It's as if the pianos were haunted. Somewhere about midway through this Tiny Desk, as Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds performed on his electronic keyboard, two upright pianos were playing lilting melodies behind him, absent any performer at the keys. And yet these "ghosts," along with Ólafur's band of strings and percussion, put together some of the most beautiful music I've heard at the Tiny Desk, made all the more mysterious through its presentation.
About ten minutes into the performance Ólafur looked behind him at the two pianos, looked to the NPR crowd and said, "well I guess you're all wondering 'what and why,' to which there's no easy answer." He hit the keys on his electronic keyboard and the two pianos behind responded with cascading, raindrop-like notes. "What I can say," he continued, "is that I've spent two years and all of my money on this — to make my pianos go bleep-bloop." What Ólafur was referring to is software that he and his coder friend, Halldór Eldjárn developed. A computer, loaded with this musical software (which Ólafur calls the Stratus system), "listens" to Ólafur's keyboard performance and responds by creating patterns that are musically in tune with the chord or notes Ólafur performed.
So why do this? Basically, it's a way to break out of the box musicians often fall back on as performers — the familiar responses that years of playing can reinforce. With that is the hope that the computer will create a response that is unfamiliar and, in some cases through speed of performance and the sheer number of notes played, impossible for a human to have made. So, it breathes new life into the music for the listener and the performer.
It was a gently stunning and memorable Tiny Desk. More of these creations can be heard on Ólafur Arnalds' brilliant, fourth solo album re: member. The full album is out August 24 on Mercury KX.
Ólafur Arnalds (keys), Viktor Arnason (violin), Unnur Jónsdóttir (cello), Katie Hyun (violin), Karl James Pestka (viola), Manu Delago (percussion)
Producers: Bob Boilen, Morgan Noelle Smith; Creative Director: Bob Boilen; Audio Engineers: Josh Rogosin, Dominik Piorr; Audio Mix: Ólafur Arnalds; Videographers: Morgan Noelle Smith, CJ Riculan, Bronson Arcuri, Khun Minn Ohn; Production Assistants: Catherine Zhang, Téa Mottolese; Photo: Eric Lee/NPR.