Arts music review

Ólafur Arnalds – Island Songs

An ambitious multimedia project from the prolific Icelandic musician

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Island Songs, the new multimedia project by multi-instrumentalist Ólafur Arnalds, explores the lesser-known cultural aspects of Iceland.
Courtesy of Marino Thorlacious

Island Songs

Ólafur Arnalds

Released Oct. 28, 2016

Mercury Classics

Seven years ago, Icelandic multi-instrumentalist Ólafur Arnalds — who was just starting to receive widespread acclaim at the time for his solo work — released a collection of tracks titled Found Songs, which consisted of seven compositions that were recorded daily for seven days and immediately released online. Only two years later, Arnalds released a similar project, Living Room Songs, for which he recorded, filmed, and published a new song each day for a week in his living room.

Following these two projects, the next five years quickly catapulted Arnalds to international recognition for his numerous collaborations and additional musical work, such as Trance Frendz, an improvised album with the German musician Nils Frahm, and the BAFTA-winning score for the TV series “Broadchurch.” It therefore seems only fitting that, seven years after Found Songs, Arnalds returns with Island Songs, a more mature and intricate multimedia project that follows Arnalds as he travels around Iceland for seven weeks to record and film seven songs in collaboration with different Icelandic artists.

A step up from Found Songs and Living Room Songs, this project showcases Arnalds at his best as he pushes his boundaries as a composer to highlight lesser-known aspects of Icelandic artistry and culture, from poetry and choirs to close-knit communities in remote places of the island. The unwavering commitment to the purpose of the project, showcased through Arnalds’ demanding back-to-back cross-country travels, is clearly reflected in the final outcome – with a runtime of only half an hour, Island Songs succeeds at bridging the essence of his music with the cultural identity of his own country.

This effect can already be seen in the opening track, “Árbakkinn,” featuring Einar Georg Einarsson, a poet and retired teacher from Hvammstangi, an Icelandic village in the northwest part of the island. Layered with the piano- and strings-driven undertone of Arnalds and his band, Einarsson’s contemplative recitation of one of his poems sets the melancholic and delicate mood of Island Songs, characteristic of Arnalds’ music. At the same time, the poem, which describes a river close to a farm where Einarsson grew up, paints a vivid landscape of Iceland’s iconic, unadulterated nature.

A similar effect can be felt in “Raddir,” the third track of the project, for which Arnalds teamed up with conductor Hilmar Örn Agnarsson and composer Georg Kári Hilmarsson, who helped him produce a celestial composition for the South Iceland Chamber Choir. This was Arnalds’ first time writing choir music, and the resulting piece is unquestionably astonishing. A three minute-long, otherworldly harmonization of icy female vocals and ethereal male vocals, “Raddir” successfully depicts the communal and sacred relationship between the choir and Strandarkirkja, the church where the video for the track was also filmed.

Of course, the project would not have been nearly as captivating if it hadn’t been for the cinematographic contribution from the Icelandic film director Baldvin Z. During the development of the project throughout the summer, each track was released with an accompanying music video that accentuated a specific storyline. For instance, in “1995,” a result of collaboration between Arnalds and his cousin Dagný Arnalds, the music video starts and ends by focusing on her two children as they run and play around Holtskirkja, once again emphasizing the familial experience of close-knit communities around the island. None of the scenes in the video seem superfluous; in fact, each of them helps encapsulate the song into the grander narrative of the project.

Even though Island Songs can be seen as a product of Arnalds’ unrelenting desire to grow as an artist, it is perhaps his most selfless work so far. The collaborative nature of the project highlights the unique talents that each contributor brings to the recording sessions, effectively moving Arnalds away from the spotlight and allowing others to color his music with their own identities. In that sense, Island Songs is not simply Arnalds’ artistic interpretation of his environment, but rather a multifaceted vision of Iceland and the disparate, yet densely intertwined, stories of those who created the world around him.

Writer’s note: Island Songs can be streamed on Spotify or bought on iTunes and Amazon, while the physical version of the entire collection, along with a one-hour music film, will be released on October 28.