September CD of the Month: Ólafur Arnalds re:member

Ólafur Arnalds re:member Echoes September CD of the Month

Brian Eno coined the term “generative music” back in 1996 for compositions that were composed using programs that, following a few rules of tonality and tempo,  mixed and matched timbres, rhythms and melodies in different configurations,. He’s released several generative computer apps including Scape and Reflection. The latter was used to create his most recent album of the same name.

While Eno’s generative pieces are typically static, slowly-evolving works, Ólafur Arnalds has used similar techniques in a more classically inclined way for his new album, re:member.

Ólafur Arnalds has been in the vanguard of ambient chamber music since his debut album, Eulogy for Evolution, in 2007. That sound matured beautifully on his epic 2010 release …And They Have Escaped the Weight of Darkness, and his 2013 album, For Now I Am Winter, an Echoes CD of the Month that year. Along the way he’s worked in the EDM-inspired duo, Kiasmos, and created a series of intimate works for piano and chamber group.

With re:member, Arnalds debuts his Stratus piano system. Stratus Pianos are two self-playing, semi-generative player pianos which are triggered by a central keyboard. Working with audio and software developer Halldór Eldjárn, Arnalds has fashioned a system where chords played on the main keyboard trigger the Stratus pianos, which then go off on their own, partially-prescribed paths. That description sounds a bit cold and antiseptic, but the results are a beautiful sound world of muted colors, minimalist patterns and that darkly interior landscape Arnalds is always exploring.

I knew this album would be a CD of the Month when I heard the first single back in April, the title track to re:member. The opening spare piano and tremulous strings sounded like vintage Arnalds, but then a cyclical piano figure was introduced with choppy, piano-mechanics sounds working underneath it. More strings appear, as the piece creates forward momentum, launching to a crescendo as drums enter, propelling the piece further as a cello undulates a gentle melody over the nervous groove. Arnalds uses dub techniques to drop out the strings in favor of ethereal synths and then it’s over – a journey you didn’t know you were on until you got to the end.

Songs like “Ypsilon” emerge out of a haze of cosmic Ligeti-style static from the London Recording Orchestra (LRO) before evolving into an African-inspired percussive groove. Arnalds’ piano is muted with felt under the hammers, a technique he’s used for a while, which makes it more percussive.

Arnalds threads a line between sublime melancholy and joy on “Inconsist.” It opens cinematically, like the break of dawn or a sweep pan across a pastoral landscape. But then the middle movement launches, with chattering percussion and ostinato strings that could be in a film score where everything is going right for the happy protagonist. But, being an Ólafur Arnalds piece, it ends in somber reflection.

Despite all the new technology involved in its creation, the album doesn’t sound technological at all. From the creaky piano of “Momentary” to the sylvan shades of “Undir”, possibly one of Arnalds’ most transcendent works, a more organic feel pervades. Even with Arnalds’ and Bngrboy’s beat programming, “Undir” comes off as celestial refrain as he mixes long string sustains from the LRO with a string quartet, then phases-in a rippling piano cycle, spare percussion, and a faint piano melody, before letting the percussion rip into a muffled drum ‘n’ bass syncopation.

With re:member, Ólafur Arnalds channels his many influences from Eno to Dub, minimalism to techno, John Cage’s prepared pianos to the serenity of classical music. The Stratus Pianos remind me a bit of Pat Metheny’s much more massive Orchestrion project, his mechanical orchestra that was triggered by his guitar. But Arnalds’ more modest project is much less in your face, and more subtly deployed.

It’s a cliche to ascribe the influence of locale ton musicians, especially those from such exotic place as Iceland where Arnalds lives. Yet, he’s created a magical sound world that brims with landscapes both interior and exterior, a deep emotional architecture that could only be erected in isolated, stark and enchanted locations like Iceland. re:member is a masterwork of ambient chamber music.

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