ÓLAFUR ARNALDS and ALICE SARA OTT‘s just released contemporary re-compositions of Chopin (Out now via Mercury Classics) have ruffled the feathers of the baldest musical birds. We had the opportunity to question the revolution they felt was needed and why the strings of the concert grand had to be muted in order to clearly hear Frédéric Chopin. Before their informal show in Konzerthaus, Berlin, the three of us schemed on imperfection, how to best record your pianist’s breath, and why there is hope for humanity in music.
Hello you two – could you tell me why you are here and what you are up to?
Alice: We’re here at Konzerthaus in Berlin, to play for the first time publicly, our Chopin Project.
Excellent. What roles are you each undertaking?
Ólafur: ALICE is playing the piano, and I am more the role of a producer or conductor in this. I play some synthesizer, but I don’t do very much on stage. We have some sound FX and things like this, but my work was mostly completed before, as a composer. On stage ALICE is taking the main pressure, along with the string quintet.
Regarding the electronics, how is it working? Is it backing tracked or are you triggering things?
Ó: In this we don’t have a backing track. There are some sounds that are pre-recorded however mostly it’s just synthesizer. We have some field sounds, like rain, and they are just triggered. We don’t do all those things in the concert. Such sounds are often made for a record, however in a concert you don’t really need as many extras; we don’t need the sound of a bar, or people talking – there’s already a bar here, you know!?
A: Anyway this project was made for the sake of the recording. In the beginning when ÓLAFUR came up with this project our intention was not to do a live project with it.
Ó: The whole concept was to record Chopin in a new way. It’s somewhat ironic that we are now playing it live as that was never the idea. The concepts that made the record what it is are specifically to do with recording techniques, ideas such as choice of microphones and choice of pianos. To go back into a concert hall and play on a Steinway [like this evening’s concert] is kind of going back to where we were trying to move from.
I did consider that on my way here. To call the live performance of this album ‘hypocritical’ would be mean, but in an essence it is…
Ó: Yes. True! However, we will still do things differently in this concert. We put pickups on the piano. We put the piano through a PA – which usually doesn’t happen in classical music. It’s supposed to be all acoustic. We modified the piano by putting felt on it.
A: It took so long! It took like 20 minutes!
20 minutes for a prepared piano isn’t too bad though!
A: When you are in a hurry!? Especially today since there are four live sets. It’s a very tough rehearsal schedule and the pianos were not prepared as we thought they would be. So I had to do it while they were rehearsing the string sections. You know, normal pianos are easier to prepare I found…
Ó: Yes. Steinways are not made for it!
A: I had to get the keyboard out, then the hammers.
Ó: It’s also your first time doing it! Normally I do it. But today…
A: I was yelling ‘Olly where am I supposed to put what?’ At least now I know how it works.
So the DIY aesthetic is coming from the studio to concert hall. This is great. Tell me, do you know COLIN STETSON?
Ó: I have heard a bit, yes.
I was listing to your record, and listening to his and thinking about extended technique and unconventional use of microphones – like recording the body of a bass saxophone – and I wanted to ask what you were trying to expose by using your recording techniques? STETSON is working with BEN FROST who is traditionally brash as hell, however on the other side you’re exploring similar ideas but with a very different aesthetic. I wondered what challenges you faced, or how you wanted to challenge people by using those sounds, or what your political motivations for using those sounds were?
Ó: I love getting a question that I don’t know the answer to – we’ve been doing mainstream TV interviews all day and those questions can get a bit dumbed down. I don’t know COLIN STETSON so well, but I do know BEN FROST and I know he’s preparing the piano to create these harsh, ugly things. I don’t want to tell you what he’s thinking, but it sounds to me like that’s what he’s doing. We are doing this more to bring out the humanity of what’s happening. Usually you are listening to classical records and they are very pure and clean, and there are never any mistakes, and you never hear any extra sounds. I wanted to hear ALICE‘s breathing. I wanted to hear her feet clicking on the pedals. I want to hear the creaking of the chair. These sounds are there, but not to be intrusive – they’re there to tell you there is a person present.
A: Part of the live experience that you lose in the recording experience or in a big concert hall where people are so far away, is that you don’t hear those things. You should. They belong to the performance.
Ó: We want to put you in a chair next to the performer.
A: I had to get used to recording my breathing. It was so loud. We listened to what he recorded, and suddenly you hear this animal-esque inhalation. It sounded like I was running a marathon.
Ó: At first she apologised. She was singing, and I said ‘Oh, you were singing.’ She was like ‘I’m so sorry, I’ll stop it.’ I responded, ‘No, don’t stop’ and I went and moved the microphones closer to her face to get more of it.
‘You Are Used To Hearing A Machine’
I mean if you listen to old GLENN GOULD records…
A: Yes! You can always hear singing. Exactly. But that’s so nice. It feels human. Also, my favourite recordings of Chopin’s music is from a French pianist called ALFRED CORTOT and if you listen to his music, he plays lots of wrong notes and it doesn’t disturb you. But nowadays, if you release a recording in 2015 and there’s a wrong note everybody gets disturbed because your mind is brainwashed. You are used to this clear, sterile thing.
Ó: In a way it’s a similar idea to what we have in pop music today. How everything is so auto-tuned. If one watches The Voice of Germany, or Pop-Idol where you have these great singers, yet you always feel they’re so out of tune. No they aren’t! It’s just that you are used to hearing a machine. It’s a similar idea what we are doing – having a couple of wrong notes is not wrong. It’s human.
A: Of course you shouldn’t play just wrong notes, however having a few there is a sign you took a risk. You had an idea in that moment and it happened that you misplaced your hand, but that’s part of it. It’s a sign that you are alive, you are trying things and you take adventures. A sign that it’s live.
I mean, when it comes to Chopin, the man was an improviser so he would have never played it the same way twice anyway.
Ó: We’ve been saying this! Finally somebody get’s this!
A: When he wrote pieces down for the publishers, it was always different. He had to write it down from memory and of course, because he was improvising, it was always different.
Ó: So you can actually find published scores [of the same piece] from Chopin, which are different. People have arguments about which one is correct. Both are correct! However, because he was improvising so each are slightly different. Each just represent a moment in time for him.
When you are left with a single representation of “what it was at the time”, one can conclude that the thing you are doing, by just honouring a way of treating the material, and saying “that was this, then” what you’ve made becomes inherently more faithful to Chopin’s original idea. However the question remains, does the world need to hear more Chopin?
Ó: For me, I just wanted to hear Chopin done in a new way – not to prove the old recordings were bad. The reasons we did it were actually very selfish – it was just because I wanted to hear it. Nobody else was doing it. I said to my friends for weeks – ‘I want Chopin on a felt piano. I want to hear Chopin recorded ambiently.’ I resonate with Chopin’s music very deeply, not just as a listener but as a composer too. There’s so many moments in Chopin’s music where I wish I’d had that idea – so it was a great opportunity to pretend that I did, to take that idea and make my own piece out of it.
A: We had to be careful. Even recording Chopin’s music under normal circumstances invites a sense of kitsch, or superficial melodrama.
Ó: Yes, however we found that as long as you expose the original and expose the core, the source, next to what you have done, you can express the whole point. If this album was only my string pieces, you would kind of lose the point. However, when they are next to the original Chopin pieces, you can make the connection in your head – you find a melody in the strings is actually in the piano piece before it.
Sort of a lesson through listening?
Let me finally ask about the revolution in classical music your press-release mentions. This is released on Mercury Classics, Universal and Deutsche Grammophon – I wonder how much of a revolution such major labels permit, and where the real revolutions in classical music are actually occurring?
Ó: For me the real revolution is that this is happening on a major label. It’s easy to get this released on an indie label. The fact they are willing to do this, shows that something is changing.
A: I’m just thinking if this ‘revolution’ was actually the purpose of the recording? Personally, it was something I just needed for myself, and the same for ÓLAFUR.
Ó: It’s not a political revolution, though I understand why a label puts that in a press release, because that’s a really good question in an interview. Ultimately, if I feel the need to hear this, then there are other people that want to too.
A: It’s time to get back to humanity.
Thanks. What a perfect way to end.