Name: Ólafur Arnalds
Occupation: Composer, producer, film music composer
Current release: Ólafur Arnalds's Invisible EP is out via Mercury KX / Decca. The release features music originally scored for the documentary The Invisible Front about the Lithuanian resistance against Soviet forces during WW2.
If these thoughts by Ólafur Arnalds piqued your interest, visit his official website for further information. You can also find him on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter for current updates and, of course, music.
What, to you, are the main functions and goals of soundtracks and film music and how would you rate their importance for the movie as a whole? Should film music remain connected to the picture it was conceived for or should have it an intrinsic value outside of the movies?
I think one of the most beautiful things about film soundtracks is the fact that they are pretty much the only element of a film that can have a life on its own. But I don’t think any film score should be made with that goal. Its only purpose should be to serve the film. And sometimes that can mean making something very non-musical or sparse.
Sometimes it might even mean saying “I am not needed here”. The musician’s ego needs to get out of the way. I often think about Jóhann Jóhannsson’s non-existent score to Mother.
Different composers could potentially approach the same scene with strikingly different music. Would you say there can be 'wrong' and 'right' musiccal decisions for some scenes? In which way can some film music be considered ‘definitive'?
The only ‘right’ decision is the one that elevates the film. The ways to approach that are infinite so there can’t really be one ‘right’ way to do things. But I strive to create the illusion that there is.
Sometimes the story just needs supporting, in which case the decisions are usually pretty straight forward and it’s just a matter of style. But sometimes the more interesting route can be to use the music to say what is not already being said with the visuals or in the dialogue. And I think once you’ve gone that route the music has become an integral part of the story, or ‘definitive’ as you say.
That’s the level I like to explore, find away for people to be able to watch the film and say “the music couldn’t have been any different” - even if that’s kind of an illusion.
Can you take me through your process of composing a soundtrack on the basis of a movie that's particularly dear to you, please? Where do ideas come from, what do you start with and how do you go about shaping these ideas?
It is rare that I know from the start what it needs, but I might think of a concept or a basis to work from. A soundtrack that is particularly dear to me (but actually never released as an OST) is Let Me Fall, an Icelandic film about young teenagers who’s lives turn darker and darker. So it’s pretty easy to think: Children = innocence = Major keys, but we'll mess with the sound of it throughout the film, symbolising the loss of that innocence.
So you just start with this premise. Write a couple of things in Major keys and see how they feel with the characters. Throw things at the wall until something sticks. Then once I’ve established that theme I’ll start executing the concept by creating 10-15 different variations of the concept applied to the theme. Nothing is to picture yet. I just explore different ways to mess up the sound of that theme in a major key. How can we ruin this innocence? I experimented with mangled tape loops, old synths, pitch shifting and time stretching, as well as different arrangements of the theme itself. Slowly a pattern starts to form and this forms the basis of your score.
Throughout Let Me Fall, no matter how messed up the story becomes, the theme stays in a major key, constantly reminding us of the fact that these are just children. But by the end of the film it sounds dirty, mangled up and confused.
How do you see the relationship between image and sound in a movie? How directly are you working with the images in the writing process?
My preferred way is to write as much as possible without looking at the picture, trying to avoid the trappings of following the edit too closely. Usually I won’t write for a specific scene until I have most of the main themes down. Placing music to final versions of film then becomes almost like solving a puzzle, figuring out where to place the music, where it should be left out and sometimes realise you need a new approach.
In ‘When We Are Born’, the short film I made with director Vincent Moon, we did a bunch of experiments with the relationship between sound and film. We wanted the score of the film to be played live on set, as part of the background of the scene that was taking place and using the audio from that specific take. Which meant a huge amount of the arranging work, which you usually would do in post-production, had to be done beforehand - rearranging the music in relation to mine and the other players placements in the room etc.
Challenging that relationship and seeing what happens when you turn it on it’s head.
Soundtrack composers typically need to adapt their ideas to the film, the director and the audience. How do you maintain a balance between, on the one hand, artistic integrity and sticking to your creative convictions and, on the other, being professional? How do you find a sense of freedom within these structures?
I have the luxury of being both a recording artist and a film composer, so I don’t need to be too concerned with career-moves in the film industry. I don’t rely on films for making a living so if I don't agree with where a project is heading artistically, I’ll just do something else, like another record. This is a freedom I am very lucky to have.
That being said, the whole reason for doing films in the first place is to expand my horizons. So I will usually accept the challenge and take it as an opportunity to learn new things.
Over the decades, film music has developed a certain tradition and vocabulary of techniques and creative devices. How would you describe your relationship with this tradition and what roles does it play in your work? Are there compositional devices which you don't find appropriate or wouldn't use right now, because they're too closely associated with a particular era or because they feel like a cliché?
I feel it’s my duty to deliver something that is unique to how I create music, something that reflects how I see the creative process. To be honest, I don’t think I’m educated enough to even know if I’m making clichés or not.