Saturday, 14 August 2010

"...and they have escaped the weight of darkness"

I am sitting with Icelandic prodigy Ólafur Arnald's most recent album "...And They Have Escaped the Weight of Darkness" from 2010. At the mere age of 23 he has two albums and three EPs in his repertoire, and while his background is in classical music he has managed to transcend the genre of neo-classical music by evoking cold, emotive minimalism and merging elements of post-rock.

For ...And They Have Escaped the Weight of Darkness Arnalds pays homage to Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr and his work Werckmeister Harmonies from 2000. The opening scene of the film concerns a young man's attempt at explaining the astronomical processes of the Sun, especially that of the solar eclipse, to a group of old drunkards in a rather desolate bar. Tarr's opening scene yields a seminal filmic metaphor on the rebirth of hope in places where hope is not to be found.

"You are the Sun. The Sun doesn't move, this is what it does. You are the Earth. The Earth is here for a start, and then the Earth moves around the sun. And now, we'll have an explanation that simple folks like us can also understand, about immortality. All I ask is that you step with me into the boundlessness, where constancy, quietude and peace, infinite emptiness reign. And just imagine, in this infinite sonorous silence, everywhere is an impenetrable darkness. Here, we only experience general motion, and at first, we don't notice the events that we are witnessing. The brilliant light of the sun always sheds its heat and light on that side of the Earth which is just then turned towards it. And we stand here in it's brilliance. This is the moon. The moon revolves around the Earth. What is happening? We suddenly see that the disc of the moon, the disc of the moon, on the Sun's flaming sphere, makes an indentation, and this indentation, the dark shadow, grows bigger... and bigger. And as it covers more and more, slowly only a narrow crescent of the sun remains, adazzling crescent. And at the next moment, the next moment - say that it's around one in the afternoon - a most dramatic turn of event occurs. At that moment the air suddenly turns cold. Can youfeel it? The sky darkens, then goes all dark. The dogs howl, rabbits hunch down, the deer run in panic, run, stampede in fright. And in this awful, incomprehensible dusk, even the birds... the birds too are confused and go to roost. And then... Complete Silence. Everything that lives is still. Are the hills going to march off? Will heaven fall upon us? Will the Earth open under us? We don't know. We don't know, for a total eclipse has come upon us... But... but no need to fear. It's not over. For across the sun's glowing sphere, slowly, the Moon swims away. And the sun once again bursts forth, and to the Earth slowly there comes again light, and warmth again floods the Earth. Deep emotion pierces everyone. They have escaped the weight of darkness"

Ólafur Arnald's album title (...And They Have Escaped the Weight of Darkness) and the 9 track titles come from the dialogue of Béla Tarr's wonderful opening scene:

Þú ert sólin (You are the Sun)
Þú ert jörðin (You are the Earth)
Tunglið (Moon)
Loftið verður skyndilega kalt (The air suddenly turns cold)
Kjurrt (Complete silence)
Gleypa okkur (Swallow us)
Hægt, kemur ljósið (Slowly the light comes)
Undan hulu (The previous layer)
Þau hafa sloppið undan þunga myrkursins (...and they have escaped the weight of darkness)

By doing this, Arnalds undoes his rather depressing antecedents and reaffirms his belief in the good of the world (wherever it may be found). The album's poised lyricism can sometimes bear resemblance to the work of other neo-classical composers (e.g. Sunlight by Max Richter).

In the opening track Þú ert sólin Arnalds presents a string-led serenade, and while the title does not allude to Le Roi Soleil, the French king Louis XIV ("L'État, c'est moi", and whatnot), the idea of Arnalds doing this is in itself amusing. Instead, the daring track title (You are the Sun) could be an indication that this is Arnald's most ambitious work as of this day. Þú ert jörðin (You are the Earth), the second track on the album, is a subtle and humble continuation.

In Tunglið a minimalist piano meets a maximalist post-rock performance. There is a sense of urgency and splendour in the delivery, alluding to the Sun's powerful light. The slight irony of the track must lie in the title, Moon, the Moon being a completely opaque astronomical body and a certain antithesis to the luminous bolstering of the Sun.

The mood of the album turns much, much darker in the subsequent track, Loftið verður skyndilega kalt (The air suddenly turns cold) where Arnalds bridges the much colder and depressing work of fellow Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (The Sun's Gone Dim and the Sky's Turned Black), while avoiding the use of Jóhannsson's electronically-distorted lyrics.

In Kjurrt (Complete Silence) a piano and string duet provides us the minimum point of the album in terms of emotion (or is it the maximum point?). This is the Ólafur Arnalds as he has been known since Eulogy for Evolution.

In Hægt, kemur ljósið (Slowly the light comes) Arnalds provides an emotive come-back with the catharsis of the album. The Sun has returned and hope is reborn (which seemed to not be the most probable outcome!). The video is distinctive and worth seeing!

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