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Ólafur Arnalds at the Sydney Opera House

Peter Walsh examines Iceland’s greatest export since Eyjafjallajökull.

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“If someone asks me for something redeemable in humanity, music is the only pure and real thing I can think of.”

“It’s a dance between two lives, one consistent and one passionate. First alone, but not lacking, just there. Then twirling with utter wholeness with the violins added in. It tells a story if you look at it that way.”

“Love is not a thing that can be describe nor observed, it just is.”

The above lines are sourced from the YouTube comments on Ólafur Arnalds “Ljósið”, his most popular song and the one that launched him from niche Icelandic neoclassical multi-instrumentalist to someone who can play the Opera House accompanied by a 13-piece chamber orchestra. At the conclusion of his show, he clarified: the song was not, as people think, inspired by the “beauty of the Icelandic wilderness”, but was instead commissioned to be used in an advertisement by a company that produces bathtubs. They didn’t like the work. He was fired.

The show, composed of a 75 minute progression through Arnalds’ oeuvre, was accompanied by visuals from Máni Sigfússon—presumably to ensure its relevance to GRAPHIC, “a festival of graphic storytelling, animation, and music”, which it is otherwise divorced from. Unfortunately, the visuals fail the music—they’re often distracting and so muted in their tones that I found it easier to close my eyes and let the sounds wash over me than to attempt to anchor them to what was happening on the screen.

This is, however, a rare criticism in what was a wholly affecting, enjoyable show. The soundscapes are incredibly beautiful, and the Chamber Orchestra render many of his tracks with a depth beyond their original iteration. Most surprising was Arnalds’ rapport with the audience. Every few songs, he would take to the microphone to communicate something of what brought him to Sydney or how he came to compose his songs. Mostly, these were incredibly funny—he put the boot into an “Australian airline with a red logo” for losing his luggage, invited the audience to have their singing sampled on the next track (and promising us that, if we were bad, he would use another recording instead), and brought a drink on stage, first apologising, before quoting “someone incredibly wise” who said “fuck the system”.

Arnalds composes delicate, sparse pieces—perfect to listen to through headphones, but sometimes difficult to translate in their wholeness to a 13-piece chamber orchestra. The hits well and truly outnumber the misses, but the show is most affecting at its extremes, either when the entire range of performers are being used or when Arnalds is able to inhabit the stage by himself. It’s the awkward spaces in the middle with the majority of performers sitting on their hands that leave us wanting. I have heard people disparagingly refer to Arnalds as classical musical for an audience that grew up on polyphonic ringtones, but that would be to undermine his talent. In the final song of the night, Arnalds took to the stage alone to perform a song inspired by his grandmother’s passing. There, in the company of himself, he managed to fill the space as wholly as it was with thirteen performers accompanying him—a moment of sublime in a show that exemplified how there’s nothing mystical behind creative genius, just hard work.

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