IDAGIO Meets ... Viktor Orri Árnason

The Icelandic composer has released his first solo album, Eilífur. He discusses the big ideas behind it, his inspirations and the methods used to build up his sound world.

© Yvonne Hartmann

Icelandic composer, conductor and producer Viktor Orri Árnason has worked with some of today's most original artists across the spectrum from modern classical to pop. He talks to IDAGIO about his debut solo album, Eilífur – "a celebration of life as we know it, and an ode to the things that make it worth living."

Can you tell us something about the ideas behind the album?

The story behind it came when I started reading about how our future might look, about some extreme predictions. The prediction I focused on is that medical achievements will allow us to live as long as we want, that at some point there will be technology that helps us regenerate ourselves, and which helps keep us alive – as long we don't decide to end our lives, or if somebody kills us. The idea that you could actually choose to live as long as you like was kind of mind-blowing to me. Everything points to the direction that it's going to happen; the question is simply "when?".

How did you go about dealing with these ideas in music?

In the end, I try to avoid talking about the technological side of these developments when it comes to the music. I say: what does this mean for the everyman? What does it mean for me? What do I need to do to enjoy life? So, I end up offering a vision that is kind of old-fashioned: basically that we need to start enjoying the little things in life – lying on the grass, looking up at the sky, liking what you see and really embracing and loving it.

How did Eilífur come into being as a composition?

I was first actually approached by the Fóstbræður Male Choir who had their 100th anniversary a few years back, and I wrote a piece with these lyrics. I felt that I could tell a deeper story about it, which is when I started to pull that piece apart. I was experimenting with mixing in some elements that I'd recorded with orchestra, just to see how they would fit into the picture, and I realized it could be developed quite intensely. That was where the start was, with this choir piece basically with a few instruments added.

How did you come up with the lyrics?

Time has a lot to do with the album – this idea of us looking inwards and building ourselves as independent people, and learning to enjoy the little things in life. A personal story about how the lyrics came across is how when I would do this practice myself, let's call it a meditative practice, where I would close my eyes and imagine I was existing simultaneously now in the past and in the future, and kind of imagining the conversation I'd be having with my child, with my father, or that I'm having now with somebody. And the lyrics are a kind of conversation about the things that we need to enjoy.

© Yvonne Hartmann

Are there any specific techniques you used to compose Eilífur.

I layered orchestras in different tempos and different keys, so that I could then merge them into the same key and the same tempo. I calculated how fast I needed to play something and in what key, in order to then slow it down then match it with something I had recorded at a different tempo. If I wanted something to sound more intense, I would do the opposite: take something slower and speed it up. And that also kind of serves the sub-story of the album, that it's also about time and about imagining yourself existing in "nowhere" – or in the future, in the present and in the past at the same time.

Which composers have inspired the way you write?

Musically speaking, I'm a big fan of Stravinsky, and Bartók and later Ligeti and Gérard Grisey, in the late 20th century. These are composers that I completely got obsessed about; they all have in common that they deeply care about their pieces sounding good, let's say. But none of them were studio composers, basically, apart from maybe Grisey a little. Me being around a lot of studio composers has also influenced a lot how I approach writing and creating these worlds, manipulating these sounds and allowing myself to show instruments from different perspectives. I've worked very closely with Hildur Guðnadóttir and Jóhann Jóhannsson and Ólafur Arnalds, and they certainly shaped the way I approach sound. And Hildur actually did some additional production on this album and helped me out with some of the orchestral drones.

What do you hope listeners will get out of the album?

I am definitely looking to take the listener on a bit of an adventure or journey, in different directions. I wanted to create a place for the listener to lose themselves in the music, and which at the same time would be constantly challenging.

Eilífur is out now.

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