“This interview is making my brain hurt.”
Lord only knows what Ólafur Arnalds would make of my line of interrogation if we were actually meeting in person. As it is, we’re communicating through email. Pretty impersonal, but the Icelandic composer responds to my (okay, actually pretty rambling) questions with greater detail than any journalist in my position is used to. One-line answers are not this musician’s forte.
Which is both becoming, and somewhat anticipated – Arnalds’ music has always been detailed, rewarding beyond its surface layers. Bracketed as neo-classical, his recordings have ranged from rich piano motifs to strings that rise on peaking strings. His last solo album ‘proper’, 2013’s ‘For Now I Am Winter’, brought crackling beats into the mix, songs like ‘Brim’ and ‘Old Skin’ riding chattering electronic percussion. He’s explored this dance-orientated world further with Kiasmos, a collaborative venture alongside Janus Rasmussen. And he’s another duo endeavour about to see the light of day: ‘The Chopin Project’.
Released on March 16th through Mercury Classics, ‘The Chopin Project’ pairs Arnalds with feted German-Japanese pianist Alice Sara Ott, the collection reimagining a series of famous works by Frédéric Chopin. It’s a new challenge for Arnalds: to align music of the 19th century with the technology and tastes of the 21st, without adversely affecting the characteristics which made the original arrangements the iconic pieces they’re regarded as today.
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Behind the scenes of ‘The Chopin Project’
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“We have to find a way to keep things fresh, without compromising the quality of the originals,” he says of the record, and the wider need to find contemporary relevance in (what some might feel are) archaic works. “If we don’t try to keep the way we present classical music fresh, people will very easily lose interest, and it will be forgotten by everyone except the few ‘educated’ ones. I’m well aware that ‘The Chopin Project’ might upset some people, but it’s done with the best of intentions.”
Whereas Kiasmos is very much a collaboration that sees both parties enjoying equal roles, through the writing, recording and producing, ‘The Chopin Project’ has allowed Arnalds to adopt a kind of second fiddle role. Here, he’s not the performer – that’s Ott, whose prodigious talents have been firmly secured on classical radars since the early 2000s. Instead, he’s comfortable in a strictly behind-the-scenes position.
“I played the role of writer and producer,” he says, “not that Alice didn’t bring her own ideas to the table. She is a wonderful pianist, in fact one of my absolute favourites. And that’s why I wanted to get her for this.”
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Chopin’s work has a very special place in my heart, and I’ve wanted to see this done for a long time…
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He continues, explaining the core conceptual aspirations of ‘The Chopin Project’, and how it stands as an example of preserving work of so-called greats with a modern twist.
“There are aspects of this music that you can reinvent, and aspects that you cannot. The ‘modernisation’ of orchestras in the past has seen them move into clubs, and I don’t think that works, as the music does need this pristine quality. But it’s definitely about presentation.
“For example, one of the ideas behind ‘The Chopin Project’ was to make an album that didn’t feel like a ‘best-of’. They always release the Nocturnes, and all of the Préludes, as if they have anything to do with each other. When, actually, the only thing these pieces have in common is that they’re Nocturnes, or Préludes. This has always confused me. The album is an amazing format that should be taken advantage of, not used as a place to keep a collection of ‘singles’ that have nothing to do with each other. Chopin’s work has a very special place in my heart, and I’ve wanted to see this done for a long time.”
His music is also finding itself a substantial audience through the Jurassic coast-set ITV drama Broadchurch – Arnalds is the composer behind the TV series’ haunting soundtrack. Rather than work the music up to passively accompany the on-screen action, Arnalds believes that a good soundtrack should stand on its own terms and be recognisable beyond the visuals – as his work for Broadchurch most certainly does.
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I hate it when people say, ‘A good soundtrack is one that you don’t notice’. That is total bullshit…
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“I hate it when people say, ‘A good soundtrack is one that you don’t notice’,” he tells me. “That is total bullshit. A good soundtrack is when the music blends with the show and becomes a part of the story, the feel and the atmosphere.”
The commission for the soundtrack came right from the top: Broadchurch creator Chris Chibnall was a fan of Arnalds, and has gone on record as saying that the show’s entire feel was inspired by the Icelander’s past work. “His ambition and work ethic was what drew me to this project in the first place,” says Arnalds. “I liked the script, too, and the rest of the crew. I was very interested in the juxtaposition of horrible things happening and this sunny, peaceful place in the middle of summer.”
“I think that more and more TV shows are asking for original music these days,” he continues, “and I think that’s great for the music industry. I actually wish there was more incentive for film producers to choose original music over licensed material. Films are increasingly becoming [a platform] only in the hands of a few people, who just work with the same stories repeatedly.”
Arnalds has composed for film, including 2013’s Gimme Shelter – and some of his (Broadchurch) music can be heard accompanying the latest trailer for the forthcoming reboot of Marvel’s Fantastic Four. But he’s long played to an attentive and passionate fanbase, alerted to his talents in 2007 when he released his debut solo album, ‘Eulogy For Evolution’.
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Broadchurch soundtrack sampler
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Since then, two further studio sets proper have emerged, 2010’s ‘…And They Have Escaped The Weight Of Darkness’ preceding ‘For Now I Am Winter, and several EPs too, including a 2012 collaboration with Nils Frahm, ‘Stare’, and the one-track-per-day assembled ‘Found Songs’ of 2009. Broadchurch has elevated his profile incredibly, though – so does he worry that future shows might be played to new faces less interested in his previous work?
“To be honest, I don’t really think about that. I’ve always assumed it’s my existing fans [I’ll be playing to] – and most of the people who’d buy the Broadchurch music, or come to a concert, would be into this kind of stuff already. But I might be wrong. If strangers come to my shows, I’d rather hope that they get turned around to what I’m doing, instead of me catering to their tastes. Maybe that sounds arrogant? I don’t know.”
As Chibnall would write Broadchurch while listening to Arnalds, it’s entirely natural that his music for the show is a perfect fit – and that it can also exist, happily, apart from the series. I’d say it’s enjoyable, listened to at home, but maybe that’s not the right word. After all, it’s music for a series about a murder investigation, and it appropriately explores some significantly dark tones.
“It was a pretty easy job for me to create music that fit with the show,” he concludes, “and the music was interweaved with the show from the very beginning.” Which, unlike this interview perhaps, is something that can never hurt.
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Ólafur Arnalds online. The soundtrack to Broadchurch (series one and two) is out now, with ‘The Chopin Project’ following on March 16th through Mercury Classics. He tours, performing the music from Broadchurch, as follows:
18th Triskell Arts Centre, Cork
19th + 20th Pavilion Theatre, Dublin
22nd Barbican, London
23rd Electric Palace, Bridport
24th Glee Club, Birmingham
25th ABC, Glasgow
26th RNCM Concert Hall, Manchester
27th Howard Assembly Room, Leeds