Ólafur Arnalds @ Highline Ballroom, 1/26/11
On January 26th, the Icelander behind the classical piano, Ólafur Arnalds, his string quartet, and a talented mixer put on a spellbinding performance at Highline Ballroom as part of a brief but exciting early-2011 national tour across North America.
This was actually Ólafur’s second recent trip to North America in celebration of two great accomplishments: his sophomore album, …And They Have Escaped the Weight of Darkness (2010, Erased Tape Records), as well as the release of his soundtrack to Sam Levinson’s film, Another Happy Day, which debuted at Sundance a few days before.
The night began with opening act, Chris Garneau, a highly sensitive musician whose shaky, whispery, and slightly eerie vocal style contrasted sharply with the direct manner in which both he and his keyboard addressed the audience. Garneau did a particularly delicate cover of Elliott Smith’s “Between the Bars” and set an appropriately mellow mood.
Once Ólafur came out, he immediately engaged the audience by asking whether the majority felt like standing or sitting throughout the performance. When most showed an interest in sitting, all attendees sat in unison like a group of elementary students in an auditorium. A little later on, Arnalds jokingly remarked, “Lazy Americans.”
Knowing fully well that Ólafur Arnalds’ live sets are very moving, I should’ve known better than to keep my eye makeup on that night. For a moment, I was blinded by my burning eyes, but I recovered in time to experience the visual stimulation of the highly specialized and intricately coordinated lighting during songs like “Fok” and “Endalaus II” (see video).
The audience was motionless during the entire performance that night, and there was minimal photography and video. Ólafur also gave us many important words to take away from the show that night. He told us not to use computers if we ever decided to form a band (“They crash.”). He also encouraged us to always look for the beauty that can be found within the sadness, which is one of the ways to interpret his music. Later on, Ólafur dedicated the song, “Ljósið,” to a couple in the audience who had recently gotten married and played it at their wedding.
Towards the end of the show, there was a small argument during a very silent moment, and a particularly loud and tactless comment erupted from one disgruntled audience member in the back of the room. Ólafur dissipated this uneasiness quickly by commenting, “…and I was just about to tell you how wonderful you all are,” which made everyone happy again. Overall, the mood he created that night was just as lighthearted as it was deeply powerful and moving.