Sound Islands

On Saturday, October 20th, Ólafur Arnalds lured the audience of the Luxembourg Philharmony into a world of meditative sounds.

His music is as special as he is: appearing on stage dressed in a white T-shirt and jeans, the Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds exuded the charm of Nordic understatement. Although only in his early thirties, he is already renowned for his virtuosity in blending electronical with classical sounds. On stage, he plays the grand piano, surrounded by two connected self-playing pianos, called “stratus”, a string ensemble and a drummer.

The outcome is a very calm, but melodious sound, transmitting a spacy or submarine atmosphere. This impression of a “music of the spheres” that plunges you into a meditative mood is supported by the fog effects and the light show, somewhat too present perhaps at the concert last Saturday. For Arnalds, the collective experience is a very important aspect of his concerts. No wonder he invited one listener to switch off the mobile phone with the remark that “experiencing all the same thing won’t happen if we look at it through our screens”.

If most of the songs were of this spherical, contemplative kind, some others had a more dynamic quality, and I must confess that these were more my cup of tea. The rhythmic undertones of the darker strings, especially the cello, and of the percussion kit, partly electronic as well, impressed as much by their precision as by their liveliness and confered the compositions warmth and emotion. The audience reacted with enthusiasm and the last songs reaped standing ovations.

However, Arnalds also succeeded in taming the listeners in the opposite sense. He introduced one of the last tracks, “nyepi”, telling the story of his travel to an Indonesian island at the time of the local New Year’s Day. That day was celebrated, he said, as a day of silence and disconnection from all electronic devices: “It was the best day of my life.” Putting this insight into practice, the musician filled a time span of 20 or 30 seconds of the following track with… nothingness. And the Grand Auditorium, packed with people, experienced silence.

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