Ólafur Arnalds & Nils Frahm Ólafur Arnalds & Nils FrahmStare
Beyond its immediate repercussions - and the turnover it has brought all the record shops on the planet - Record Store Day is worth the trouble if only for the release of “Stare”. It’s an EP with four songs on it written and performed by Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds and German pianist Nils Frahm, two flagships of the European neoclassical scene that we have spoken so much about and will continue to speak about around here. Oddly enough, to the great surprise of all those of us who have followed their respective careers closely, this sporadic—one would almost say improvised— adventure has little to do with that neoclassical stance that we were talking about. It implies a revealing, unexpected change in their expressive and stylistic registers that is both pleasing and praiseworthy.
If at any point we were afraid of the possibility of the two creators’ discourses becoming stuck in their own spider webs, catching the virus of stagnation or repetition, “Stare” is here to lay those fears to rest. In slightly over half an hour of music, both Arnalds and Frahm reveal their desire to evolve, grow, and experiment with new ideas and sounds. Frahm’s piano isn’t the star of the show, nor do we have any news of Arnalds’ little chamber pieces. Rather, it is as if the two of them had formed a newly-minted electronic ensemble, outside of their backgrounds and careers; both musicians enter the area of cosmic ambient music, and even low-intensity techno, from zero.
“a1” and “b1”, the opening and closing tracks on the EP, for example, invoke the spirit of Tangerine Dream and Steve Reich, but with that feeling of intimacy and introspection that characterises both musicians’ discourses. They have that cosmic twang, but towards the inside - far from the great epic and mega-constructions one might anticipate. It is with Max Cooper’s remix of “a2” that everything really gets out of control, in a good way. Together they put out a song that is a direct heir of Nathan Fake and the Border Community sound; with a drum, absorbing noise, and shoegaze melodies. The original piece that this remix comes from is the quartet’s most conventional, but even so it is radically different from the usual in their discourses: a William Basinski-style ambient mantra, in which not a trace of their weapons of attack remains.
The best thing about “Stare” isn’t the change of subject promoted by the two people responsible for it. It’s not even the emotional subtlety or formal elegance of the four pieces that make it up. The best thing isn’t what we see or hear, but rather what we sense and feel might come about in the near future - if these two characters decide to continue with this alliance in a project that is more meditated and elaborate, which might end up materialising in an album. This is a sketch, an appetiser, a first contact, but it couldn’t be more hopeful and promising.