Ólafur Arnalds, London Palladium, London, October 31, 2018

There’s something to be said for the skill of being a concertgoer (yes, that’s a skill). I understand pogoing at a punk or hard rock concert or moshing at a grime gig, and I get singing along drunkenly at a rock show or screaming at the top of your lungs at a heartthrob pop show.

But it’s a different story at a concert like the one this evening by neoclassical composer and pianist Ólafur Arnalds. Many of the tunes are quiet, so any rustling of bags, whispering in the ear of the person sitting next to you, getting up to go to the bar for more drinks, opening and closing doors to go to the toilet can be heard loudly in the auditorium. This includes the people making the noise themselves, which makes you feel like you’re seated among dolts lacking any sense of occasion. 

Rarely have I seen so many audience members lacking manners and regard for their fellow audience members and, indeed, the performing musicians. It’s not only their fault; it doesn’t help that the venue has old doors that creak when opened and closed. Perhaps the London Palladium should invest in repairs or look into getting new doors that don’t squeak. Either that or don’t book artists with quiet music in their repertoire.

Creaking doors and (some) moronic audience members aside, it is an outstanding concert – from the moment Arnalds’ silhouette enters the stage, sitting down at the piano, beginning soft and quiet, building up a flow. Three other musicians join one by one in the darkness surrounding the piano.

At first, we only sense them. We see the four musicians sitting around Arnalds and his piano as the lights change. One cellist on a slightly raised platform behind him, two violinists on another raised platform to his left, and a viola player on his platform in front of the piano. There’s also a drum kit that the support act of the evening, drummer and percussionist Manu Delago (who played handpans beautifully earlier), will play on the handful of tunes scattered throughout the set that requires a drum beat. The diverse soundscape of the evening comprises of quiet solo piano, via classical string quartet to ambient refrains with hypnotic rhythms.

Ólafur Arnalds is a wonderful melodist who plays his compositions, on this tour mostly from his latest album Re:member, with a marvellous touch that makes the melodies flow. The other musicians accompany Arnalds brilliantly. But what sets the evening apart is the clever use of lighting, which accentuates the musicians and their tunes. 

That Arnalds is a compelling storyteller adds humour to the evening, when he between every three-four tunes, picks up the microphone and tells anecdotes that are warm, funny, and engaging. In this respect, his stage show follows the same template of his sometime-collaborator Nils Frahm, whose tour is sewn from a similar cloth. And it’s a template that works: Show off your musical prowess and your likeable personality in equal measures – shifting between serious artist and silly joker.

‘Hello, it’s Halloween. Anyone in costume? I guess no one comes to my concerts in costume. Good to have that confirmed…’. Arnalds quips. He tells the audience to sing a note so he can loop it and use it on his next tune, Brot, – a gimmick he’s been using in his live shows for years. But that’s because the trick works. ‘If you don’t sound good… then the song won’t sound good,’ he says in his dry heavily-Icelandic-tinted accent. ‘What does a ghost sound like?’ The audience goes ‘ooohhh’ and burst into laughter. Arnalds seems satisfied with the result and proclaims the ‘ooohhh’ to be ‘beautiful and angelic.’

In a quiet passage where a lone violin plays, someone opens a screeching door, and the screech plays along with the violin as if adding another layer to the music. From an ‘experimental’ point of view, one could argue the screeching door added depth to the violin, but it came across as a distracting noise rather than a supplemental sound.

Then it’s time for another anecdote about when Arnalds damaged the nerves in his spine in an accident and couldn’t play for several months and wasn’t even sure if he’d ever play properly again. Instead, he became a techno DJ for a while, because as he says, ‘You don’t really have to do anything other than press some buttons and throw your fists in the air.’

Obviously, for a talented pianist like Arnalds, pushing buttons and throwing your fists in the air is not a viable solution in the long run, and he soon came across another option: ‘I was in a hotel and saw a piano that could play Imagine by itself. At first, I thought it was stupid, but then I thought, Hey, here’s the answer to my problems. So I bought two.’

Those two self-playing ’Ghost’ pianos are on stage, playing by themselves, as controlled by Arnalds. The Stratus technology, makes notes played by Arnalds on his piano, generate additional notes on the two Stratus pianos, which coats the already symphonic sound of the piano, cello and violins with additional colour and texture.

Towards the end, Arnalds tells the audience: ‘Because it’s the last night of the tour I will play the first song I wrote, around 2004. I put it on MySpace. And made a lot of friends…’

For the last song, the other musicians leave the stage. Arnalds tells one final anecdote – the longest of the evening – about his grandmother who passed away, his relationship with her, and the influence she had on him. This anecdote segues into his touching melody, Lag fyrir Ömmu (Song for Grandma), which he plays at one of the ‘automated’ Stratus pianos with his back to the audience.

This time no one is talking or rushing through creaking doors for the toilet or the bar. It’s as if the noisemakers have left the building (and indeed some did, three-four tunes before the end), and only the ones who care – thankfully most of us – have stayed behind to share this quiet, intimate and emotional moment with a profoundly gifted and captivating musician and artist.

Ólafur Arnalds setlist
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