Ólafur Arnalds is overwhelmed. Addressing the audience, he is palpably nervous in revealing that it’s on his ‘life checklist’ to play The Royal Albert Hall, one of London’s most historic venues.
‘Excuse me,’ he says. ‘My heart sounds like it’s beating really loudly.’
It is. It’s in his haunting piano melodies that you can hear the slow and steady thud of his heart, pounding with delicate grace.
The Icelandic composer, most famous for his soundtrack on ITV show Broadchurch, takes a minimalist approach to his songwriting, mixing simple piano lines with sparse electronic beats. The effect is enthralling – he creates soundscapes mired in a thick fog of despair. But there are always glimmers of hope shining through, like the dawn breaking. His music is sonic introspection.
Arnalds is joined by a live string quartet and a drummer, but it all centres on his piano. He plays with the gentlest of caresses, the instrument’s notes giving the songs their bare bones before layer upon layer of sound is added into a dense tapestry.
The composer hasn’t toured in two years. He claims he quit because he got bored. This gig is a chance for him to perform new tracks like ‘re:remember’ along with older songs like ‘Near Light’ and ‘Þú Ert Jörðin’.
There’s also a shout out to a couple that got engaged at the show. He dedicates new track ‘Nyepi’ to them, which celebrates Balinese New Year when everyone shuts themselves indoors for a day of silence. It’s the sound of rebirth – the slow awakening from a deep slumber.
For his encore, Arnalds offers a rare treat for fans: ‘3055’ performed live for the first time in 10 years. It’s not a song that he is particularly proud of, he says, but he’s tweaked it. For the audience, it’s a delight.
Arnalds finishes his set as he started it: alone on the stage, just him and his piano. The last track ‘Lag Fyrir Ömmu’ is dedicated to his family, who have all flown in from Iceland for the occasion, he proudly tells the audience. It was a song written for Arnalds’ late grandmother, and is barely a whisper of a song towards the end, as his fingers tenderly tap at the keys with the faintest echo of string arrangements behind him. Like the rest of his music, it’s deceptively simple yet quietly devastating.
Ólafur Arnalds returns for a UK tour later this year starting on September 29 at The Dome in Brighton.