A Neoclassical Minute with Kiasmos
Michael-Oliver Harding - May 25, 2015
Two musical pillars hailing from a Nordic island country that regularly punches above its weight: BAFTA-winning multi instrumentalist Ólafur Arnalds and mastermind electro pop producer Janus Rasmussen. Since 2007, these Icelandic composer pals have been sculpting a slowly unfurling, symphonic sound that blends piano keys and stringed instruments with driving synths and soulful beats. That’s Kiasmos in a nutshell – though any correspondence between their name (a misspelling of “chiasmus” – the rhetorical device in which concepts are repeated in reverse order) and the duo’s merging of antipodal musical approaches is purely accidental.
“I think maybe that explanation came after the name,” considers Arnalds, during a recent interview with MUTEKMAG. “Sometimes the name can even influence what you do. I think we just called it that because we thought it was cool. When we first started out, the music was really pretty much pure techno. It wasn’t this contrast, so then, slowly, we began developing that idea and went, ‘oh! That also fits with our name now!’”
Long before Arnalds and Rasmussen started scratching their cross pollination itch with melancholy-coated electronic orchestrations, the duo first bonded over a shared love for techno experimentation. That was in 2007, when Arnalds was engineering live sound for Rasmussen’s electro project, Bloodgroup. They gave themselves no timeline to shape their long gestating Kiasmos project, as both musicians were gaining great acclaim for other ventures: Arnalds’ solo piano works made him one of the most sought after contemporary classical composers around, while Rasmussen’s rhythmically adventurous Bloodgroup quartet and his other electro pop outfit, BYRTA really took off.
After releasing two introductory EPs of throbbing techno prowess in 2009 and 2012 on Erased Tapes (the pioneering London-based label that has championed artists operating at the confluence of electronic and acoustic), the duo dedicated 2014 to enhancing Kiasmos’ synthesized atmospheres with cello, grand piano, violin, viola and live drums. The resulting self titled debut became an instant classical-electronic high point of 2014. And while the bewitching record oscillates between glitch-y, slow burning textures, syncopated strings, and eminently danceable, piano led melodies, one notable omission are the vocals fans of Rasmussen’s other projects might expect. “I think it’s just because we always envisioned this as a techno project,” says Janus of the decision to make Kiasmos an exclusively instrumental affair. “I’m not saying we won’t ever [sing], but it hasn’t happened yet. It’s not something that you think about when you write techno. But we actually tried looping one line of vocals at some point; it was my voice, pitched down. We liked it but our label didn’t, so we’ll see!”
Over the last few years, poignant, beat driven musicians Kiasmos have bonded over MUTEK staples like Jon Hopkins and Nicolas Jaar, whose work between worlds, reaffirmed the duo’s resolve to build energetic dramatic arcs out of their elegant and meticulous arrangements. Not unlike fellow Erased Tapes label mates (and MUTEK artists/alumni) Nils Frahm and Rival Consoles, Kiasmos has played a part in the well received collision of classical and electronic, which couldn’t make them any happier.
“When I started doing my music eight years ago, there were maybe three names that I could find that were mixing classical with electronic in a tasteful way,” recalls Ólafur, whose own solo compositions have also contributed to pop culture’s embrace of the neoclassical. “Now, there are countless examples popping up everywhere. Last year, all of us were able to fill huge concert halls at the same time, and I don’t think that’s because one of us suddenly became successful. It’s rather the genre as a whole, and it has been a team effort,” he says, singling out Erased Tapes as a key player in this instrumental emancipation.
An outpour of plaudits from critics and the public alike has launched the guys into Kiasmos’ first international tour – giving fans the privilege of experiencing their elegiac electronica in the most visceral of ways, while the two prolific musicians must shuffle around their many concurrent projects. “In some ways, multitasking is the name of the game in this day and age,” muses Janus. Ólafur, who has covered an enormous amount of melodic ground in little time – from scoring an eerie UK television series (Broadchurch) and drumming in hardcore band Fighting Shit to producing pop music – recently released The Chopin Project in collaboration with German-Japanese pianist Alice Sara Ott. Janus is juggling just as many projects: producing a disco album, touring with a pop band and extensive DJing duties.
Still, one shouldn’t assume their crowded calendars would infringe on their ability to craft a wholly immersive live Kiasmos experience. “I don’t think you should go to a concert expecting to feel the same emotions or hear the same things you do when you listen to a record, because it’s a completely different environment, and we design the live show with that in mind,” Ólafur explains, as if to reassure us that festival patrons won’t be treated to a bare-bones performance. “It’s electronic music, so we don’t want to make it ‘non-electronic’, i.e., we don’t want to tour with a drummer or have real instruments instead of electronic ones, but we find other elements to accommodate that live environment: lots of visuals, a programmed light show, and many flashing things!”
Expect abstracted, slo-mo, breathtaking visuals that match the songs’ string and piano elements, to be contrasted with frenzied, flickering lights, which act in tandem with their music’s drum elements. The Burnt music video offers a telling preview of the surreal, vaporous realm they’ve devised. “I’ve seen Jon Hopkins live quite a few times, and I always enjoy how he makes his compositions seem live, even though it’s still all electronics. His stage performance really brings something new out,” raves Janus when asked about efforts made not to come off as two stoic dudes merely staring down at their gear. “I think that’s always the danger with this kind of stuff – the drums are not played and the synths are programmed. So we’re really building on top of our songs and enhancing them, instead of playing everything live.” Hazy Icelandic landscapes and neoclassical experimentation with techno awaits.