Take In the Gleaming Tones of Multi-Instrumentalist & Composer Ólafur Arnalds

By Becky Nystedt |

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Ólafur Arnalds

Some of the best treats that pop into my email inbox are the NPR Music newsletters announcing another Tiny Desk Concert video release. From Daniil Trifonov to Harry Styles, and Joyce DiDonato to Andrew Bird, this video series presents an array of artists across the musical spectrum; all recorded live at the desk of All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen. Lately, since I’ve been spending 24/7 at the office (AKA my living room couch), I’ve been able to discover new artists and revisit some old favorites.

Icelandic classical/experimental/ambient composer and multi-instrumentalist Ólafur Arnalds has always been a favorite of mine and his 2018 Tiny Desk Concert stands out in particular. The set begins with soft piano and accompanying strings in two pieces titled “Árbakkinn” (or “Riverside”) and “Unfold,” followed by a plaintive piano work titled “Saman.”

Crammed into this tiny space are a string quartet, light percussion, Arnalds on an electronic keyboard, and two invisible pianists seated at the exposed upright pianos in the background. These “ghost” performers are animated through Arnalds, whose keyboard is connected to musical software that “listens” to the electronic keyboard performance and then responds in harmony. The set ends with “Doria,” a piece named after his coder friend that helped him create this software programmed into his electronic keyboard.

This fascinating musical chain somewhat mimics a player piano… except more futuristic. I find that the collective of musicians and computer creates an eerie, yet comforting atmosphere that will continue to mystify me while leading me down the very welcome rabbit hole of watching Tiny Desk Concerts.