Ólafur Arnalds interview

The Icelandic musician brings his little-bit electronica, little-bit contemporary sound to Sónar

For decades we've heard that classical and popular music have no common ground and that the distance between the two ways of composing and their result is insurmountable. One is more complicated than the other, they say, and more elitist, requires knowledge and patience, the other is lighter and, therefore, not be taken seriously.

This is all a myth, or at least an unjust generalisation, and the new generation of composers is proving that bit by bit. They work in the fields of pop as well as contemporary music, with scores and small chamber ensembles, which is all very helpful, in that it lets audiences that don't normally fraternise find this common ground.

For 27-year-old Icelander Ólafur Arnalds, who has written music for orchestras, film and pop singers, this division doesn't even exist.

Your new album is the first you've made with Decca. But are you still involved somehow with Erased Tapes? Are you going to keep releasing for both labels, and if so, what kind of stuff can you do with Decca and what will be left for ET?

Erased Tapes of course has my back catalogue, which is still pretty important. If anything, they sell more of it now than before. But I also have some side projects on Erased Tapes which will stay there [Kiasmos and a collaboration with Nils Frahm]. For the near future I will do my solo albums with Mercury Classics [Decca], but we are all keeping our options open and just decide what is best for each project/album when the time comes.

Decca is an important name in classical music, and obviously means jumping into a major company (more promotion, more visibility, more opportunities). In which way do you think this signing will help you to develop new areas of your creativity?
Well, first of all I have an opportunity to reach ears that I couldn't reach before. I try not to let the exposure affect my creativity too much, but of course it opens up a new door for collaborations and projects that they might get me introduced to.

This new album makes some steps into pop territory - there are proper songs alongside the instrumental passages. When did you start composing in a pop form and what did you want these songs to be in the context of your work?
To be honest I don't see them as pop songs, and one of the goals I have with my music is to break down those barriers. Why is this a pop song and the next one is not? That's all in your head based on some structured genres that someone else decided. For me this album is just a flow of music, sometimes it rises and repeats (what many be defined as pop), and sometimes it stays down low for a while. It's just a big arc, or a journey.

Your main instrument is the piano, and you add strings into the mix when you play live. And obviously there's the laptop. For you, as a composer, how important is the laptop, and the electronic sounds, in the final version of your music? Do you use electronics because you can't have these sounds with any other instrument, or the other way round - if you don't find the right instrument for that part you use electronics because it's easier?
I would not say using electronics is the easy way out. I think I spent more time on the electronics on this album than any other aspect of it. To me, music is just sound, and instruments are tools to get the sound you want. How an instrument sounds is just as important as the melody it plays. So I like using electronics as there I have almost complete freedom to make it sound the way I want it to - create the sound completely from scratch. And this doesn't just happen with a click on a laptop, it's weeks of programming analog gear and sculpting sounds - one of the most nerdy and fun parts of my job!

Recently you started to write music for film, and the experience of 'Another Happy Day' was quite successful. Did you receive any new offers to do more soundtracks? What did you learn from the AHD opportunity, and how will it change the way you compose (both for future films and your own material)?
I did 'Another Happy Day' in 2010, and have since then done three other films as well as a TV series. I learn a lot from collaborating with directors and am very inspired by their own ideas of the music for the film. This also affects how I write music for my albums.

I read in an interview that your main influence comes from film music, rather than classical music - I mean, the weight of soundtracks is bigger than any other type of orchestral or chamber music; please correct me if I'm wrong. What has kept you in some way dissatisfied with classical music and 20th-century music? Is it the shift towards atonality, the lack of pop appeal?
There is a lot of great classical music today, that's not really the problem. It's more a matter of taste. Personally I also like the more 'difficult' classical music, but I don't really enjoy creating it as it is so much about maths and formulas and it doesn't feel right to me to make music which only a limited group of 'educated' people can understand and listen to.

Some listeners will consider you a classical composer (even though you are self-taught, if I'm not wrong), and some others will observe your music closer to the 'popular' side. For years there's been this separation between highbrow and middlebrow/lowbrow music, and some artists trying to build a bridge between them. How do you see that bridge? What do you think you can as far as the reconciliation of these forms of music?
I think it's less about building a bridge and more about erasing the water between the two. Music is just music. Everything else about class, elitism and genres are things that we made up.

You're playing Sónar this year. What for you is the advantage of playing a festival like Sónar, instead of a traditional performance in a concert hall?
I love the qualities of concert hall, but there is often a lighter atmosphere in concerts like Sónar. So both things have pros and cons, really, and I am happy that I am able to play both types of venues.

As a composer, what's your ambition? In 20 to 30 years' time, what would you like to have achieved?
I'd just like to be a nice person. Give more than I receive and inspire others.