t need to fit in. In the past, I would have to make classical music and get played on classical radio or make pop music and get played on pop radio, but now, anything has the same chance in the music business no matter what genre you call it. I am using classical instruments and I am playing piano but if you come to a live show of mine you will see a show. You will not just see me onstage playing a Steinway. The whole thing is approached like pop music is. It’s very different from my previous shows. It’s bigger. It’s louder.”
And similarly with The Jackal:
“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. I enjoy it but I don’t feel that I have much in common with classical composers.
Arnalds cites David Bowie as a major influence for his live performances, but perhaps not in the way one would immediately think. In stark contrast to the grand pop-cultural and character-driven aesthetic David Bowie forged as his chameleonic brand, Arnalds’ aesthetic is impressively minimalist in the way he presents himself to audiences when he takes the stage. Instead rather, he chooses to channel the Bowie mindset of disrupting the status quo, thinking beyond the confines of conventional musical, cultural and technological structures in order create something extraordinary.
And to think Ólafur Arnalds’ idea for the Stratus Software was triggered in a hotel lobby while travelling through Asia when he first saw a modern version of a player piano playing The Beatles' iconic song ‘Yesterday’. It was this moment that got Arnalds thinking how he could incorporate technology more deeply, more purposely and more creatively into his composing. And so began the two-year journey to developing the Stratus software and the exquisite, ground-breaking musical feat that is re:member.