Labelled “a living musical film project”, Island Songs is a joint multimedia concept album by modern classical pianist and composer Ólafur Arnalds and film director Baldvin Zophoníasson, both from Iceland. Aiming “to make a nice musical portrait of Iceland and the artists of Iceland you don’t hear about that often” (Ólafur Arnalds) while also celebrating the country’s landscape and community spirit, the project was filmed and recorded during the summer 2016. Island Songs was released on Mercury Classics as a CD/DVD on 28 October 2016 last.

Ólafur Arnalds - Island-Songs (2016)
Ólafur Arnalds – Island-Songs (2016)

The project is somewhat based on the same premise as Sigur Rós’ road movie Heima which documented the band’s homecoming tour of 2006 in various locations around Iceland. But if “Heima” showcased the dramatic Icelandic landscape and mainly captured performances of the band in stunning outdoors settings, Island Songs takes place indoors in small intimate venues (a living room, a kitchen, a church or a lighthouse). Back in 2011, the musician adopted a similar approach with his Living Room Songs project.

Filmed and recorded over seven weeks in seven locations around the island, Island Songs features collaborations with a string ensemble and seven local musicians or small orchestras. Starting on 21 June 2016 in the small harbour of Havammstangi (“population 582”), the composer introduces the album with spoken words from local poet Einar Georg Einarsson.

We are seeing a different angle of Iceland. We are seeing it from the inside out. We are in the living rooms, we are in the kitchens drinking coffee with the people. We are getting to know them on a personal level. (Baldvin Z)

In total contrast with Ólafur Arnalds’ wonderful experimental and upbeat electronic duo Kiasmos, the entire Island Songs album is imbued with a sense of calm and serenity with slow-paced compositions led by the musician on piano or synthesizer. In all instances, none of the performers have heard the songs before and each piece was rehearsed on the morning of the shot. All videos were then filmed live and in one take, adding an element of freshness and spontaneity to the whole experiment.

Filmed in a small country church with the South Iceland Chamber Choir and touching on the spiritual, this solemn stillness is palpable on “Raddir” (week 3).

A small, wooden, stave church, known as the ‘Church of Sailors’, sits in an empty and solitude landscape, with views of the ocean from a lonely beach. Hilmar and Georg, father and son, conductor and composer, gather here with a choir made up of people from the local area.

A quasi pop song and the only other track with vocals, “Particles” features Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir, co-vocalist with Reykjavík-based indie-folk band Of Monsters and Men.

From the organ loops on “1995” (Dagný Arnalds) to the three overlapping motifs (keyboard, strings, wind instruments) on the spine-tingling “Öldurót” or the orbital shot on “Particles” where the camera is circling around a dolly track in the top room of a lighthouse, a circular dynamic is underpinning all the songs on the album.

Recorded in Iðnó Concert Hall, Reykjavík – where the musician lives and works – “Doria” concludes the series among friends, families and contributors to the project.

A full-length documentary for the entire Island Songs project is currently in the works and is scheduled for release in July 2017.