Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Ólafur Arnalds live at Mississippi Studios in Portland. If you’re not in the Northwest, you might not be aware that autumn came in with a gusting, rain-soaked roar this weekend. There were downed power lines across the Portland metro area and lakes of standing water on many a road, and to be honest I seriously considered staying home in cozy pajamas and forfeiting my ticket. I had to ford a few small lakes over the roadway, and I drove like a granny, irritating many drivers who seemed not to notice the less than ideal weather conditions, but I made it there and back safely, and as it turns out, I am so glad I went.
Mississippi Studios is a small, cozy, intimate venue, with what my untrained ears would consider pretty great acoustics; in other words, perfect for artists like Ólafur Arnalds. Back in the day, the space was home to a Baptist church. Today, half of the place is a bar, the other half is used for shows. The ceilings are high and the lighting is soft, two small chandeliers and a few shaded floor lamps in addition to the stage lights. The major downsides? Heat and seating. It got stuffy really quickly with people packed into such a small space, and although there was a pretty powerful A/C unit on the ceiling, Ólafur disliked the noise it made and repeatedly pointed up at it and asked The Powers That Be to turn it off. If I’m not mistaken, TPTB took every chance they could when the music got louder to turn it on. Anyway, I’ll try not to hold it against you too much, Ólafur, but I was feeling a little ill from the heat by the end of the night.
As the name suggests, Mississippi Studios is also a recording studio, which means there is no fixed seating, just rows of straight-backed metal chairs (well, cushioned metal chairs, but does that really make a difference?), a few barstools, a small balcony, and some standing room for the unfortunate late arrivals. Overall, though, a venue with great sound and atmosphere.
The opener was Ólafur’s Erased Tapes labelmate Nils Frahm. Nils is a German pianist and composer who, despite this only being his second visit to Portland, already has the Northwest casual style down – he was sporting jeans rolled up to reveal striped socks, a t-shirt, and a grey hoodie. I really have no idea how to describe his music. Within the same piece, it ranges from minimalistic (as in, the same note struck over and over and over again) to complexly layered. What I can describe is what a joy it was to watch him at the piano, which he clearly plays as if it is an extension of himself.
After Nils’ first piece, Ólafur sauntered up to the stage to join him on the piano. I have no idea what the piece was called, but the guys’ hands were a blur as they pounded the piano keys. It was clear that Nils and Ólafur are genuinely friends and, more than that, respect each other as musicians (although, perhaps they don’t respect each other’s property quite so much – Ólafur was appalled to see that Nils had left his cup of whiskey on the piano, so he got “rewenge,” as he pronounces it, by leaving his drink on Nils’ computer). Ólafur retreated while Nils played several more pieces. I have to say, Nils was probably the most engaging opening act I’ve seen in recent days, and the audience seemed to agree. There was a hush throughout his entire performance that was really remarkable for someone billed as an opening act.
When Ólafur reappeared and took his seat at the piano, he announced that this was his first time in Portland, although he has seen a certain show about Portland hipsters, and he is sure it is completely real (actually, not that far off the mark, from the looks of the audience last night). I must say, I did not expect Ólafur to be so chatty and so funny. He explained that he has been touring all around the world since April, and the highlight of the whole tour was meeting a koala bear in Australia. Before he performed “Poland,” he talked about the inspiration for the song: a few years ago, he was on tour in Poland, where the roads are apparently not so good, and because no one could sleep on the tour bus, they decided to drink instead. This turned out to backfire greatly the next day, when everyone felt understandably terrible. It was then that he wrote “Poland.” As he said, “not all sad songs are about heartbreak.”
Ólafur also said he was happy to be back on the road with Nils, who I gather has been a good friend and collaborator for quite some time. The last time he and Nils were together, said Ólafur, was in Iceland, when the pair got lost on a mountain and ran out of food. “No, really,” he said, ” we ran out of food, and we found an old man and he gave us crackers.”
I’m really not all that familiar with Ólafur’s music, but I’ve heard enough to expect simple but sweeping melodies and plenty of piano with a healthy dose of electronic toys. In this I was not disappointed. Ólafur was joined on stage only by a violinist and a cellist. As Ólafur explained, his latest album was recorded with a symphony of about 90 instrumentalists, so performing those songs in concert with just three musicians requires some creativity. Enter Mr. Jobs, Ólafur’s name for his iPad, which he uses to loop and layer sound. The result? If your eyes were closed, you would never guess such a full, complex sound was coming from three musicians and one Mr. Jobs.
It’s a small, small, small, small world
The world of Icelandic music is a remarkably interconnected one, and that was on full display last night. Singer Arnór Dan joined the band for the title track from “For Now I Am Winter.” Arnór also happens to be the lead singer of Agent Fresco, an Icelandic band that won the Músíktilraunir contest in 2008. Ólafur’s violinist, Viktor Orri Árnason, is a member of the band Hjaltalín.
Ólafur, Arnór, Viktor, Ruben (the cellist), and Nils came out for an encore and whatever song they may or may not have had planned was scrapped when Ólafur suddenly looked at Nils and exclaimed, “Let’s do that F minor thing!” Nils looked a bit bewildered, so Ólafur clarified, “You know, the YouTube thing!” Still confused, Nils sat down at the piano anyway. “We have no idea what’s about to happen,” said Ólafur. What happened was a beautiful improvisation that was a testament to the caliber of musicianship on stage and was simply a joy to watch.
Seeing Ólafur Arnalds is an experience I will not soon forget. Mississippi Studios is small and cozy enough that it almost felt as if Ólafur were playing for us in his living room. I was not only struck by the intimacy of the venue, though, but also by the connection Ólafur clearly has to his music. He seems to have incredible integrity as a musician – I cannot imagine him writing or performing anything with which he does not feel a deep connection. Yes, his music is mostly quiet, mostly mellow, often meandering. This is not music for the impatient. You have to give it time, time to see where the song goes and time to enjoy how it gets there.
Takk fyrir tónlistina, Ólafur!
Attention pianists, violinists, cellists: I just discovered that Ólafur has sheet music for a number of pieces available for free download from his website. Check it out here.