A journey of a thousand miles always starts with one single step. Or shall we say with one melody? Any musical exploration leads us straight into the hearts of the people who capture the essence of their lives and their surroundings through music. Following this principle, BAFTA-winning multi-instrumentalist and music producer Ólafur Arnalds gives us Island Songs, a seven-week recording journey around his native Iceland.

A portrait of Ólafur Arnalds by Marino Thorlacius.

A portrait of Ólafur Arnalds by Marino Thorlacius.

Arnalds is well-known for his solo project, but he also had multiple collaborations with artists such as Alice Sara Ott and Nils Frahm, and worked on Kiasmos, an electronic music duo with his long-time friend Janus Rasmussen. Amidst his various projects, he dedicated seven weeks of this summer to travel around his country of origin in search of what he calls the real culture of Iceland. Can this approach be seen as a deconstruction of Icelandic identity through music?

For Islands Songs, Arnalds visited a new location each week, where he collaborated with a local artist. The resulting composition was published the following Monday on his web page. All the songs have been compiled into an album, and a film directed by Baldvin Z, which will include interviews with all the artists and footage from the recording sessions.

The result is a wonderful musical portrait of a country famous for its outstanding natural beauty. However, we should not expect to see him playing in fjords or volcanoes. Instead, he went to people’s houses, had coffee and talked with the locals, in what can only be a marvellous homage to the people that inspired him to start this journey.

The creative minds behind Island Songs have described their work as ‘a living musical film project.’ With extensive real-time documenting involved, fans joined Arnalds through social media every week and contributed to the project by asking questions and giving feedback, thus influencing to some extent the production process. This project is really by and for the people of Iceland, as each collaborator brought their own unique story to the table, making it an incredibly diverse project. From a poet to a former Hollywood film score composer, and from a church on a lonely beach to a concert hall in Reykjavik, Arnalds takes us on a marvellous journey in celebration of the rich musical culture of this small nation.

Arnalds has carefully crafted this project so we can catch a glimpse of what he feels is part of Icelandic culture: a sense of community and a notion of belonging to a place where people have intense ties to their land. In this way, we can appreciate the multiple identities becoming a unity through music. In his words, if you´d like to really understand the essence of Iceland, you’d have to visit the villages and interact with locals, and, as he mentioned, make art, talk politics, and go fishing. To understand the whole, one must become familiar with its fragments.

Island Songs is a beautiful and memorable portrait of Iceland, a place that lives in our imagination as the origin of small and big wonders, this time made partly visible through the unspoken language of music.

Words: Astrid Scheuermann

Copy edited by Elena Stanciu