Near Light – Ólafur Arnalds
Songs composed and performed in a living room, made quickly and then immediately performed. It’s a gimmick, to be sure, but a gimmick that manages to work brilliantly.
Ólafur Arnalds is an Icelandic composer, who makes precisely the sort of music you’d expect on hearing that description. It has none of the bombast of Sigur Ros, but all of the attention to detail. In this case, the self-imposed limitations of environment and composition allow for a deep sense of intimacy and introspection.
There are two currents in my love for instrumental music. Part of what I enjoy is the simplicity, the elimination of artifice. I enjoy being able to to experience the sounds cleanly and let them wash over me. On the other hand, I also appreciate the intense capacity for layering and precision. The first category tends to include ambient and drone styles – where each note is given the space to breathe and exhume itself. The second category is more classical: Bach concertos and orchestral sweeps.
But the division is not quite so clean. The best work of one category is always informed significantly by the other. The complexity serving not to produce dense layers but rather to construct a platform on which the most simple forms are pushed to the front.
Living Room Songs is a great example of this symbiosis. What are at heart incredibly simple movements expand outward like crystal formations–moving at a glacial pace but taking on the most unexpected of hues.
The synth-keyboard which forms of the heart of “Near Light,” for example, is incredibly simple. It is literally 5 or 6 keys, struck slowly and deliberately. But somehow, in the surrounding mix, it sounds like a revelation.
“Ágúst” is similarly built around an incredibly basic progression on the piano. But the intrinsic solitude of that single piano line is enlivened by the delicate infrastructure of the strings. Together, they combine to suggest the frisson of doubt at the core of our daily routines: is this really all there is, to trace these steps over and over? But rather than casting a dark shade with that question, they invite you to see the depth of possibility in even the very simple.
“This Place Is a Shelter” is the quiet, perfect conclusion to the record. It’s the sound of safety, of knowing that there is at least one place in the world that is your own – and of the joy that comes from sharing it with those who matter to you.