At times 2011 has felt like being an observer to a satisfying procession of emotionally engaging albums of modern classical that have landed on to the musical horizon one by one. Several labels have contributed to this phenomenon but Erased Tapes assumed a position firmly at the forefront. Fat Cat may have released albums of equal standing and beauty (most notably from Dustin O’Halloran and Jóhann Jóhannsson) yet it has been Erased Tapes that have arguably left the greater musical footprint. It is hard to avoid the view that this has been their year, a period during which they have blossomed and matured as a label.
It is appropriate therefore that just as music writers begin to consider and formulate end of year lists (and specifically confront the issue of how to order the Erased Tapes releases) they offer up another album, this time from Icelandic player-composer Ólafur Arnalds.
It may share many of the sounds, moods and textures of its predecessors but the genesis of this album is different. Arnalds has previously released music to tight deadlines, writing and recording 2009’s Found Songs EP over seven days. He repeated the project earlier this year, writing, recording and releasing one song per day over the course of a week. Living Room Songs collates the results and despite the nature of album it (possibly surprisingly) never sounds fragmented or disjointed. These are short pieces that flow beautifully into each other. By naming the album after the room in which they were created (it all happened at Arnalds’ Reykjavik apartment) he manages to associate the pieces with concepts such as security, belonging and warmth.
It opens with Fyrsta, piece for piano and strings that, although sombre and sobering, also possesses a clarity and purity of sound. It is another example of the deeply involving modern classical pieces already heard this year. It is followed by Near Light which employs a sprinkling of judiciously placed electronic beats alongside the strings, serving as a reminder of Arnalds’ earlier work.
Tomorrow’s Song meanwhile is reminiscent of Felt by Nils Frahm, especially with regards to the inclusion of sounds of the inner-workings of the piano and the gentle layer of surface noise that covers the track. Elsewhere, Film Credits and Lag Fyrir Ommu both see the patient development of themes over more strings and piano, the latter in particular evincing a greater sparseness and sense of space.
Going forward the challenge for musicians like Arnalds may be to reach a position where a distinctly recognisable personal identity has been achieved. His music undoubtedly possesses more than its fair share of profound, powerfully felt moments but it can on occasion merge seamlessly alongside that of contemporaries like Max Richter and Peter Broderick. There is evidence of grains of individuality for certain but these are weighted against the sense of overlapping sound and shared mindset that pervade the modern classical genre.
However, ultimately such concerns seem trivial when confronted by the music. To produce this in the space of a week is some achievement, and to think of the results a longer period of gestation could offer is quite a tantalising prospect. Living Room Songs may not exceed 25 minutes in length but this is still an album to luxuriate in and one that fans of traditional classical composers such as Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki will find to their satisfaction.