As a regular gig-goer, you quickly become used to the smell of stale beer, the consuming heat of a sweaty venue and the knowledge that you’ll be standing, quite literally, shoulder to shoulder with a bunch of strangers for the next two and half hours. But every once in a while, a concert comes along that draws you away from this atmosphere, places you into a comfy seat with a good view, and allows you to forget about all of the distractions that can exist at a music event, and it’s in this kind of venue that Ólafur Arnalds will be hosting us tonight.
In the sumptuous surroundings of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank, everybody’s taking their seats in anticipation of hearing one of Iceland’s brightest talents perform tracks from 2010′s … And They Have Escaped The Weight Of Darkness, as well as some new and some older material.
As the glossy, black grand piano is positioned to the left of the stage, a string quartet makes their way to the right, and a programmer slots himself behind an illuminated Macbook to await the arrival of our host for the evening. Ólafur Arnalds enters onto the stage to the rapturous applause of the audience, many of whom, it would transpire, had been present at his sold out Barbican performance three years earlier. Opening track ‘Þú ert Sólin’ has the desired effect, of capturing the attention of an already silenced crowd as Ólafur’s piano strikes up and the mesmerising strings begin their performance.
The stage is flooded with a silver light, broken up by the projections of the gently flapping wings of birds, that accompany the rise and fall of Ólafur’s compositions. The classical string quartet contrasts with the processed beats driving the pieces, to create an enchanting mix of modernity and tradition – completely captivating and very impressive. A few songs into the set, we learn that not only is it the first time that Ólafur has played with this particular string quartet tonight, but that today was the first time that he’d met them – a truly staggering admittance, as the fluidity and comfort which projects from the stage gives the impression that this band of musicians have known each other for years.
As the soaring compositions fill the room, the crowd sits comfortably and in silence. So respectful are they, that at one point, whilst allowing the final resonances of the piano to drift to the rafters, the audience never get round to clapping, prompting Arnalds to dryly ask “Can we do the clapping bit now? I have a story I want to tell!” The inter-song chatter proves to be an unexpected highlight of the evening, as the humble Icelander describes the stories behind his music – one of the drollest being the introduction to the song ‘Poland’, an unreleased track in which he recounts the story of getting ill from drinking vodka in a tour bus weaving its way around eastern Europe’s winding roads. He finishes the tale by saying that it’s not only heartbreak that can make you write a sad song, a hangover will do just as well.
The performance lasts for what feels like a very short hour and twenty minutes, with an encore of two songs – the first of which, Ólafur plays alone, poignantly and delicately on his piano, and the second, in which he’s joined by two violinists. Emotive, evocative and intensely engaging, Ólafur Arnalds proves tonight that he’s not just an unquestionably talented composer, but a great showman too.
The concert has been genuinely wonderful – a great venue with perfectly tailored sound, a warm, endearing performance and a showcase of beautiful music from extremely talented musicians. Forget beer, bright lights and banter, this is what it’s all about.
… And They Have Escaped The Weight Of Darkness, and the rest of Ólafur Arnalds’ back catalogue is available through Erased Tapes Records.