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Olafur Arnalds knew that classical pianist Alice Sara Ott's intimate style of playing was the perfect fit for the experimental album he wanted to put out.


Rediscovering Chopin

Olafur Arnalds explores the 19th-century composer's music by using the recording process as an interpretive instrument.
May 22, 2015 5:50 AM

THE last thing Olafur Arnalds listened to with his grandmother on her deathbed was a Chopin sonata. He can't even remember which piece it was; only that, thanks to her, the Polish composer seeped into his blood and shaped his sensibilities, even as he juggled heavy metal drumming, orchestral composition and dance music production over the years.

So, Arnalds' latest album is no random experiment. The Chopin Project is a collaboration with classical pianist Alice Sara Ott, and is close to home.

The 28-year-old said in a phone interview: "Because Chopin's been such an influence on me, he's been my teacher in a sense, and prepared me for this project."

He attacks enshrined assumptions traditionally applied to recording Chopin's music, which are also standards typically applied to classical music recording in general. "Why does a piano need to sound bright to be considered good, especially since the pianos of Chopin's day didn't sound like that?" He also asks why recording equipment and techniques are treated as being transparent to the creative process, when they are actually variables that can be manipulated to artistic ends.

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The result of his having questioned long-standing assumptions is his one-CD album with 10 tracks. Since Chopin wrote mostly for the piano, it's little surprise that all the pieces were originally written for solo piano - nocturnes, an etude and a sonata movement.

We get Nathan Milstein's violin-and-piano transcription of the posthumous Nocturne No 20 in C Sharp Minor, which Arnalds expands into a separate track he calls Reminiscence, after the nickname of the nocturne. And Etude opus 25 No 7 appears in its Alexander Glazunov transcription, which adds a cello part played on record by Arnalds' buddy, Rubin Kodheli.

Originally, Chopin's compositions were set to be captured without alteration, using only recording techniques and equipment as interpretive lenses. But after Arnalds began the project, he ran into another pet peeve about classical albums - cohesiveness.

"Albums of recorded music didn't exist in the 19th century, of course, but classic albums today haven't adjusted to the concept, and are often just collections of pieces that have nothing to do with one another, much like a collection of pop music singles," Arnalds groused.

His response to this was to compose musical elements to add to Chopin's pieces, in an attempt to craft an experience meant to be listened to as a whole. So, while he steps back for half the album to let Chopin's music speak for itself, the other half features synthesiser textures that will be instantly familiar to fans of Arnald's other work.

"This isn't an album of Olafur's favourite Chopin pieces," he said. Instead, it's practically a concept album. If none of the project's other elements scare classical purists away, this last one will.

Audiophiles may also be taken aback by the occasional intrusion of background noise, including even the burble of muffled conversation. In fact, the original idea was to feature pieces recorded in public spaces such as cafes and bars. Several tracks actually recorded in pubs didn't make it to the album. The culprit? Ringtones.

He said: "It's nice to have people around, but what happens in the modern environment is that someone's phone always rings, and there are other digital sounds that also aren't nice."

He resorted to sleight of hand in the studio, simulating a pub by sampling a ringtone-free pub scene and layering it on Ott's rendition of Nocturne opus 37 No.1 in G Minor.

Those familiar with Ott's discography, which comprises conventional classical records, may be surprised at how easily her playing melds with her Icelandic collaborator's vision.

Arnalds knew she'd be a perfect fit because of the intimacy of her playing. He said: "I wanted to record this album more softly, to move away from the idea that a pianist needs to play loudly to be heard in a concert hall. These days, we have microphones in recording studios that can easily capture everything, so pianists can afford to play more intimately. When I listened to Alice's recordings, I noticed that she played more softly than other pianists."

The result is a quiet, textured album of Chopin pieces covered with a sheen of sonic experimentation, played with a lot of heart and produced with a distinct vision.

Once upon a time, a boy kissed his grandmother goodbye to the music of Chopin, mere hours before she died. Underlying Arnalds' intellectual ideas is that emotional connection that anchors this album and keeps it real.