Ólafur Arnalds on Iceland, experimentation and OPIA

Wednesday, September 11, 2019 - 10:25

In November 2019 BAFTA-winning composer Ólafur Arnalds took over Southbank Centre for an evening of special live performances. OPIA, was a specially curated celebration of collaboration as Arnalds brought together friends and collaborators who have inspired him, including Grandbrothers, Poppy Akroyd and Kiasmos.

We caught up with Arnalds to talk about collaboration, creation, and connection to his homeland, as well as his hopes and aims for OPIA.

A classical composer, a performer, a pianist, a hardcore metal drummer. You’re quite a hard artist to describe to someone who may be unfamiliar with your work. Do you like it this way?

I definitely don't mind it. Although the idea of genres is largely pointless, good music is just good music no matter the kind. In my case the mixture of styles is less conscious than it might seem. I listen to a broad spectrum of music and I think that comes through in my music in a way that just makes sense to me.


You regularly collaborate with other Icelandic artists, particularly with Island Songs (2016), is your homeland a significant inspiration to you?

It's my home and I think it's impossible not to take anything from where you grew up. But then again that's true of everywhere in the world. I like the atmosphere of living in Iceland, how quiet it can be, the extremes of daylight in summer and darkness in winter and it's closeness to the natural world – it has a subconscious effect on the music. That being said, a place is just a place. I think mostly it's the people that you meet that influence you.


A lot of people in the UK will have first become familiar with you through your BAFTA-winning score and theme for Broadchurch. Did you have any inkling that the show, and the score, would be such a success? How does it feel to suddenly reach a wider audience in this way?

The way I choose my projects is usually based on the people behind them; do our visions align? am I going to enjoy working with them? and so forth. Broadchurch was a great story, but even more importantly the passion and integrity of the people working on it was what sold me on taking the project. The success of the series is great, but even if it hadn’t done so well I would have been proud to be a part of that team. It was a great experience.

Ólafur Arnalds - So Close ft. Arnor Dan


Many artists might be resentful at seeing their compositions experimented with, but it seems – from following you on social media – that you really enjoy seeing and hearing your work covered and remixed?

It's just really exciting for me to see what other artists and producers can come up with and how they choose to breathe new life into my music. The best covers and remixes usually highlight something in the song that I haven't paid much attention to myself.


You’ve always been an artist who looks to test boundaries and try new things; a prime example perhaps being the quite remarkable Stratus, with which you composed re:member (2018). What led you to create this unusual instrument and approach?

Stratus is a software me and my friend Halldór Eldjárn spent two years developing. Essentially it's a program that controls two self playing pianos that react to what I play on a third piano. It actually came out of a period of writer's block I had when I was making re:member. In hindsight I can see that I was musically and creatively drained. It led to me taking the first long vacation of my career and travelling. When I started writing again, working on Stratus was a way for me to make something as familiar as the piano feel new and exciting again. It was almost like improv in the way that it changed the creative feedback loop. When the pianos react to your playing it changes your ideas of where to go next and kind of forces you to come up with new ideas.

The Player Pianos pt. II (All Strings Attached - EP6)


On then to OPIA, what inspired you to create and curate this event?

Collaboration has always been an integral part of how I create. The idea behind OPIA was to bring together some of the most interesting and inspiring artists I know and share this vision of collaboration. The festival intended to celebrate the spirit of friendship, community and creative experimentations I've found with these artists. I also wanted the festival to represent the two sides of my creative output over the past few years, that's why we split the programme in two, starting with more introspective music and leading into a night of dancing. And Southbank Centre seemed like the perfect place to do it.


How did you select the artists that joined you for the first edition of OPIA here at the Southbank Centre?

Hopefully this was the first of many OPIA festivals. For this first one I chose some of my most recent collaborators, and emerging artists I feel deserve more recognition.


What were you hoping to produce with the festival; was there anything from OPIA that you were particularly looking forward to?

My hope was to create an atmosphere that reflects the spirit of friendship this festival is all about – with some outstanding music, films and special events. I was really looking forward to playing the Royal Festival Hall since I'd never done so with my own music, and the Kiasmos show there a few years ago was a definite highlight. I was also excited about the ambient improvisations with Rhye (and more). We'd done this together once before in a tiny art space in Reykjavík and it turned into a very special night. Truly I just love to see all these artists play.



Ólafur Arnalds Presents: OPIA, featured a number of special live performances across Southbank Centre’s concert venues on Friday 8 November.


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