The house lights are on in the modern, volcanic red heart of Iceland. Smoke, as though suspended from ethereal fly lines, dissipates over the audience more slowly than the aurora tinting the night sky. It is Airwaves 2013, and one of Iceland’s rising stars will soon take Harpa’s epic Eldborg stage in front of a packed, international crowd. And his parents.
The orchestra slowly assembles and tunes, ad hoc harmonies giving the still-filling room a chaotic preview of the main hall’s brilliant acoustics. Tension and buzz swirl lightly around the many-leveled theatre. Some drawn into the gravity well of one of the festival’s highlight performances are new to the artist that will come next, knowing only that the show is bound to be special.
As the key players, quartet and conductor enter, the anticipation bubbles into excited applause. Ólafur Arnalds is greeted with whoops from those in the know. Speaking almost entirely in Icelandic, Ólafur’s shy voice cracks a soft joke to the locals among us, before leading the crowd into a wonderfully resonant F. I love to hear a big, musically attuned audience nail a note… it isn’t often one experiences a drafted choir in such a magnificent space. Filtered and looped now by his iPad, our sustain becomes the bedrock for the first song.
The simple piano of “Sudden Throw” builds, lights at first dim, now rising with the symphony’s swelling accompaniment. Climax, then an abrupt cut to “Brim” with expertly syncopated strings, antagonized by percussive electronic crashes. I am suddenly envious of my friends for whom this is first contact with For Now I Am Winter.
Stuart Bailes’s minimally clever stagecraft add just the right amount of theatre. Stage-level lights in unexpected places and smoke curling out from under the performers give the orchestra a physical presence usually reserved for rock concerts, transforming the stage into the tumultuous landscape evoked by the music. Lightning in the form of LED panels shatter the stillness above the stage. Ceiling spotlights towering impossibly high above trace down like sudden sun through cloudbreaks. Abstract projections above the stage add texture, if slightly disconnected from the performance.
Forty-four live strings take control of material that was so beautifully, delicately balanced on the record. Horns and winds fill and drive the compositions along. If I have one complaint on the night, it is that the electronic percussion pales next to the rest—their intricate but amplified textures fall slightly flat against the live players’ nuance. This grand room is built for symphonies, and it shows.
Stripping back down to synths for the vocalist’s entrance… Arnór Dan Arnarson emerges to lead the album’s title track, strings now cold under the Danish-Icelandic siren, a human lens to focus the elemental symphony. Snowflake-delicate piano floating on top of the crowd’s earlier note, more refracted and buried under ice. Crystalline tones eventually give way to the slightest spring uplift. The return of Arnór’s voice for “Reclaim”, doubling itself, now on fire, the orchestra erupting underneath him. Stutter-step strings dance around the beat, expending their energy before fluttering slowly back down to earth. The dramatic return of “Only the Winds”, entire string section swelling and smashing in unison against the rocky horns, all converging on a single violin, first lonely, then airy, then disintegrating to a nothingness that fills the massive hall. Heavily processed drums resurging, low end shaking the cavernous room.
When Arnór falters on “Old Skin” (originally composed for Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Kizunaworld project), it feels he’s joined the audience in being overtaken by his own emotional singing. Thundrous applause tells me no one minded. Ólafur’s cyclic flow reestablishes itself with crackling electronics and pulsing strings, backed by echoic bursts of LED white.
After much ovation, Ólafur finishes alone, with his quiet “Lag fyrir ömmu”, drawing a few last tears amongst my friends, the simple human scale a refreshing return to our bodies after the dense orchestral set.
Toward the end, with his usual quiet humor, Ólafur remarked, “I will say this last thing in English because I feel like no one is understanding me. This is the problem with Iceland Airwaves.” Queue laughter. Presenting in the mother tongue is common for artists playing in their own country. Emiliana Torrini and others were in the same mode; the foreign crowd still gets the gist, it makes a travelled-to show feel unique and authentic, and a verbatim translation would be lame, anyway. Frankly I’d be happy just to listen to my Icelandic friends taunt me in their beautiful and nigh-impenetrable language… Still, hearing an artist who writes and records in one voice not narrate to that same audience is an odd sensation. I was at once sad to miss out on the banter, and thankful to be the privileged target of the songs themselves. In any case, I was glad for the Icelandic warmth, bridging the divide.