Vancouver gives Ólafur Arnalds its enraptured attention
At Fortune Sound Club on Wednesday, September 25
Should he ever tire of touring the world on the back of his gorgeous solo records, Ólafur Arnalds could carve out a pretty good living teaching the art of connecting with an audience. The Icelandic composer staged a master clinic at Fortune Sound Club last Wednesday, putting on a show that was at times epically moving and at times laugh-out-loud funny.
Over the course of an hour-and-a-half set that was often quieter than a snowfall on Hengill Mountain, Vancouver gave Arnalds its enraptured attention.
The modern-classical composer returned the favour with one of the most magical performances of the year.
While he’d later be joined by cellist Rubin Kodheli and violinist Viktor Orri Árnason, the pianist arrived on-stage alone, quickly making it clear that he knows a thing or two about sound systems, of which Fortune Sound Club has a famously high-end one.
“This is an unusual venue for us,” Arnalds mused before he’d played a note. “You don’t often see a grand piano next to Funktion-One speakers.”
Other things you don’t often see is a downtown nightclub transformed into something resembling a church-quiet concert hall, Arnalds accomplishing this by getting everyone to sit on the floor and then buy into the idea that the show wouldn’t work without complete silence. No less impressive was getting a nightclub full of people to enthusiastically hum in the key of C, recording the crowd, and then building the sample into the wavering Twin Peaks–via–Reykjavík kick-off number “Þú Ert Jörðin”. (“You’re good,” Arnalds quipped, “but you’re not amazing singers. But I have a computer, so that’s okay. I can fix things.”)
A former punk-metal drummer turned label-defying composer, Arnalds proved as adept at ambient minimalism (the delicate, piano-centred “Ljósið”) as he did atmospheric electronica (“Old Skin”, which was heavy on echo-drenched percussion). It led to one of those shows where the crowd was happily blissed out for large chunks, transported to a world of ice caves, snowy forest clearings, and abandoned churches in grey-skied European countrysides. (This no doubt amused Arnalds, who noted that such imagery is often attached to songs like “Ljósið”, which he revealed was actually written as soundtrack music for a bathtub commercial.)
Considering the complete absence of visual stimulation (unless, that is, your idea of a captivating time is a guy hunched studiously over a piano), this was one of those shows that seemed like it was going to be all about nothing more than music gorgeous enough to make you wonder what the hell you ever saw in Sigur Rós. Except that somehow it ended up being just as much about a guy who you would have loved to hang out with at the bar, if only because you could imagine the stories you’d be treated to over a bottle of Reyka.
You know how the concerts you tend to remember most are the ones where someone has something interesting to say between songs? God knows thinking of things to say wasn’t a problem for Arnalds.
The intro to “Allt Varð Hljótt” was good: “The next song we’re going to play is a song I wrote for an American movie that’s about a girl who kills all her friends in some kind of competition. It’s called Hunger Games—you’ve all seen it. It’s a weird thing to write a movie about, but it’s what the kids are into.”
Even better was the setup for the encore, “Lag Fyrir Ömmu”: “It’s a song I wrote for my grandmother. She was a very dear friend of mine—she was the person who got me into classical music when I just wanted to listen to death metal. She force-fed me classical records, and eventually it worked.”
That was of course the understatement of the night. “Lag Fyrir Ömmu” was supposed to be just Arnalds on the piano, but at the end his two-man string section suddenly picked up the song somewhere off-stage, putting a spine-chilling exclamation point on a night that couldn’t have been more perfect. Connection made.