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Ólafur Arnalds

September 16, 2015

In the hallowed halls of classical music performance and recording, tradition is a master to be obeyed, from the conductor’s dress to prescribed orchestral dynamic levels to the customary length of applause from the devoted audience.

This regimented observance of customs, by master musicians, cunning conductors, and a devoted public serve to maintain the status quo in performance, and in the techniques used to record classical music. For example, it is widely accepted that the pinnacle of classical audio fidelity is to capture the epic reverberations of New York’s Avery Fisher Hall, the Vienna Konzerthaus, or Boston’s Symphony Hall, using standard miking schemes such as the famed Decca Tree. (For an explanation of the Decca Tree classical recording method, read the article on recording “Beethoven’s Ninth in 5.1” from our sister publication Mix at mixonline.com.) The mighty orchestra captured with distant room mics within a cathedral-like concert hall is the art form as God intended, so tradition goes.

Then there are the renegades, the shape-shifters messing with the minds of classical music’s upper crust. Pianist Chad Lawson’s The Chopin Variations (Hillset) takes a beautifully minimalist and textured approach to the work of Frédéric Chopin. Nils Frahm’s inventive classical and electronic music using acoustic and electronic keyboards; the Erased Tapes label’s atmospheric treatments of its avant-garde releases; and pianist Max Richter’s stunning Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi, The Four Seasons (Deutsche Grammaphon) all also bring fresh blood to staid ideas.

And now, Icelandic classical/ambient music pioneer, soundtrack explorer, new millennium music stylist, and former hardcore punk drummer Ólafur Arnalds takes a different, totally unexplored turn on The Chopin Project, recorded with prolific and award-winning pianist Alice Sara Ott. On The Chopin Project, Ott performs on a 100-year-old piano, which Arnalds captured using original miking techniques that allowed the piano and the pianist’s every movement to be heard. He then mixed the results with found sounds: one heresy among many on The Chopin Project.

“Modern classical recording is very pure-istic,” notes Arnalds. “Everyone uses the Decca Tree mic setup and the same DPA 4006 mics. It’s very much about capturing a pristine concert hall, a $200,000 Steinway D Grand Piano, and everything tuned to perfection. In rock music there’s a lot more freedom in what you do with the recording technology. With The Chopin Project, I wanted to show how big a part the sound world plays in a composition—like how important the sound is in a composition; if you hear the same piece recorded twice using different methods you might have a completely different reaction to that piece.”

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