Album: Ólafur Arnalds, For Now I am Winter
?Another race hath been, and other palms are won.
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.?
William Wordsworth, from ?Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood?
The Shape and Direction of the New Romanticism in Music
What has Iceland done for us lately? Aside from providing an excellent example of the proper response to a national financial crisis? Sure, there were all those Viking sagas and eddas that pretty much formed the foundation of medieval literature. And Björk, of course. But you’d think that one of the most literate and literary countries in the world would be making a bigger contribution to global culture.
Up steps Ólafur Arnalds, a very young, very gifted Icelandic composer bravely exploring the frontiers of music as we know it. His cultural contribution is momentous and also very, very difficult to classify.
Is it pop? Good gravy, no. It’s been called post-rock, but can that even be called a genre? If it is, Arnalds has pushed the boundaries to the point of redrawing them. It’s really too demanding to be called ambient; as soothing as his music is, it requires you to drop what You’re doing every now and then and really pay attention. Is it serious avant-garde? Not unless that genre allows for stream-of-consciousness lyrics with a poignant and loving message sung over piano and orchestral strings. Is it classical, then? Not really, because It’s too modal, rejecting traditional classical forms.
Modal music seems to be the norm for all the serious Western music coming out now. What’s different in this case is that here the modal forms are used with the kind of instrumentation?piano and orchestral strings?traditionally associated with the trio sonata form, the backbone of the Western classical music tradition.
Although it contains a motley collection of elements, the music of Ólafur Arnalds really is something new. The first thing that confronts the listener is a novel reincarnation of the romantic aesthetic, one glorying in solitude and empty spaces even as it celebrates life, change, love, and all the other things that frighten us. It’s the kind of music you’d hear in a dramatic film just after the climax, when the hero has undergone some soul-crushing tragedy initiating him into a newer consciousness, a new realm of meaning in which all is one and nothing material is to be taken seriously anymore.
Arnalds plays the piano himself and also performs with a string quartet, but these ?real? instruments are heavily doctored, their sounds streamed through loop generators and then altered and played back in a way That’s intended to be deliberate but which invites chance to create the final sound.
Romantic movements emerge in response to technological change and the gross inequalities and urban uglifications that come in its wake.The original European Romantic movement was a response to those dreary and horrifying aspects of the Industrial Revolution, aspects from which sensitive artistic souls recoiled in horror. They reacted by doing what the artistic personality does best: inventing new imaginative spaces.
Now, of course, the revulsion might be said to be against the digital age and all the related changes that zip past us before we even have a chance to assimilate them. What’s ironic here is that advanced digital technology is being used to create a genre of music That’s essentially anti-technology, glorifying, as all romantic art does, nature, love, creativity, mythology, folk culture, freedom, and a break with convention.
In the past this florid aesthetic has often morphed into negative-tending movements like symbolism, existentialism, and even fascism, its followers ending up frozen in rigid, uncompromising ideology. For some artists, It’s even become a death wish.
I’d hate to see that happen with Arnalds or with his inevitable following, but I don’t think I have to worry. For Now I am Winter, from whatever personal perspective spawned it, is a cultural stance, a stepping back from the madness and cacophony of today’s world. Arnalds views it all with a cold Nordic eye and decides to plumb his own depths to find the beauty he longs for. He may not be winter for long.
Wanda also penned the poems for the artist book They Tell My Tale to Children Now to Help Them to be Good, a collection of meditations on fairy tales, illustrated by artist Susan Malmstrom.