Birmingham Town Hall
Having recently penned some put-down of music deemed worthy, I thought I might be at risk of petard related auto-injury tonight, as I trained it in from Lichfield. Entering the venue I was struck by the sheer forest of facial foliage on display, lumbersexual heaven, making my mere whiskers look strictly amateur. On stage 2 pianolas were tinkling slowly away in unison, stripped of their panelling, displaying the moving parts to the pretty packed hall.
Bang on 8 on strolled a zen like figure, dressed in white, hands held in prayer or greeting: “Hello, I am Olafur and I would like to play you some music”. Centre stage, in front of the pianolas, was his grand piano, other keyboards to the side and on top, a couple of mac notebooks nearby. Furthering his introduction, we were asked if we could sing, ahead of asking for a prolonged unison capture of a single note, duly recorded, which acted as a drone for his first piece. Starting with his trademark minimalist near repetition, slowly and unobtrusively his string quartet slunk on and joined in, cello and lead violin right and left of him, 2nd violin and viola behind, mixing mournful drawn out unison chord work, with occasional more skittish tinkering sounds, with the limits of each instrument being extended by the careful manipulation of the microphone levels. Finally, far left, a drummer snuck in, his kit part orthodox and part electronic, the heavy “donks” the perfect accompaniment. And by and large this is how it continued, perhaps a dozen atmospheric pieces, or songs as he endearingly insisted on calling them, despite not a vocal in sight. Some seemed familiar to me in parts: setlist.com revealed that, yes, there was a snippet of Broadchurch and a couple from Island Songs, but more as themes upon which he and the band could extend from, the pianolas seamlessly and robotically joining in on occasion. We got an explanation of this from the stage, or how he had wasted 3 years of his life building on the concept seen from old westerns, except these were programmed in and out via his laptops rather than any roll or cylinder. Adding supplementary tinkle rather than grand themes, their presence seemed as much rhythmical as illustrative, although I gather the tunes, sorry songs, for new record “re:member” were written on the back of auto-generated loops derived by the pianola programming.
The melodies and moods were all exquisitely mournful, and had a strange effect on my hebridean soul, transporting me into a trance like state, fully awake and alert to every nuance, if neither fully in the room either. I now realise how much viking blood must inhabit the western isles of scotland, swamping me with a joyful melancholia. (Yup, I did mean a mix of both extreme, simultaneously.) And I can now see the distinction between worthy music and this music of worth, the former being to provoke statement, this to promote emotion.
The one slight loss of focus came when longterm associate/violinist Viktor Arnasson had his moment in the spotlight, a lengthy solo that travelled from eerie floydian shimmering to gypsy fiddler on absinthe; somehow, masterful and jaw dropping as it undoubtedly was, it was just a bit too busy for the overall mood elsewhere of the evening. Maybe in a different context. But all forgotten as he blended back into the balance and precision of the ensemble playing, in which the cello was never less than sublime.
90 minutes were gone in a moment (and I hadn’t dropped off), a standing ovation before lengthy, very lengthy applause eventually brought him back, this time seemingly alone, playing one of the pianola. I was unfamiliar with the track, but it was the highpoint of the show for me, tears welling up as, unseen and offstage, the strings crept in to augment the final minute or 2. I didn’t think anything could top that and it didn’t, that was it. Drained and delighted I went home, having first made sure I knew the name of that encore and had bought its source.
Hipster central, with a smattering of the wackier classical Symphony Hall types, mainly mid 20s to early 40s. (Arnalds is a ridiculous 30.) Some oldies like me tucked in, some a deal older. Quiet in the music, appreciative between, with an absence of phones or fuckwittery that I could see or hear. Seemingly knowledgeable of his music in and out of this setting, a shout for Kiasmos ahead of the encore dissolved Arnalds into giggles: “if only”.
It made me think..
Well, I had wondered, following “All Melody”, whether Nils Frahm was the superior of these two artists, whoo have so often worked together. I am now very much less sure. Frahm has maybe the greater grasp of rhythm and sound, but with Arnalds is definitely the champion for texture and mood.