In appearance, Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds is a young, diminutive, small-voiced man whose stage persona is filled with a childlike wonder. The expansive Barbican stage, and impressive Britten Sinfonia, dwarf his frame, and, from his first mouse-like words to the vast audience spread comfortably around him, seems to drown him out a little too; “Hello. I’m Óley.” He pauses; “This is pretty insane”.
“Can you sing?” he asks us, before pressing what he tells us are two octaves of F on the piano before him. The audience mirrors the same quivering note in unison until finally the last breath has reached its end, and Ólafur smiles. “See?” he says, as he plays our voices back to us, “That’s nice. Thank you – you’ve just made the first note of our first song.”
Suddenly, any timidity of presence is forgotten as Ólafur melts into a torrent of murmured piano, swelling strings and blaring lights, all of music video-level quality and synchronicity. With each passing bar we get the sense we are watching a Hollywood epic play out on the stage in front of our eyes, to the point at which blinding lights explode around the feet of the assembled musicians. These are not songs Ólafur and his roughly twenty-five-piece orchestra, complete with moustachioed conductor, are merely performing. If they could be described as anything it would be as little contemporary symphonies, moving in short surges to the churning of electronic beats.
It’s not long before vocalist Arnór Dan joins the ensemble. His presence is at first slightly bizarre to witness, with mannerisms and an attire that seem to suggest an imminent rap battle more than they do his subtle contribution to the soft neo-classical compositions of Arnalds. Within seconds, however, he’s cooing, in a voice like that of Thomas Dybdahl, the words “for now, I am winter” – the title, in fact, of Ólafur’s newest release, which he is playing tonight in full. Soon we realise his movements are being mirrored by a silhouette of a thousand bursts of snow-like flakes on the wall behind the performers, to staggering effect.
Eventually the conductor sits down on the stage floor as Ólafur takes the wheel with a short interlude of piano and strings that are so reminiscent of fellow Icelandic musicians múm’s eerie signature sound that it’s almost hard to believe it isn’t some sort of homage to them. Bars of dazzling light illuminate the stage and its audience as white noise hisses in the background. It’s sad, however, that in every instance the electronic element of Ólafur’s sound – the element that truly sticks the young composer’s neck on the block - repeatedly falls short. Lost in deluges of booming strings and blaring horns, the beats simply aren’t bold enough in the mix, and lack the ferocity required to make the same kind of impressive waves they do in his studio recordings.
Suddenly, we’ve reached a fork in the road. Ólafur turns to us, childlike again, and says “This… this was my new album. That was the end.” He leaves the stage, looking overwhelmed. His encore, before which he tells us that he will cry if he speaks for too long, and that his parents are in the crowd somewhere, is a song he translates into English as ‘For Grandma’; his voice cracking as he does so. It’s a hearbreakingly genuine moment to witness. It takes a little while, a few hugs, bows and wave upon wave of rapturous applause before Ólafur leaves the stage once and for all, the amount this experience has meant to him starkly apparent.
However, if the experience of this night, of this experimental art form joining super-modern elements with fairly traditional classical forms, could be described as akin to anything it would be to how – conceivably, anyway – audiences gathered in the Royal Albert Hall in 1969 might have felt upon the unleashing of Jon Lord and Deep Purple’s ‘Concerto for Group and Orchestra’. Like that unique work the fearless fusion of starkly contrasting genres, coming together here with superb finesse, is brave, bold and beautiful, and at the centre of it Ólafur Arnalds feels not so much like a breath of fresh air as a new and fascinatingly alien way of breathing entirely.