To over-simplify things, we might say that the first wave of minimalism was defined by swift tempos and simple, relentless, agitated rhythms. But it doesn't have to be that way. One can use minimalist techniques to create gentle, graceful, slow music. And Olafur Arnalds, a 25-year-old Icelandic musician who played his first Indianapolis show Saturday night at the Toby, does just that, creating calm, contemplative soundscapes out of just a few phrases — a quizzical piano melody, legato string harmonies, sometimes a drum track to give structure to the proceedings.
Arnalds, an up-and-coming figure on the international stage with interests in classical, indie rock and even some harder stuff, having been a drummer for several hardcore bands, stuck by The Toby's Bosendorfer for the whole of the evening, joined by a string quartet and a utility player on synth and laptop. While there were distinct breaks between each song, and each song lasted around five or six minutes, the show really seemed to have been one, hour-and-a-half long song, a trance-inducing, many-movement work that recycled motifs and textures, but that offered enough variety and dynamic contrast to keep the attentive listener entertained — and enough sameness and consistency to keep the entranced listener entranced.
Of course, if the mood isn't right, such cyclical, basic music can sound downright boring. Arnalds and his team certainly did their best to draw the audience into their world, performing from a nearly-dark stage, and accentuating some tracks with video projection and dynamic lighting cues. About half of the songs were illustrated by some sort of animated film: the shadow of a mobile constructed out of birds or planets, a lighthouse in a snow storm, a flock of birds. The animations were in a fairy-tale, Gorey-inspired, woodcut-style vein, and a bit cutesy — this is sort of the kind of stuff that Portlandia sent up with their "Put a Bird on It" sketch. Warm lights bathed the audience during particularly vibrant moments, while fluorescent tubes flickered in time to the rhythm track during a couple darker songs.
It was kind of cute to hear Arnalds riffing off of our city name (Indianapolis equaling city of "Indians") in his clipped English, which was evidently nowhere near as clipped as his Icelandic, judging by the way he slurred together his name, as if ashamed, into one two-syllable word — "Hello, I'm ol-nalds." Using non-politically correct nomenclature, Arnalds recalled his one meeting with an "Indian" when five years old — later correcting the record to note that said Indian was just a "casino Indian" — and invited any Indians to come up to meet him after the show during the meet-and-greet.
He also stopped mid-show to tell the story behind "Poland," a typically crepuscular, melancholic song Arnalds wrote in Poland while hung over. The tale goes that the roads from Bratislava to Poland are very bumpy, and it was impossible for Arnalds and crew to get to sleep on their tour bus bunks. So the crew tried alcohol as a sleeping aid, but found it ineffective, and were left both tired and sick the next morning. Goes to show that all sad songs need not be informed by true heartbreak.
Arnalds doesn't impose much in the way of narrative on his songs: on 2007's Eulogy for Evolution, he used time markers as song titles ("3055," "0952"), and only one song he performed Saturday night had any lyrical content. And maybe that's for the best: His closing number, whose title translates from its original Icelandic as "The Sky May Be Falling...But the Stars Look Good on You," was laden with a voice synthesizer reading existential doggerel, something along the lines of, "I asked you what happens after we die, and you said, 'We forget everything.'" There's a tension in Arnalds' work that allows the listener to impose her own narrative — is that melody beautifully icy or coldly alienating? But when he gives us too much to work with, too much context, it becomes program music of a rather less compelling sort, and it becomes difficult not to read that minor chord or intense backbeat as illustrative of a particular thought or mood.