Following his Artist Spotlight recital at LSO St Lukes, we talk to Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson; exploring creative curation, music in Iceland, and his newly released album for Deutsche Grammophon, Johann Sebastian Bach.
You've made a video featuring Alexander Siloti’s B minor Prelude to promote your new album. Would you like to tell us about it - It’s filmed in a fish factory!?
For the Bach album, I wanted to try something new and make a music video that invented a narrative of its own, one that didn’t focus solely on me and my piano playing in visual terms. (I sometimes wonder why this seems hardly ever to be done in classical music, while being standard in almost all other genres).
The universality of Bach's music made setting the video back home in Iceland an appealing idea. So was presenting some version of what I feel so deeply about- that the beauty of this music can speak to anyone, regardless of social rank, education or occupation. I knew of a fish factory in the West Fjords of Iceland where the owner - a classical music lover who passed away some years ago - bought a grand piano for the factory's dining hall, as he believed his workers deserved the chance to hear music (very William Morris- I love it).And I love the subtle Christian iconography of the fish factory setting- a symbolic world Bach himself was so immersed in- the fish having been an early symbol for Jesus Christ. Actually, a fishing net was also an attribute of the greatest musician in Greek mythology, Orpheus- one of the many things the two have in common, but that's another story. Of course, in Iceland, the value of fish has always been more practical than symbolic. Rather than just denoting the saviour, the fish itself has been our saviour for centuries. But as we know, surviving is not enough, and that's where another saviour, music, comes in. All in all- a fish factory seemed as good a place as any to set a classical story about the redeeming powers of beauty.
I am a great admirer of the work of director Magnús Leifsson and was thrilled that he was happy to explore these themes with me. It turned out that he had also thought quite a bit about filming classical music and about how it could best be realised, with particular consideration to the delicate balance between the narrative and cinematographic dimension on one hand and the music and its performer on the other. His previous videos show his unique aesthetic- they're fantasies where urban, brutalist and industrial structures meet some natural beauty, man meets machine, and some clichés about Iceland are turned on their heads. He has great stylistic integrity and an infallible eye for detail. He was just the right man to turn these ideas into a rich, visual universe. And he recruited Friðgeir Einarsson, a brilliant actor and writer whose own work often portrays tragicomic life of the everyman. A perfect actor for the role.
The music we chose was Siloti’s arrangement of Bach’s prelude in E minor. Its hypnotic and repetitive patterns seemed to reflect on the work being carried out on the conveyor belts. The beautiful chord progression repeats once but in that repeat something fundamentally changes even if the notes stay the same. The narrative centres around this. And the conveyor belt and the keyboard are not entirely unrelated either, come to think of it ... And yet, there is more to the music than machinery, just as there must be more to life than work.
What was the presence of Bach and Baroque music like in Iceland? I’m guessing there were no Baroque composers at the time.
Certainly not. More or less all cultures have a folk heritage that stretches back as long as the country has existed and Iceland is no exception, but in terms of classical music written in the western tradition as we know it, the earliest examples would be composers from the late 19th century. When Bach was living, there was nobody ‘writing music’ as such in Iceland. There were some imports so we sang famous manuscripts from Europe but there was no documentation really of anyone writing anything down themselves, and we hardly had any instruments!
I’ve had a look at your album covers and website. It’s quite aesthetic-driven and there’s a theme of glass and reflections on all three of them. Is that something that was planned?
For me everything matters when it comes to creating an album. Its core has to be reflected in the smallest details. On the back cover of the Bach album you can see the kaleidoscope we created and used to shoot the front cover, and if you read my album text and what I have put on the album you see the whole idea is a kaleidoscopic view of Bach. His music also reflects each performer- how one thinks about music on the deepest level. He quickly becomes a musical mirror for anyone who starts working on his music.
For the Phillip Glass album cover we naturally wanted to work with glass. In the end we shot through prism glass with white light beaming through it creating cool prism colours reflecting on my face that I felt reflected the music and aesthetics of that sound world.
Everything is important in the way you experience an album, not just the sounds it brings you (though that is of course most important). The feel of the paper, the text, the typography, the photos, it all matters. In that sense, I believe physical albums, when done right, will always have something that you can’t offer on streaming platforms. It’s also why I particularly love the format of vinyls.
Too many classical performers tend to see recording as a mere extension of their performing activities, a documentation of what they’ve been up to on stage. I prefer to approach it more as an art form independent of my performing activities. The Bach album was conceived as a composition in 35 parts. I hadn’t toured any of it before recording and had to learn much of it from scratch but I wanted those exact pieces for many different reasons and I believe in the way they work in that exact context. It took me months to form it before starting to work on the notes at the piano. The inner rhythms and narrative pace of an album are infinitely interesting and the balance and proportions have to be just right for 70-80 min of music to work convincingly together.
Is there anything you want to tell us about what you have planned in the next few months? Exciting times ahead for you?
I consider myself very lucky as I get to do what I love in such beautiful, great concert houses with wonderful orchestras. I’m looking forward to touring my Bach album around the globe and to keep experimenting. That is the dream. And I am also working on my next album, to be released by Deutsche Grammophon in 18 months.