Ólafur Arnalds at Iceland Airwaves

A couple of years ago I had panic attack. I was pretty confident I was having a heart attack, but at some point, hiding in the bathroom of an upmarket Adelaide restaurant, I realised I probably wasn’t going to die. It just felt like I would.1

The music of Ólafur Arnalds is the opposite of that feeling. The meticulously arranged neo-classical sound evident on his last record For Now I Am Winter feels a bit like floating in the middle of the ocean on a starry night. In the vein of Iceland’s second most famous export after Björk, Sigur Rós, Arnalds’ sound evokes a deep sense of longing. The juxtaposition between his classical heritage and his electronic leanings draws from the best of both words, and his flair for the melodramatic makes For Now I Am Winter one of my favourite releases of 2013.

Seeing that Arnalds would be playing Hapra with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra for Iceland Airwaves was part of the reason I booked a ticket. The four day festival, held in Reykjavík, featured a host of my favourite bands from the area including Emiliana Torrini and Þórir Georg. It’s a phenomenal event, and if you get a chance, you should go.

The night began with Max Richter’s take on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, originally premiered in London in 2012. A unique interpretation of the violin concertos, the piece was anchored by the incredible work of soloist Elfa Rún Kristinsdóttir and composer André de Ridder.

The crowd was mixed, with tickets initially available to buy online and the remainder given away to Airwaves attendees. As such, it was a curious hot pot of well dressed middle-aged Icelanders and mask-clad tipsy festival partygoers. From the moment Arnalds took the stage after intermission it was clear that the majority of the crowd were there to see him, and he was greeted with open arms.

As an aside, there was another curious divide throughout the festival. Half the crowd spoke fluent Icelandic, and the other half didn’t. That lead to some unguarded moments, with performers either repeating everything in England, or sticking to their native tongue. After explaining to the crowd that he’d need them to sing an F so he could record it for use in the first piece, he paused. “How many of you can’t understand anything I’m saying?” The crowd laughed, and a large majority of hands went up. It was a testament to Arnalds’ stage presence. Relaxed, warm and friendly, he held the room in the palm of his hand.

After the largely orchestral opening number Sudden Throw, a cacophony of strings signalled the beginning of Brim. As the first punching beat exploded from the stage, five fluorescent lights hanging above flickered on and off to the rhythm. It was an arrestingly simple use of lighting, and continued, sparingly, throughout the show.

The title track For Now I Am Winter saw Arnór Dan join the stage with his haunting falsetto vocals. As the room filled with his voice, I was struck by the stillness around me. The previously restless audience sank deep into their seats as the rolling strings echoed throughout the room.

Dan remained on stage for A Stutter and Reclaim, before stepping aside for the incredible instrumental Hands Be Still, my favourite from the album. With the backing of the orchestra, it seemed to dance above our heads, lulling in the still air. It was a bold contradiction to the howling winds outside, that saw a festial-goer chasing a cigarette across the Hapra forecourt like that absurd plastic bag scene in American Beauty. It was a sublime moment, the tender percussion waltzing between the instruments, my heart in my mouth, my hands clasped together in rapt attention as Only The Winds began.

The only hiccup from the night was a false start on Old Skin, which saw Arnalds motioning wildly at the assembled musicians to begin the piece again. Dan took it with humour, and the audience cheered their moment of vulnerability. By that point of the night they could have started it a hundred times over, and the crowd would have clapped every time.

It was the second last song that really brought the power of the orchestra to bear. The lights danced to the beat of This Place Was A Shelter, crashing together toward its inevitable crescendo. It was as though the room could contain no more sound, so full of a million instruments, a million notes, a million anxious harmonies. An ocean of noise. I felt wrapped in the warmth of it all, gripping my seat as though I would be picked up by the sheer scale of it all and thrust over the edge.

And then, it was over. I felt a sweeping sense of relief as Carry Me Anew closed the night, its quiet ambience signalling that the storm had broken. After an endless standing ovation, Arnalds explaining that they hadn’t planned for an encore, and closed the night with a heart-wrenching version of Lag Fyrir Ömmu (Song For Grandma) from Living Room Songs, alone at the piano. It was a stunning end to the evening, all our anxieties excised and thrust aside. As the house lights returned we stumbled out together, anew, into a wintery Reykjavík.

Photo credit: Ekaterina Golitsyna

  1. Oh, I was fine, in the end. I mean, I never went back to Adelaide, but that doesn’t feel like a huge loss. 

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