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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

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

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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.

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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.

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