In Iceland, summer is a magical season. The sun never sets, and the shadows are sublime. The temperature is never too hot or too cold. For morning and night people alike, it’s a perfect time to explore the land of fire and ice. This summer, Ólafur Arnalds travelled around his native land, recording one track a week at different locations, calling on the aid of different collaborators, the one constant being cinematographer Baldvin Z. The result is one of the year’s most stunning multi-media collections, which will see physical release later this year on Mercury Classics, but as of today is available in digital form, with all seven videos streaming online. It’s been a pleasure to watch this project unfold. Now that the final component has been released, we’re pleased to call it an unqualified success.
Arnalds has done this sort of thing before, with Living Room Songs: one song a day for a week, recorded in his living room. The scope of Island Songs is much larger, but the tone is just as intimate. Over the last two months, fans have been introduced to the artist’s family, friends and favorite locations, while hearing some of the most beautiful sounds of the year.
In his first week, Arnalds visited Hvammstangi, the home of poet and retired teacher Einar Georg Einarsson. Einarsson’s world-weary voice manages to retain an undercurrent of hope and wonder, which Arnalds wraps in a bed of soft piano and soothing strings. These strings remain a constant throughout the project, but are especially evocative here, their mid-song swirl rising like a prayer of thanksgiving for the nation’s heritage and natural beauty. Baldvin Z.’s measured camera work produces a matching sense of reverence, graced by quiet majesty. This approach continues in “1995”, the most immediately endearing of the videos, as it begins and ends with the playfulness of Arnalds’ niece and nephew, running around outside a quiet church, seemingly oblivious to the seriousness inside. The church sits beside a memorial to those lost in a local avalanche, but the children are a reminder that life ~ and play ~ goes on. Arnalds sits back-to-back with organist Dagný Arnalds, but they play as if facing each other: instinctively, warmly, highlighting the ties that bind.
In Week Three, it’s down to Selvogur for a collaboration with composers Hilmar Örn Agnarsson & Georg Kári Hilmarsson and the South Iceland Chamber Choir. The location is again a church, this one known as the “Church of Sailors”. The choir is absolutely magnificent ~ underlining once again the Icelandic nature of collaboration, in which the credit and attention is given to the guest, rather than to the “star.” (Ironically, such humility makes Arnalds deserve the “star” designation even more ~ it’s a lesson for performers of every discipline!) The amusing highlight of “Raddir”, however, is the contrast between the solemnity of the choir and the joy of the conductor, whose beaming face lights up both screen and heart.
Conductor Atli Örvarsson and SinfoniaNord join Arnalds in Week Four, nestled snugly in the enclave of Öldurót. This conductor/composer’s fierce inner strength drives both the composition and the performance, especially evident in the restraint demonstrated during the quiet launch and peaceful recession. Like Arnalds, Örvarsson has a background in film scores, and their shared experience shines through here. But don’t look for a Hollywood production ~ we need no other film than this. One week later, Arnalds returns to his home town of Mosfellsdalur to visit, dine and collaborate with the Brasstríó Mosfellsdals. At first, it’s a simple family scene: tea and snacks in the living room as Arnalds plays. But then the camera catches the horn players through the window. Their sound is so lovely, and this is Þorkell Jóelsson’s house after all ~ so one hopes that they will be invited in for tea after the video shoot!
Of Monsters and Men is another Icelandic act that has broken big in the last few years, and Arnalds’ collaboration with co-lead vocalist Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir on “Particles” exposes the tender side of the singer, whose hit singles have been more pop-oriented and overt. “I try, but it feels like wasted time,” she sings, breaking the hearts of the violins and threatening to send tears into the ocean beyond the lighthouse where the video was filmed. By leaving the last word unsung, she says so much more than the word would have communicated. Finally, Arnalds returns to his current home in Reykjavik for the series finale, “Doria”, inviting a few close friends to share his Heima moment. The summer project now complete, Arnalds stares forward, deep in thought, perhaps possessed by the spirit of music, the sensitive gift that has flowed from countryside to flesh and has been spirited once again back into the Icelandic air. (Richard Allen)
For the rest of the videos and songs, as well as complete details on the project, including artist credits and Instagram outtakes, click here. The album is currently available for streaming on Spotify and download on iTunes and Amazon, and is scheduled for release on Mercury Classics on 28 October, followed by a special edition with video component.