By Amanda Nordqvist
15 years ago, he started composing music for imaginary films: he wrote for the imagery conjured in his own head, creating and performing purely for his own bliss. Today you’d be hard at work trying to find anyone in the contemporary instrumental world who hasn’t heard of Ólafur Arnalds, whose most recent work has been celebrated widely – re:member is the Icelandic composer’s fourth solo studio album, and though its title might appear to hint at the past, it has a delightfully futuristic element to it. Largely featured by Arnalds’ Stratus Pianos, developed with the help of composer and audio developer Halldór Eldjárn, re:member offers both complexity and nuance, while never losing Arnalds’ characteristic minimalism.
Though the concept of self-playing pianos might seem daunting, Arnalds had seen it in action while supporting the Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto on tour, so when the nerve damage his hand had suffered from an accident threatened to keep him from ever playing again, a new approach seemed imminent. It started off as a bit of a joke but quickly grew into a bigger idea – two pianos, reacting to input from Arnalds and responding with notes of their own, acting as a soundboard – or a brainstorming session – for the composer to then keep working off of. The unexpected harmonies allowed for an unhinged, uninhibited creative process, and led to an absolutely exhilarating album.
The title track turns out to be an absolutely brilliant introduction to the album: the piano breathes gently, softly coming and going like waves – the strings are introduced, filtered in like sunlight breaking through the morning clouds, achingly slow. There’s nothing inherently sad about it, and still it evokes a twinge in my rib cage – until suddenly it takes off into a new awakening. Glittering drops of dew beneath feathery feet, I imagine some unknown spirit sprinting lithely, weaving in and out of the trees. Two thirds into the track, a jolting drum beat is added in and so, the first of Arnalds’ experimentation with genres has revealed itself.
Following a beautiful collaboration with British electronic musician SOHN, comes saman, showing just how so many of Arnalds’ pieces have a way of making you feel as though you’re coming home to some familiar essence; something you just know you’ve been dreaming about in the early morning hours. The light, unaltered grace of the track is followed by one of the more outstanding tracks – brot makes me feel as if I’m right there in Arnalds’ studio, watching the first few steps of the track’s creation: the pianos working together, answering the musician’s call, the resulting harmonies transferred to emotive strings, swelling and ebbing gorgeously, enhancing the humanity of the track.
One of my favourites of the album, they sink, has a subtle duality in its build-up: every phrase flawlessly builds into a cascading of notes, glittering vividly across the frame and resettling, taking another breath and going off again – simultaneously, the strings start beckoning you to come back to this place you’ve longed for, growing in enthusiasm. Throughout the entire album, Arnalds’ great talent is impeccable – to do so much with so little, create such impact with seemingly no force, is no small feat. His experimentation with genre can only be considered a massive success, giving the album a pleasantly modern air, not least in ypsilon where the laid-back vibes of the rhythm hints at influences from hip-hop artist BNGERBOY, who helped inspire some of the themes for re:member.
As Arnalds so eloquently puts it in a video about the making of the album, there’s “an element of the unknown in the pianos”, and the unhinged creativity that pooled from the use of these tools can be found throughout the whole of re:member. It’s an important aspect to consider – allowing ourselves to try something new and to keep reimagining it until it becomes something we enjoy; not judge too harshly our first trembling steps, and in the process silencing parts of ourselves we might one day thrive off of. I believe Arnalds truly captured the thrill of unexpected paths, while still staying fully true to himself and his own vision; and in the end it made for one of the very best albums of 2018.