KEXP at Iceland Airwaves, Day 2: Ólafur Arnalds

photos by Jim Beckmann

Young Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds (not to be confused with his cousin, female Icelandic musician Ólöf Arnalds) creates and performs beautiful ambient soundscapes. His popularity has grown exponentially in the last year or so, and his music has even been used in films like The Hunger Games, as well as several television shows. Formerly a drummer in hardcore and metal bands, Arnalds now features in his music sparse keys and soaring strings often mixed with more contemporary pop beats. His music hovers somewhere between minimal electronic ambiance, post-classical chamber music, and post-rock.

Before his set began the second day of our live broadcast from Reykjavík during Iceland Airwaves, Arnalds asked the crowd at the KEX Hostel to sit, then he wanted everyone to sing and hold a C note for him to record, then an E to layer it with.

He used this recording in his first song “Þú Ert Jörðin,” a quiet, piano-laden song with sparse, gentle strings that build to prominence over the course of the song. The silent audience seemed to be holding its breath as the strings stopped and Arnalds’ quiet piano filled the room with calm joy.

Next was “Poland,” a song written while hungover in Poland aft a long night of drinking vodka on rough Polish roads. “Not all sad songs come from heartbreak,” Arnalds joked. Layered with the strings and piano were digital beats, bringing the music immediately forward out of classical and into the realm of more contemporary ethereal ambient. His music is incredibly cinematic, it’s hard not to feel like you’re in his tour bus on those bumpy Polish roads.

This was followed by “Near Light,” which was more uplifting, and a more dense, solid soundscape. He finished his set with “Ljósið,” which was originally composed for a bathtub commercial (and subsequently rejected by the company that commissioned it). He then decided to give the song away for free online, and it became one of his most popular tracks. Arnalds said that he sometimes likes to read comments on YouTube when he’s bored. He said he finds it very funny that people think song inspired by the dramatic Icelandic scenery when it was actually composed for bathtub commercial. The song is delicate and optimistic, with strings floating over classical piano. I’d buy that bathtub.

Stay tuned for a rare performance from Apparat Organ Quartet up next at 8 am PST/ 3 pm GMT

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