I was recently lucky enough to squeeze in a concert while traveling on business in Seattle. On Saturday, January 26th, at 8pm, Ólafur Arnalds’ All Strings Attached tour made a stop at the Moore Theatre. Here is my take on what I found to be a powerful and cathartic performance, and the curious way it all played out.
Set and Setting
I am alone, yet surrounded. It’s only a few minutes after 7pm at the Moore Theatre, and there’s already a line stretching around the block. Eager concertgoers wait patiently as the queue slowly works its way towards the doors. Guards check bags, attendants scan tickets, and a homeless man tries to direct people’s attention to his plight – his life story written on a small card.
He does not find much engagement. By now, most of us are indifferent, cynical, or in comfortable denial as we avert our gaze from a reality that stares back at us. Seattle’s homeless have grown to become an inescapable backdrop wherever you go in the city. This is a problem that the local government is still struggling to solve.
Once inside, we find ourselves in yet another line. For those of us with British tendencies, this is a welcome sight – who doesn’t love a good queue? The welcoming warmth of the theater, which is the oldest in the city, is a nice change from the slight chill outside. A multitude of conversations play out within the crowd: tales of craigslist adventures, gossip about family and current events, concerns surrounding a recently-divorced heroin-addicted friend.
A man with polished boots, horn-rimmed glasses, and wispy sideburns descending from his maroon toque stands a few spots ahead of me. Suddenly, he crumples and falls to the floor. Theater staff rush to his aid, checking to see if he’s alright. Through snippets of conversation, it seems that he’s had a “bit too much”. The experience of the crowd, its noise, bustle, and building excitement, overwhelmed him.
Staff offer him a chair and water. He checks his heart rate on his Apple Watch – elevated, but steadily descending. Carefully removing and replacing the plastic cap each time, he sips from the water bottle provided to him with utmost care. He then busies himself with swiping back and forth between screens on his iPhone. I sympathise, and think back to times when I must have felt much the same.
He’ll be alright.
Collectively, we pretend like nothing has happened, yet steal furtive glances at the man to make sure he’s recovering. Finally, the ushers open the doors to the General Admission section. We gradually make our way to our seats – first come, first served up on the 2nd balcony. Those who arrived early have taken all of the prime rail seats, but I manage to snag a center seat in the next row up.
A woman sits down in front of me.
She has worn a wide-brimmed felt hat to a theater.
It’s alright, I can still see the stage quite clearly over her head. The rake of the balcony seating is high at the Moore – almost to the point of being too high… It succeeds in drawing us closer to the stage, eliciting a feeling of intimacy and togetherness. However, as the theater fills, I find myself again isolated. Despite this being an almost sold-out event, seats to my left and right remain empty throughout the show.
Lighting installations pulse softly onstage, throwing a grand piano and two uprights into a soft relief. A few seats over, a tattoo sits half-exposed above the fringe of a woman’s off-the-shoulder dress. It depicts a contorted female figure, naked with one arm raised, as if she’s reaching for something. I want to ask about the tattoo, but shyness gets the best of me, and the lights dim. A murmur of a Nordic language behind me – Swedish? I’m not the only foreigner in town.
Classical Music Catharsis
Ólafur Arnalds walks onstage to thunderous applause. A local paper described the Icelandic producer’s work using words such as “mildly interesting, tepid, effete, bland“. The crowd seems to disagree. After a brief introduction, he takes the helm of the piano and launches into his first piece, a beautiful instrumental rendition of “Árbakkinn“.
Not long after the violins come in, the emotional quality of the performance becomes tangible. The violins’ slightly ragged, intense notes rip through the air, sighing with a heaviness and longing that affects me deeply. As the melody progresses and builds, I close my eyes. This only serves to intensify the melancholic sound, and an involuntary shiver grips me. Something about the music speaks to an emptiness or longing within me – loneliness in auditory form.
Tears begin to well up in my eyes. For too long, I’ve resisted my emotions, bottling them up and denying them the chance to be expressed. Pushing away the discomfort of fear and vulnerability. Grasping at fleeting pleasures and comfortable mediocrity. Unable to find a middle ground, pretending to be above it all and suffering as a result.
I accept this moment, and let them fall.
I’m not the only one who feels this way, it seems. As the piece draws to a conclusion, I can make out sniffles and throats being cleared elsewhere in the audience. Of course, not all of Arnalds’ songs are of the pure melancholy variety – some are genuinely uplifting, others leaning more towards electronica. As one half of Kiasmos, his ear for creating catchy beats is by now pretty well tuned.
To bring some levity into the show, he tells a funny story about his past as a drummer in the hardcore band Fighting Shit. His grandmother didn’t necessarily approve of that musical direction, and would constantly call on him for help – a broken radio, or the TV no longer working. He would go to her house, and fix whatever suspiciously simple problem there was that week. They would spend time together listening to classical music afterwards, and slowly, little by little, Ólafur got converted. The result: a BAFTA-winning multi-instrumentalist. His grandmother sat front row at his first concert. Lag Fyrir Ömmu is dedicated to her.
Arnalds jokingly describes his pianos as just “doing bleep bloop“, but the effect is so much more than simple digitization or automation. Through a generative algorithm, the pianos create an ephemeral, uniquely unrepeatable accompaniment that is humanly impossible to play. The system, dubbed “Stratus”, was created with help from his programmer friend, Halldór Eldjárn. It’s a musical pseudo-intelligence, a reinvention of the “player piano” concept, and opens up a world of new possibilities for the composer. Although subtle, it adds a depth and beauty that is characteristic of Arnalds’ music.
For a prime example of the system in action, watch the video for Ólafur Arnalds – Doria, below:
The self-playing pianos aren’t the only spontaneous elements in the show. After a few songs, Arnalds asks for the audience’s vocal participation – we collectively sing a note, which he records and loops back as part of his next song. It’s a nice moment, as a hundred voices become one, and we collectively embody the message behind the show itself:
“All Strings Attached is born out of our forgotten yet inherent interconnectedness. It’s an invitation to commit – to oneself, to each other, and to the moment – and reject the Zeitgeist notion of “no strings attached.”