I have been neglecting this blog for wayyyy too long. It’s finally summer and I’ve just finished up at an orchestra festival (more on that later), so I actually have time to pick up writing again — and I hope you’ll get back to reading! For my first post in three months, here’s a fresh installment of SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC: Near Light by Icelandic musician Ólafur Arnalds, performed by the composer and friends.
About the Composer:
Ólafur Arnalds (b. 1986) is a composer and multi-instrumentalist originally from Mosfellsbær, a suburb of Iceland’s capital of Reykjavík. His musical career began as a drummer for a number of metal bands — a far cry from anything classical — but this background led to connections and opportunities that allowed him to develop the eclectic, “neoclassical” style for which he has found an eager audience. He has collaborated with deathcore bands, conceptual artists, filmmakers, and classical instrumentalists, and his portfolio includes multiple albums, a show at SXSW, and the score for BBC’s Broadchurch. Arnalds’ music draws from his experiences on both sides of the classical-popular divide, appealing to skeptical and classical ears alike.
About the Piece:
Music history buffs may bristle at my above use of the term “neoclassical,” as it does refer to a very specific time period (interwar) and a very specific set of composers (Stravinsky, Hindemith, et al.). However, like contemporary composers Ludovico Einaudi and Nico Muhly, whose works have also been described as neoclassical, Arnalds tends towards an aesthetic that is tonal, acoustic, and accessible — core values of the original neoclassicism, which was a reaction against the unrestrained emotions of late Romanticism and the wild atonal experimentation of the early 20th century. Though Near Light does make use of electronic sounds by way of synthesizers (played by the composer’s mom and sister), these sounds only add ambiance and sparkle to the core acoustic texture of string quartet and piano. Near Light is the second work in a seven-part series entitled Living Room Songs, in which Arnalds released one song per day over the course of a single week in October 2011. Each song was recorded live in the composer’s living room and made available for free that day via YouTube and other media (Arnalds gets an A+ for accessibility). I think what distinguishes Near Light from its six sister songs is that it has the sense of program music — music that tells a story. The descriptive title helps to shape the scene: a pensive, syncopated piano line contemplates the sunrise; undulating chords in the strings take the form of an early morning mist; bright, resonant tones plucked from a synthesizer are stars that disappear from brightening sky, one by one. Yet the music can stand independently of this narrative: it’s simple, subtle, beautiful — a modern lullaby, background music for your thoughts and dreams. My favorite part is the very end: the repeated five-note pattern that the synthesizer has been playing this whole time stops one note short of completion, leaving the listener with a question to contemplate. Absolutely stunning.
If you enjoyed Near Light, you might also like…
- Ólafur Arnalds: Fyrsta
- Ludovico Einaudi: Nuvole Bianche
- John Lunn: Did I Make the Most of Loving You?