I didn’t expect to see him so soon. Of course, I both expected and wanted to see him, but not so soon! We hadn’t even entered the theatre! Clearly, he was taken off guard and I don’t blame him. Why would I be there, at the show we had bought tickets together so many months ago on a quiet morning in bed? But here I was, at the Moore Theatre to see Ólafur Arnalds. I could lie and say that KEXP asked whether I wanted to cover the show but, truthfully, I reached out to my boss a couple weeks ago, asking if it was possible to cover it. Truthfully, I definitely really wanted to see Ólafur Arnalds. I also, truthfully, wanted to run into the recent ex who doesn’t have any social media and can’t see the new hair change I’ve made and five pounds I’ve lost.
“At least you got it over with quickly,” my friends tell me after I text them all frantically after the awkward and far-too-quick exchange. I had run at least 12,000 simulations in my head — both good and bad — about how our seeing each other at the show might go down, but none were so awkward and brief. I grab a drink and find my seat. Oh, looks like it’s a far nicer seat than the one he’s at with his roommate/best friend/probably future wife. Well, that’s a good omen. I finish up all my frantic texts with friends and settle in for the show.
Arnalds enters quietly and bows. He then sits down at the piano and slowly other musicians emerge one at a time to take the stage, as a single spotlight focuses on Arnalds at the black grand piano. Backed by a string quartet — a cello, two violins, and one viola — they all receive their own specialized spotlight once their bows hit the strings to make a gorgeous spectacle of sound. Each musician’s spotlight fades when their playing stops and we’re back to focusing on Arnalds at the piano. We’re broken from the hypnotizing moment for Arnalds to explain the current predicament himself and the band is in. Apparently, they’d just flown from Mexico and some of their bags and crew didn’t make it — a plight he hypothesizes could possibly have something to do with the current government shutdown. He also caught the flu the other day, “So I’ve just taken a lot of drugs. That’s why I’m currently smiling and not crying.” Despite the bind he’s in, Arnalds is light-hearted and quite hilarious. If this music thing doesn’t work out, a career in comedy could be another road for him.
“I’d like to do a little experiment — can any of you sing?” Arnalds asks the audience, who confidently cries out in response. This amuses him. “If your skills match your confidence then it will be used, but if not I have a backup recording.” He then records the audience holding down a long “Ahh” in the key of E which is used as a backing sample for the following second song in the set. The famous self-playing pianos are introduced about four songs in, with the title track off of his latest album re:member. He explains a bit about the process of making the software-programmed pianos that work off of an algorithm based on the grand piano he plays. “I made them go bleep bloop,” he humbly explains. “Not sure if it was a good use my year.”
Titled the All Strings Attached Tour, the show’s idea is said to be “born out of our forgotten, yet inherent interconnectedness; the unity of all things and the interdependent nature of us humans...It is an invitation to commit – to oneself, to each other, and to the moment, as the Zeitgeist notion of ‘no strings attached…’ gives way to the spirit of All Strings Attached.” Indeed, it felt like a connecting moment but more in isolation, connecting with the thoughts and feelings that usually get stuffed down. Breaths were held, eyes were watering, and a catharsis of feelings break at a certain point about ¾ of the way through. It’s clear the audience feels shaky. We’re all dealing with those hard concepts and coming to difficult realizations.
For me, all those memories of the relationship that I’ve been holding onto the past few months are breaking to reveal a confusing quandary of conflicting revelations. The fact that he’s sitting in the same room as me, possibly thinking about me as well, makes the situation even more emotional. Luckily, Arnalds releases us by playing a light, beautiful song that lets us celebrate in what realizations and obstacles we’ve uncovered during the previous song. Like the ending of the movie, we’ve overcome the problem that we had to deal with in the climax and now we get to live happily ever after... at least until the next dilemma enters scene left.
“This song was a piece of music I wrote while traveling around Indonesia,” Arnalds explains before diving into the next song. “Even when I’m not on tour, which I am all the time, I still want to travel. I was fascinated by the way they celebrate New Year's by a day of silence which is the opposite of what we do here. No electricity, No internet... it was one of the best days of my life... it’s a day about self-reflection but also about giving Mother Nature a day off from humanity. Which I thought was a great idea because humans are shit. So, I was feeling inspired and wrote this song on the Day of Silence.” He then gently dovetails into a piano ballad that incorporates the self-playing pianos playing twinkling notes that are slightly off-kilter.
After a prolonged standing ovation, Arnalds comes out and takes the mic. “I want to play you this song that I wrote for my grandmother. My grandma was always kinda close to me and was responsible for me being here and playing this nice Steinway piano rather than a punk rock band. I was in a band called Fighting Shit. It was not a joke, we toured quite a bit... 2 albums and 3 European tours later we were like, ‘Fuck we shouldn’t have called our band Fighting Shit.’ My grandma wasn’t into that so she had a plan where she’d call me every two weeks and say her radio was broken and since I’m there we could just as well eat some pancakes and listen to Chopin so this was my grandma’s way of brainwashing me... I’m really big in Mallorca now. I wrote this song for her, it means ‘Song for Grandma’ in Icelandic.”
A single spotlight shines down on him as he plays a simple but lovely chord based progression. Halfway through, the strings kick in from backstage, evoking a haunting sound of nostalgia and far-away feelings. This is when I finally break. I can’t help it. Two lone tears, one for each eye, line down my face. He eventually stops playing but the spotlight is still on him. Nobody utters a word or even dares to breathe. Finally, he turns towards us to indicate the end. We clap and all call our loved ones immediately.
Our second day at KEX Hostel starts off blissfully with the renowned Icelandic composer.
"I know everyone here by name", Ólafur Arnalds said during his first in-studio performance at KEXP. It was in fact the fifth time the Icelandic composer and performance has recorded with us, though previously it had been within his own apartment in Reykjavik (in both 2010 and 2011), live from KEX...
It's been hard for us to forget the beautiful and intimate session we had with Ólafur Arnalds during our Iceland Airwaves broadcast last year at KEX Hostel. This year, when we saw that the young Icelandic composer and songwriter would be performing at SXSW, we wanted to get him live on air again,...