Ólafur Arnalds: “Inspiration Is Being In The Mood To Work, With Your Mind Clear, And Being Able To Create Things”

Lessons on discipline and modesty from the Icelandic composer ahead of his tour of Spain

At the age of 25, Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds holds a very comfortable position on the current scene of young composers who have chosen the more pleasant, accessible forms of the classical tradition. He is able to strike a chord using simple, balanced pieces that move without a fuss between the most accessible minimalism, the neo-baroque and the romantic - with the occasional slight addition of glitches and electronic beats. His first steps in the music world were taken within the shelter of new-school hardcore bands like Fighting Shit and Celestine; but one fine day, the sounds of violins and pianos crossed his path, and nothing was ever the same again. Since then, his works have moved through the territory that links Chopin with the latest Michael Nyman, displaying a cinematic quality that was bound to lead him, sooner or later, into the field of soundtracks.

After, putting out four sensitive, inspired albums, Arnalds debuted last year in Hollywood with his score for “Another Happy Day”. It was a successful exercise in lyricism and melodic sensibility that gives a glimpse of tones that are darker than usual for him . His score for Sam Levinso - composed in a race against the clock over barely two weeks, across December of 2010 and January of 2011 - has just come out on Erased Tapes. This album is the Icelandic musician’s latest piece.

I was imagining you in the studio, working on things until the very last moment before attending this interview . . .

Well, you are right. I was doing just that.

I would like to start by asking you about your working habits. Are you the kind of person that believes in inspiration as a spontaneous outburst - as something that comes and goes with no fixed schedule - or do you feel more comfortable working within strong timetables, setting limits and sticking to a routine?

I am much more of a disciplined person. I am here in the studio basically every day and I always try to write at least a certain amount of music daily. It is not that I just want to; I kind of have to. I have so many projects to do that if I don't write daily, I cannot finish all of them in time.

What role does inspiration play in this working routine?

I think 'inspiration' is a very dangerous word in many ways. It is a misunderstood word. People think about inspiration as some kind of spirit, or something that comes over you - but I think it is just . . . inspiration is being in the mood to work, with your mind clear, and being able to create things.

In your case, is there a special time of day or moment when you feel it is easier for you to reach this mood for working? I think your music suits the mood of late calm evenings, or night time moments. How is it when it comes to writing?

Usually I find it easier to write in the evenings, but I don't think that's because of me, my sensitivity or my moods. It is just that everything around me is much calmer in the evenings - my phone is not ringing, everybody else is at home watching TV or sleeping, there is not this action around you which can disturb your creativity.

Being in a calm space, having a clear head, and I guess discipline is also important.

I think it is mainly a question of practice. You just have to really practice getting into the right mood to write. You have to learn that if you want to be a musician.

You just mentioned that at the moment you are somehow obliged to work daily because you have many projects on the go. I guess the volume of work has increased quite a bit over the last couple of years. You have become more well-known and this means more gigs, more recordings, more offers and projects for you. I would like to know if there has ever been a moment when you have thought something like: “maybe it is too much, maybe I'm not ready to get all this work done”.

I would say yes and no. No, because I love every project that I do. I'm lucky enough that I can choose the projects. I don't have to do everything that people offer me, I only pick the good ones for me, so all the stuff I do is something I really want to do and like doing. But also yes, in the sense that I feel that in some aspects I have kind of lost many things that people my age do. I can't really hang out much with my friends. I'm usually focused on only doing this.

This leads me to ask you about the loneliness inherent in the act of writing music, especially when you are all by yourself - not being part of a band - as in your case. Is this loneliness something that you feel concerned about in any way?

That's true. You have to be alone when you are doing this. Or at least in my case I have to be alone while doing it. The loneliness of the composer is there, and that is not the only thing. Also when I get home . . . when you leave the studio you don't leave your job. It is very hard to figure out where the work stops and where your life outside the work starts. It often happens that I get home after a long day of writing a piece and I find myself lying down in my bed with the song still in my head. It is difficult to disconnect, so it still kind of affects your social life even when you are out with people. It is there in your head, somehow you are always thinking about work. You are always thinking about music. Plus people around you are always talking about music anyway – music is a very common subject. So you are always kind of stuck in the job in a way, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. You just have to learn how to deal with that. And you have to learn to take breaks and have a vacation sometimes, to think about other things. It has been quite difficult for me to learn that, but I think I am finally getting there [laughs].

You said that sometimes you go back home after a day in the studio and you find yourself lying down in your bed with a song or a melody still spinning round your head. I would like to know if you have ever dreamed - dreaming while sleeping, in the biological sense of the word - about composing new music that you are actually yet to write in real life.

Yeah. This has happened to me. Usually, like with all kinds of dreams, when you wake up you have to be really quick to write it down or you forget it. I have never actually finished anything that I dreamt. And I think often in the dream maybe you think the music you are hearing is new, but it might not be [laughs]. Maybe you later realise that it was actually some melody that you heard somewhere else. But yes, I know that it does happen, that people compose in their sleep.

We were talking about music writing as a lonely and self-absorbed experience. I don't know whether it has anything to do with that or not, but you seem to be very interested in finding ways of opening the composition and the recording process up to the view of the listener - setting a more close and direct communication between you and your fan-base. It is something you did with the seven-day composition projects that gave birth to “Found Songs” (Erased Tapes, 2009) and “Living Room Songs” (Erased Tapes, 2011), for instance. Both were projects concerned with immediacy – promoting direct contact with the fans - features not normally present in your daily work as a composer. Is it important for you to feel, every now and then, that there are people out there willing to hear what you are writing in that instant?

Yes, I think these kinds of projects definitely make it easier and make it feel less like a lonely job - when you realise the fact that you are actually doing it for somebody else. It is communication; communication without speaking. Anything I can do to let people into my head, or to facilitate a closer relationship with my work, makes this communication more intimate.

I remember hearing you in the “PressPausePlay” documentary saying that your music was “too classical for the pop radio and too pop for the classical radio”; an example of your position as a musician that lives between two worlds. That was some time ago. How do you feel now about that? Are you comfortable with the place you are in nowadays?

I definitely have my audience, but I still don't think there is a really good infrastructure around this audience. There is not really a support system in place. There are no specific radio stations for this kind of music, and there are no magazines for this kind of music. It is often kind of hard, still, to make yourself heard. But it doesn't really bother me. It is just a fact [laughs].

Talking about “being between worlds”: you have often played in clubs or small venues more suited to folk, pop or rock music, and you have also played in big concert halls. I guess it is not easy to adapt, sometimes from one day to the next, to these so different environments.

Actually I find it quite easy to adapt. We just do the same thing in two different places. We don't really change the way we present the music according to where we are playing. We make no changes to accommodate being in a theatre or being in a club.

But the vibe you get form the audience has to be different.

Yes, the feedback is kind of different and the atmosphere is kind of different. I wouldn't say I like one or the other more. I really like both. In the theatres you have more perfection – the sound is great, the lights are great – but the atmosphere can be kind of heavy sometimes. In a bar or in a club you maybe have a more imperfect show, but you have a more intimate atmosphere and a much closer communication with the audience.

You have a past playing in hardcore bands, doing quite different stuff to the work you make nowadays. Hardcore used to be – and sometimes it still is - a very physical and intense music. The music you make now is more static, more reflective, more for the mind and the soul. Do you think about the different instruments that you have played - the loud drums you used to hit in the past, as opposed to the piano you now play most - in terms of their sensuality?

I don't think I really look at it from that aspect. For me they are just tools; tools to achieve communication or to induce a certain feeling in others. I wouldn't really talk about one or the other being more sensual in any way. They achieve different things.

Since your early works, your music has always felt very cinematic, possessing a very soundtrack-like quality. Were film soundtracks a key factor in the development of your interest towards classical music?

Yeah, that's how I initially became interested in them. I was first introduced to this kind of music by soundtracks. I only started studying real classical music after that.

Do you remember any special ones?

I think the first ones that really got me to write this kind of music were the scores for “The Green Mile” and “The Shawshank Redemption”; late 90s movies that I saw when I was fourteen or something like that. When I saw those movies and listened to their soundtracks, I really felt a desire to write that kind of music. I remember the first “classical” piece I wrote was very much in the vein of the soundtrack to “The Green Mile”, by Thomas Newman.

Back then, when you were composing your first pieces in a more classical style, did you work with your own images in mind, as “scenarios” for the music?

I think that more than images I kept moods in mind. I picked up from the moods of these films, but I was not necessarily using images.

You have made several soundtracks in the last two or three years. Now you are releasing through Erased Tapes the score to your first Hollywood movie, “Another Happy Day”, a film written and directed by Sam Levinson. How did the project come about?

They approached us. They were editing the film using some of my music in it - you know, as a temp track you use during the editing phase – just because the director is a fan and he had my albums. They were just trying some things out and put some of my tracks over the film, to get a sense of the mood while editing. They saw my music was making perfect sense with the film and just decided to call me up, asking me if I wanted to do the score. I had been dreaming of making a really proper American film for a while, so of course I said yes.

Was it in any way different to write for a Hollywood movie than for the other smaller film projects you had done before?

The size of the project doesn't really change how you work. It is the mentality of the people behind the project that can really change it. While working on the film I just felt as if I was working with my friends. The director was so into everything I had done he just gave me full control, allowing me to do everything I wanted. So it wasn't like you would imagine when you think about the world of Hollywood executives. The relations were actually very easy, very smooth.

The tone of the music for “ Another Happy Day” is a bit different than on your previous records. I find it to be a bit darker and with a bit more tension in it. I guess this is mainly due to the movie itself, with the kind of moods the film was demanding.

Yes, the movie is a very dark one. There is a lot of tension in it. I just watched the film without music and I immediately felt that this was the music that it needed to have. It needed dark tones and tensions.

Most of the material on your previous work tends to exist in a more delicate, quiet, romantic and melodic space. But at the same time you have been challenging yourself to write more complex and atonal music for your studies. Do you ever feel the urge to introduce some of the more atonal ideas or elements to your records?

Maybe. I basically just do whatever I am interested at that moment. I don't really plan things in advance. I would never say “I am going to have atonality in my next record” simply to have it. But if it makes sense with what I am thinking or how I am feeling in the moment, of course I will try.

I haven't seen the movie, “Another Happy Day”. I didn't even want to know what it was about, since I knew your soundtrack was going to be released. I wanted to enjoy the music alone, without interferences. Some days ago I was listening to the record - with headphones, walking at night in the street - and I was trying to imagine a set for the music, to depict a scenario or some action, and I actually couldn't. The music was very evocative, but I couldn't fix it to any concrete space or time...

I think that's a good thing really. It means that the score is not too literal. The score doesn't need to say what the pictures are already saying. Those messages can be absent in the music because you have them already on the screen. So I think it is a very good thing to have a score that is not too literal.

Talking about movies, future projects: if you could choose a director, with whom would you like to collaborate?

I really don't know. I mean . . . good directors can make bad movies and bad directors can make good movies [laughs]. I think that if the movie is good I want to write a score for it. But the most important thing is to work with somebody who actually wants to work with me.

You have said several times that one of your aims is to introduce classical sounds to an audience not very familiar with classical music. In the last four or five years a new generation of young composers and musicians, dealing with new gentle approaches to neo-classical music, have emerged. I am thinking about people like Nils Frahm, Peter Broderick or Dustin O’Halloran, for instance. You all seem to be part of an international scene. Twelve years ago there was nothing like this happening music-wise, or at least it was not being covered by the pop-oriented media. Why now?

I don't think it is a coincidence. I think people are doing this music now because they heard it somewhere first. It is the same with any other kind of music. It just slowly develops, and then slowly gets more popular and more people start doing it. The media is paying attention now because these sounds are getting quite popular. The media always follows the people; it is always one step behind [ laughs].

Do you not think that this current appreciation can be somehow related to the times? That more people are looking for sensitive, deep, quiet and reflective music because modern life is not like that anymore?

I don't think so. I don't see this music scene being “because of” that.

I'm talking more about the interest of the people in the music.

The sign of the times might contribute to its popularity, but I think people are mainly interested in it now simply because it exists now. When new things come out people slowly tend to listen to them more and more. Everything has its momentum. Similarly, it might disappear in a few years - we never know. I think it has more to do with streams in music than any outside reason.

“It might disappear”: where do you see yourself in the future?

I just want to keep doing what I am doing, getting better at it. I want to write new music and explore new things. I want to develop my music without repeating myself too much – ultimately reaching more and more people, hopefully.

You are about to start a new European tour. Next week you are performing two concerts in Spain. What can we expect from these concerts?

This tour will be unusually simple. We are only three people on the stage (piano, violin and cello), where we are normally six. So it is kind of a more minimal tour, with not much electronics, no beats – more piano and string based. We are just trying to make all the shows as intimate as we can. We want to create a feel similar to what it would be like to watch us play in a living room.

Besides the tour, what other projects do you have in your hands right now?

Next week I have a big session with an orchestra for my next album, but it's not really something to talk about yet. I am working on it but there is no deadline, no release-date set or anything. It is just a work in progress. I can say it is much more rhythmic, more electronic - but at the same time a lot more orchestral. I am trying out all those new things I’ve always wanted to try out. I am also finishing another soundtrack for a small documentary, arranging some strings for a Swedish artist, and – predominantly - preparing for the tour.

One last question. You come from Iceland, a country that has decided to deal with the current financial and economic crisis in a different way than most of the other countries in Europe. I read some old interview with you where you refer to this crisis as a totally overrated thing. I would like to ask you about the state of things in Iceland nowadays, in regards to culture and the arts. For instance: you owe a big part of your musical education to public music schools, has the economic crisis affected this kind of public service?

I don't know about the rest of Europe, but not in my country, not in Iceland. In fact they are putting even more focus on educating people in the arts and other things that make people happy. That is actually what really matters. The Arts are actually a big part of our economy, so if people want to save the economy the last thing they should do is ignore them. Here this is not a problem.

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