Composer Ólafur Arnalds Makes “Very Delicate Music”


At only 26, Icelandic composer and multi-instrumentalist Ólafur Arnalds has already proved his ambitions extend far beyond his native country’s larger-than-life landscapes. Thus far Arnalds has scored a ballet, several films, recorded five slow-burning EPs, three albums and composed pieces for hardcore bands, including Heaven Shall Burn. And he has no intention of stopping now. With so many projects, it’s impressive Arnalds has the time to kick off a months-long tour across the U.S., Australia and Europe promoting his most recent studio album For Now I Am Winter, which touches down tonight at Glasslands. We caught up with Arnalds last week when he touched down on American soil, and asked him about performing in old-school cabaret tents, minimalism versus metal and being your own worst critic.

Thanks for chatting with us today! How are you doing?
Hi, I’m okay. I’m very jetlagged (laughs).

I’m sure–Reykjavik to Los Angeles is a hell of a distance.
Yeah. Next time it would probably make more sense to start the tour on the other side of the country!

You’re kicking off your tour in LA today. What can audiences expect to hear, new material?
We will be playing mostly stuff from For Now I Am Winter and a couple of albums before that. It’ll be a mix, I don’t think we have anything new to show [laughs]. It’ll be a whole new setup, though. I rearranged all the songs from Winter so everything works out differently live than from the album.

I also saw you’ll be performing in a spiegeltent later on in this tour–that’s certainly an interesting space for your music to be performed in.
Yeah, I think it’s during our Australian tour later on in the fall. I’ve played a spiegeltent before and it’s a very good atmosphere to perform in. It creates a very special mood for the music. An interesting mood, too.

What kind of performance spaces are you drawn to?
We spend a lot of time before going on tour talking about spaces that we think will fit–it’s very delicate music. It doesn’t work everywhere, and you need intricate spaces. You also need silence. I’m mostly drawn to theaters, especially old theaters. Cinemas work. Clubs can be interesting places to play as a contrast, especially if it’s one that usually plays, say, rock music or something.

I feel like when people talk about artists from Iceland, especially Sigur Ros, there’s a tendency to gravitate towards always pigeonholing the music to fit with a certain idea of the different landscapes. Can you identity with this or does it bother you?
It doesn’t bother me. I’ve come to the conclusion that people will always make assumptions when you hear music from Iceland, because it’s a small place and people don’t know much about life there. It doesn’t necessarily bother me, but it doesn’t mean it’s correct.

You’ve performed with metal bands before; heavy music has a strong foothold in Nordic countries and Scandinavia. What dualities do you see with metal and your own compositions?
Yeah, they’re pretty disparate elements. It’s just music I like. It wasn’t really a certain conscious decision. Over time I’ve just developed my taste and this is what has come of it. Ten years down I’m sure I’ll be doing something totally different.

Do you ever get a lump in your throat or find it difficult to listen to a particular piece of your music?
I don’t listen to a lot of my own work. I did listen to my album the other day for the first time since I finished it last year. I get a little bit critical and already think I could have done things so differently on it. But at the same time, the techniques you used were capturing a moment where you were taking these thoughts or capturing a certain mood. I think it’s important to appreciate that too, it’s kind of like a time capsule. Just because I would do things differently then doesn’t mean I’m unappreciative of it now.

Why did you listen to it?
It was kind of random. I was on the plane home from Germany, and I just needed something to listen to.

How do you think you’ve evolved since you first started to record?
I think compositions have definitely become more mature. I think a very delicate art that I’ve been learning is minimalism. I’m really drawn to it. I think in my music today you can find more minimalism than before, like understating things instead of overstating them, and using very subtle effects to achieve big things. That is something that really takes a while to master, so that’s changed in my music over the years.

Speaking of minimalism, you’ve contributed quite a few minimal scores to films. How do you work to differentiate distinctions between your music and your music for film scores?
I think a lot of it comes kind of automatically. If I’m doing a film score I have it in front me–and when you watch it, it becomes the only thing that makes sense. So I don’t have to decide that I have to do it this way or that way. With the albums, I have a lot more time to think about things and a lot more to reference. I can make more decisions about what exactly I’m about to do it. I never map things out or try to put something together when I make music; it just comes.

The process seems very fluid and stream of consciousness in that way.
Yeah, exactly. Sometimes nothing happens, though. When I get into a creative mood, I start writing. If it sounds good, it sounds good. If it doesn’t, I scratch it, leave it and do it again.

When was the last time a film scared you?
Films don’t really frighten me, except when I watched Eraserhead or something like that for the first time. It’s just a film though, not reality. Reality is scarier.

Olafur Arnalds performs tonight at Glasslands with Vio/Mire. $25.