Icelandic multi-instrumentalist and producer Olafur Arnalds is a man whose reputation clearly precedes him, as evidenced by the reverential throng who turn out to witness his moving, otherworldly performance within the stately confines of the Queensland Performing Arts Centre.
As the houselights dim, a shadowy figure places himself in front of one of a number of pianos adorning the stage, the delicate tinkle emanating from his fingers signaling the start of an ethereal sonic journey that captures and enraptures all in attendance. Arnalds may loosely be classed as a neo-classical artist, but the truth resides within a more subtly expansive musical context, as his support cast, a string quartet featuring a cellist, two violinists and a viola player, are gradually brought into the frame during his opening number. Their sweeping accompaniment throughout tonight’s mesmerizing performance, in turns minimally subtle and grandiosely uplifting, form an integral component in the delivery of his musical vision.
The sound of Olafur Arnalds is borne from the solitary and rugged terrain of his homeland. And while his muse brings to mind the more restrained moments of fellow Icelandic moodists Sigur Ros, he is very much his own man, sonically speaking. At times his songs exist alone as sparse and hauntingly gorgeous piano motifs, hushed, elegant notes hanging in the air with rarified beauty. At other times, his tinkling visions are masterfully fleshed out with Arnald’s own looping keyboards as well as his string ensemble, their delicate refrains gradually swelling to uplifting crescendos of majestic beauty. His sonic canvas transports the audience into a world of epic glaciers and magical underwater kingdoms.
Arnalds also proves himself to be a humble and engagingly quirky between-song orator, initially evidenced when he engages the crowd in the sustained unified singing of a single note, which he then captures, loops and incorporates into his second number, its eerily uplifting drone delivering a unifying moment of sound and soul between performer and audience.
Three numbers in and a subtly pumping percussive heartbeat enters the fray in the form of a percussionist previously invisible to the far right of stage. Throughout the evening he is sporadically called upon to subtly inject flashes of skittery rhythms into Arnalds compositions, his subtle touches and triggered loops and beats also delivering the occasional electro-dance flourish to Arnalds technicolour vision.
In keeping with his oratory prowess, Arnalds delivers a humorous and enlightening insight into the array of pianos and keyboards that adorn the stage and form the key axis of his most recent studio album, Re:member, from which the bulk of tonight’s set list is drawn. In addition to his more traditional ivories, we learn that Arnalds also extensively utilizes a duo of self-playing pianos to construct his multi layered mini-symphonies, his custom built creations delivering an array of looped motifs and counter melodies, forming a dizzying bedrock over which Arnalds and band ebb and flow. Individual highlights become somewhat of an exercise in irrelevance as each piece of music is lovingly unveiled, an aural-cocoon to shut one’s eyes and be cleansed of the accumulated grime of 21st century living.
After almost 90 minutes we return to earth, Arnalds and band departing the stage to rabid applause. Our protagonist returns for one final hurrah, coming full circle to sit alone again at one of his beloved pianos, delivering a haunting eulogy to his departed grandmother. As the crowd hang in stone silent reverie, the distant sound of a lone violin (seeming to emanate from back stage) enters and Arnald’s musical spell dissipates in a spiraling plume of illuminated smoke emanating to the heavens, the crowd rising to deliver a heartfelt and rousing farewell as he humbly accepts their plaudits, clutching his hands together and bowing to the accolades. Tonight, magic was indeed in the air..