ÓLAFUR ARNALDS PRESENTS: OPIA | London, Southbank Centre

OPIA was a one-night mini festival at Southbank Centre celebrating music, film and collaboration curated by Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds. OPIA was defined as ‘the ambiguous intensity of looking someone in the eye, which can feel simultaneously invasive and vulnerable.’ As an overarching musical theme for the event, ‘invasive and vulnerable’ is quite apt. All the artists playing share a similar approach where an exposed acoustic sound meets contemporary curiosity and electronic exploration.

I saw three of the six artists on the line-up. Rhye opened the evening and was joined on stage by friend Quincy McCrary for a piano duo set. It was more of a jam than a proper set (or, as he openly put it “you’re just listening to us rehearsing”). While it was initially of some interest to witness the creative process, it became dull quite fast as the non-stop “rehearsing” never really developed or led us anywhere new. 

Next up was Londoner Poppy Ackroyd. Her set was mesmeric; it’s refreshing how fully and unapologetically she embraces every mechanism of the piano. Poppy’s compositions are defined by their movement. Rich, full, technically complex sounds with cyclical motifs, each was accompanied by black and white film visuals and atmospheric lighting. 

The main event was the headline set by Ólafur himself at the Royal Festival Hall. He was accompanied by two violins, viola and cello, a percussionist and his trademark “playerless” pianos that, using his own computer software, anticipate and join his playing with spontaneous rhythmical textures. This makes each concert completely unique and there was a sense of familiarity but also unpredictability. In this setting, his trademark soft, minimalist sound was of course bolstered by the added musicians, synced lights and electronics to create a scintillating sensorial show. But he also wasn’t afraid to strip it back and let the piano do the talking. The highlight for many was perhaps when all the extras and effects disappeared leaving only an honest, moving rendition of Saman, one of his most popular piano pieces. 

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