Olafur Arnalds Demands Quiet, Hears Riff in Movie Score

During his Manhattan show earlier this month, Icelandic composer Olafur Arnalds got the audience laughing at one point by poking fun at his own hair.

It was an exception for the 26-year-old composer and producer, who requires complete silence when he plays.

For the show at Le Poisson Rouge, he mixed atmospheric piano with digital effects to perform selections from his latest release, “For Now I Am Winter.” It has garnered strong reviews for the young artist, already known for the score to the BBC’s hit drama “Broadchurch.”

We spoke at Bloomberg News world headquarters in New York while snacking on bananas and enjoying the view from the 29th floor.

Grant: How does a composition begin?

Arnalds: It’s like Jenga. My writing is minimal, even when the execution is not minimal. Working with an orchestra, I use repetition as you might in pop music. The trickiest part is knowing what is possible for every instrument.

Grant: Like a complicated dish?

Arnalds: Yes, it’s like: This is a good spice and that is a good spice, but do they go together?

Originally, I wanted to be a film composer. When I was 15, I was listening to Thomas Newman, who did “The Green Mile,” “A Beautiful Mind.” I spent a year in Halifax, Canada, with my parents. I didn’t have any friends, so I watched movies.

Ripped Off

Grant: Tell me about your involvement with “Looper.” Were you thrilled when Hollywood came calling?

Arnalds: Yes, of course. But I think we were ripped off on that, actually.

Grant: How so?

Arnalds: My song was only used in the trailer. In film, there’s a thing called “temp love.” It’s when the director falls in love with the temp, or filler music. When the composer comes in to replace it, the director can’t imagine the scene without it.

That’s why, I think, I was in “The Hunger Games.” The producer wound up licensing my track because the director got addicted to it.

This seems to have gone the other way in “Looper.” In the movie I can hear my track. It’s by someone else, of course -- it’s only three notes, but it’s my track.

Grant: Many artists have trouble with that. Moby, Sigur Ros.

Arnalds: Exactly. There are so many commercials that all sound like Sigur Ros, but it’s not because they don’t sell their tracks.

Metal Drummer

Grant: What qualities have stayed with you from your days as a metal drummer?

Arnalds: My music is built on repetition and riffs, progressions. Instead of something that continuously develops, it loops. It’s got a verse/chorus structure even without the vocals.

I’m a total control freak, too, even when I was in the band. I need to be the director.

Grant: What are you listening to these days?

Arnalds: Old jazz records, like Chet Baker. What feels inspiring is the intimacy. It’s like he’s whispering in your ear. As a producer and engineer, that’s how I want my records to sound. But I’m also just listening to Katy Perry. It doesn’t have to be profound or touch you that deeply. It’s great when it does, but I still like it when it doesn’t.

Grant: Have you ever been surprised by a musician’s interpretation of your work?

Arnalds: I try to pick people who are timid, because that’s what I think my music feels like.

Awkward Cellist

Grant: Do your judgments tend to be right?

Arnalds: On this tour, we have a cellist from Juilliard named Rubin Kodheli. He’s super-awkward in life, but then he goes onstage and opens up.

Grant: How good are you at manufacturing emotional elements in the studio?

Arnalds: Digital technology allows you to do a lot. But you can’t draw the soul in with a mouse.

(Sarah Grant works for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

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