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Can you really edit Chopin?

You can if you’re Icelandic musician Ólafur Arnalds – but then he’s never been conventional

Can you really edit Chopin?

Text by Victoria Beardwood

Musicians aren’t generally meant to rewrite and rerecord Chopin, and certainly not a musician who started life as a drummer in a hardcore band called Fighting Shit. But then Icelander Ólafur Arnalds isn’t exactly predictable.

Only 28, he’s already had a musical career of dizzying variety, having moved on from hardcore and metal drumming to sparse ambient techno on EPs with names like And They Have Escaped the Weight of Darkness… and Variations of Static. He’s scored ballets, won a BAFTA for his music on UK TV smash Broadchurch, and seen his music used in everything from The Hunger Games to So You Think You Can Dance.

Now he’s teamed up with distinguished German-Japanese pianist Alice Sara Ott for The Chopin Project, for which the duo recorded four Chopin pieces and five new creations inspired by the Polish composer. Arnalds says: “I only really became a Chopin fan because my grandmother made me listen to it. Gradually, I became a fan, but I always wondered why Chopin, like a lot of classical music, is always recorded in the same way. I’ve been waiting for someone to make music a different way – it hasn’t happened, so I decided to do it myself.”

Arnalds and Ott toured Reykjavik to find vintage recording equipment and unusual pianos, often recording in public spaces. “It was our way of asking why classical music always has to sound so glossy, so perfect.”

Unlike other reworkings of classical music, Arnalds stresses that most of The Chopin Project is new work. “We didn’t just put a kick drum under everything.” A taster track released earlier this year, Verses, features the famous motif from Chopin’s Piano Sonato No 3 remade for string quartet before Ott plays the original.
Though a multi-instrumentalist himself, Arnalds left the piano to Ott, who he says “has this special ability to make 16 notes feel like one tone”. The results are quietly beautiful, and give space to the original music while adding a cinematic quality.

“If it sees more people start experimenting with different ways to record classical music, I’ll feel that this project has been a success.” 


Norwegian flies to Reykjavík from Oslo and Bergen. Book flights, a hotel and a rental car at norwegian.com


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