The ghost in the machine

Ólafur Arnalds talks software collaborations and new paths

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Ólafur Arnalds
Benjamin Hardman

The Icelandic composer/keyboardist Ólafur Arnalds creates music that drifts gently across reflective surfaces.

Summoning resonance and fleeting shadows of emotion, some have called it electronic classical (a vulgar reduction) and ambient chamber music (more polite, perhaps, but essentially vacuous and ultimately meaningless), but describing it as a function of its components or benchmarks is as unsatisfying as categorizing it under a streaming app drop-down. It drifts between ebullient and nostalgic, inching toward lachrymose at times with his use of strings, swelling toward joyous elsewhere, pensive and poised.

Arnalds has made his name as a composer in a number of genres — soundtrack music (he was awarded a BAFTA for his work on the British TV series Broadchurch in 2014), more conventional releases such as Living Room Music (2011) and And They Have Escaped The Weight of Darkness (2010), which Pitchfork exclaimed as “a success for the composer, and for listeners that don’t balk at a little unabashed pageantry.”

His latest release under his own name, re:member, was a departure in at least two ways for the artist. He has been known to work very quickly, especially on his improvised projects (his albums Found Songs, 2009, and Living Room Music, 2011, were each produced in a mere seven days), and this project, which was released on Mercury KX Records late last summer, was two years in the making.

But perhaps the most notable aspect of re:member is Arnalds’ use of a new software program called Stratus that controlled two player pianos and produced spontaneously generated accompanying figures in response to Arnalds’ playing. The software system, developed by composer and audio developer Halldór Eldjárn, is premised upon the use of the Euclidian algorithm applied to rhythmic musical patterns. 

The science behind the software’s is pretty esoteric; humbly confessing that it was largely over the head of a weekly arts writer’s head, we asked Arnalds how familiar he was with how the system worked.

“I’m not going to pretend that I know much at all about the science,” he admits. “I worked more on the surface, concentrating on the music and the use of the software, while my collaborator Halldór Eldjárn concentrated on the programming and science of it all. I probably would have got too lost in it and distracted from making the actual music.”

  The artist intersection between man and his machines didn’t start with ProTools or Ableton (who knew?), and probably extends back to the first guy hitting two hollowed out sticks together, but Arnalds and his collaborator have created an intriguing niche strategy here, whereby the software “hears” what Arnalds is playing and adds something complementary, or angularly complementary, and thus contributes to the piece’s basic presentation. In jazz, of course, it’s known as call and response… in chamber ambient (we’ll settle on this tag for now), it isn’t so much improvising on a composition as augmenting one.

Did the software take him to places he didn’t expect?

“Yes! And that was the best part. The unpredictability of the algorithms and the crude interface we created very often lead me down roads I probably would never have found otherwise. This is well demonstrated in songs like ‘re:member’ and ‘ekki hugsa,’ which both originated from interesting surprises, or even mistakes — me trying to create something else but accidentally getting these results instead and loving them.”

But because these software-generated augmentations were essentially spontaneous, they were also irreproducible. Meaning, the composition exists exactly one time — played again, the software would generate something different. Was there any sense of… loss?… frustration?… that once recorded, it could never come back?

“No, that’s actually the beauty of it,” he says. “An album is like a photograph. A frozen moment in time of how the music was at the time of its creation. The music itself, however, keeps living, developing and changing. New moments get created… This is the beauty of music.”

And still it took him to new places — in at least one case, the entire piece was re-composed based on what the software heard and how it responded.

“‘undir’ is probably a good example of that. That track used to be basically a whole other song, but once I added the Stratus track to it, it somehow veered into a complete new direction. I think I actually replaced every single element of it except the Stratus track.”

At the end of the day, though, Arnalds does not allow the software to be the music. He is a vigorously organic artist, and with or without a piece of software on his shoulder, his trade is harmony and melodic soundcraft.

The presence is human.

On the Bill: Ólafur Arnalds. 8 p.m. Monday, Feb. 4, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., Boulder. Tickets are $25-$30.