Live Review: Ólafur Arnalds @ Cathedral Sanctuary at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, June 22, 2018
In a welcome bit of respite from an increasingly noisy, mad world, young Icelandic composer/pianist Ólafur Arnalds performed his meditative piano-led modern ambient/classical instrumental work at Cathedral Sanctuary at Immanuel Presbyterian Church this past Friday evening. The sold-out show was his first in the city in five years, the iconic Gothic church serving as an apt venue for his delicate soundscapes, making good use of its vaulted ceiling and natural reverb. Now just over ten years into his solo career, he’s built a devoted audience in Los Angeles. There reverence demonstrated by relatively little talking or camera phone usage, waiting until song breaks before entering and leaving the main room, and pausing until a song’s reverb tails completely extinguish until applauding.
On the brief eight-date North American tour, dubbed the “All Strings Attached” tour, he is augmented for the first time by an able string quartet as well a percussionist to bolster the sound as needed. An equally key component of the performance is his unique “Player Pianos” set up with three pianos on stage: sound from his primary baby grand is routed out through software to two self-playing upright pianos that interpret the input and randomly output notes which he then reacts to in real time. It’s telling that he is incorporating technology to induce an unpredictable, idiosyncratic element, rather than any mechanized perfection. These are tunes that breathe, that feel organic and alive.
The show in large part serves as a preview of his forthcoming release, his fourth full length album, re:member, which is due out in in August. The second single from the album, “Unfold,” a just released collaboration with SOHN, is one of the most uplifting pieces he’s released with triumphant stabbing strings that giveway to those talking pianos and SOHN’s ghostly oohing vocal samples. Breaking up the chunk of the new album is the familiar “Beth’s Theme” from the program Broadchurch. Overall, the songs range from sparse piano arpeggio modulations with much blank space, to more lush orchestrations making full use of the string section, occasionally punctuated by sampled drum pads. There’s a violin solo piece midway through that is a showstopper (if perhaps not quite of a piece with the rest of the show) bringing in some tension to the set.
There’s a light moment when the Player Pianos’ software “loses its mind” and the pianos start doing their own thing and he has to halt and restart a song. Even though this is at times quite heavy, even sad music, it’s all presented very warmly and unpretentiously. Arnalds has his keyboards angled outward to the audience and stands before not behind them, so we can see just what his doing. There are no barriers, no trickery, just a down to earth guy in a plain T-shirt playing achingly beautiful tunes.
Just announced: Ólafur Arnalds returns to Los Angeles February 1, 2019 at the Orpheum Theater.