Ólafur Arnalds Live
November 28th, Sydney Opera House
My favourite music discovery over the past twelve months would have to be Ólafur Arnalds. Hailing from Iceland, he has been producing music since 2007, releasing four albums to date. His latest is re:member (2018). I was blessed to see him live at the Sydney Opera House last week as he played new tracks and old favourites. Accompanied by a string quartet and drummer, it was, on a very stormy Sydney night, a magical experience. The bass was warm, the strings were sweet and Arnald’s melodic piano soothed.
On display were a group of musicians led by Arnalds’ creative and innovative production. We experienced a mix of songwriting that blended traditional analog and modern digital instruments. We heard new songs from re:member including Unfold, Brot, Saman, Ypsilon, Undir, Ekki Hugsa and Nyepi (encore). Plus favourites like Near Light and Tomorrow’s Song from Living Room Songs (2010) and Someday, Only the Winds, 3055, Dalur and Doria too.
During the encore Arnalds shared a beautiful story about his grandmother, who first introduced him to classical music, whilst listening to Chopin as an angsty thrashmetal fan kid. Lag fyrir Ómmu was dedicated to her. During this song we heard strings from outside the main chamber which added a special live reverb effect as everyone except Ólafur had left the stage.
I was in awe of the setup I saw on stage. Arnalds’ had a grand piano and two uprights onstage. The pianos he told us had been shipped over from Iceland for his performances here in Australia. “Two months on a ship”, he quipped. He also had a few synthesisers (a Juno and a Polysix), a midi keyboard and Ableton Live. His drummer also ran Live to trigger samples in addition to his acoustic kit.
Bringing it all together was a Roland Space Echo RE-201. We were in the Upper Circle so I couldn’t visually verify it, but the sound was unmistakeable. He was feeding some piano loops and other sequences through the Space Echo and playing with settings for desired effects on a selection of his songs. It added a rich depth to his sound that very much suited the mood and style of music.
The core part of his setup, and the most fascinating, was the software driven generative piano linked via computer to his two upright pianos. I didn’t know about this setup until reading more on it later. It was a nice surprise and most in the room would have had no idea either. He used this software when writing for his new album re:member but it also worked for live performances - by design. Called ‘Stratus’ the software was developed in collaboration with audio developer, Halldór Eldjárn.
Stratus is a custom VST running on Live that receives MIDI notes as Arnalds presses the keys on his grand piano. The notes were identified optically as they keys on the piano were hit using a Moog Piano Bar. The VST in Live takes the MIDI signal and triggers a number of generative sequences that were sent to modules on the self playing robot Yamaha uprights. The MIDI notes were additionally sent to Front of House where they triggered a lighting rig on the stage. Damn. Pretty cool.
Creative uses of technology such as what I witnessed at this performance reminds me that collaboration between artists and developers continues to deepen as modern artists become technologists too. The history of technology influencing music and artists feeding back into that development is long - it can be traced back to the first synthesisers.
The architecture that Arnalds and his friends employed on stage shows us that as technology advances, its applications become more numerous and varied. Technology advancement is not just limited to business applications like ordering food and making online payments. It has a role to play in art, aiding human expression.
This live show was mature and refined. The band was perfect and on point. Arnalds’ masterful muscianship was organic and real, but cleverly augmented by innovative technology. Come visit again soon Ólafur.