Ólafur Arnalds Is Feeling The Algorithm

From a BAFTA winning run scoring TV drama Broadchurch to his deep body of recorded work, Icelandic pianist and composer Ólafur Arnalds has built a career out of beautifully arranged soundscapes. But for his latest album Arnalds has surrendered control to an unlikely collaborator: a computer algorithm.

Iceland is often celebrated for its ethereal, dreamlike music. It’s the land of Sigur Ros and Björk, and Arnalds’ output frequently fits the bill. But it was the country’s similarly healthy tradition of metal and hardcore that initially drew Arnalds. “From an early age, there was a mix of very different musical styles. As a teenager, I was mostly interested in hardcore and punk music but at the same time my grandmother was force feeding me classical music, Chopin for example. It all got scrambled together in my head and the outcome was this.” His recent work might lack the aggression of his early bands with names like ‘Fighting Shit’, but there are still echoes of the fiercely independent punk scene in Arnalds’ approach. “I think the DIY ethic of punk stuck with me,” he reflects. “Not to rely on record labels or agents to do everything.”

Arnalds is certainly fond of doing things himself, with recent album re:member featuring a new instrument of his own invention. Built out of three pianos and some code, the Stratus helped Arnalds unlock new creative pathways. “It’s a piece of software I developed with my friend and programmer Halldór Eldjárn,” he explains. “In simple terms, it controls two player pianos that play along with a third piano that I control. The software reacts to what I play and through some algorithms that we designed to make music on their own to accompany mine. There’s a little slice of AI in the software that makes the experience semi-generative.”

The result is an experience that adds a wash of dappled, twinkling notes to any that Arnalds plays in ways he cannot predict. “We spent over two years on it. It’s probably the longest I’ve ever worked on anything,” he says. “To me, it was more than a neat trick to make the pianos play by themselves. It made me look at my own music in a new light and helped me get lost in the process. The exploration and experimentation that followed was the inspiration for the album.”

The variety of sounds on re:member shows the Stratus is capable of much more than gentle soundscapes, however. “The whole track wholly revolves around the initial Stratus sketch, everything else in that track is just a deviation from that,” he says of the album’s title track. “But an interesting one to me is Ekki Hugsa, where the super-fast rhythms of the Stratus track influenced the kind of jumpy, uplifting, almost reggaeton sounding rhythm of the track.”

With his return to Australia in December Arnalds will bring all three pianos to see what the Stratus can unlock on southern stages. “It’s an integral part,” he says of the current live show. “Every performance is a little different because of the generative nature of Stratus. In addition to that, it also controls some of the lights during the performance. Having three pianos on stage every night is also pretty fun!

But while Arnalds is happy to turn a section of his brain over to a computer in the interests of expanding his horizons, he’s a little more sceptical of our broader reliance on invisible algorithms to shape our view of the world, online at least. “Social algorithms lock us in bubbles that is really hard to get out of,” he says.

“I think the parts of our lives that are dictated by unseen algorithms would be better off without them.

Ólafur Arnalds
Tuesday December 4
Dunstan Playhouse

Header image:
Benjamin Hardman

Adelaide In-depth

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