Constellation — Mike Reed’s music and arts venue in the old Viaduct Theatre space — has been hosting some interesting concerts since opening earlier this year. So far, it’s living up to its promise as a home for music of various genres outside of the mainstream. Located on Western Avenue’s frontage street, along the stretch where the main part of Western Avenue ascends on a bridge over Belmont, Constellation has a barely noticeable sign identifying the venue. The front door could be mistaken for an entrance into a warehouse. On Thursday night (Oct. 3), the music behind that door was the elegant and spare quasi-classical, quasi-electronic, quasi-indie rock of Icelandic composer and pianist Ólafur Arnalds.
He played two sets that night in the smaller of Constellation’s two performance spaces; I caught the late show. Before he sat down at the piano, Arnalds apologized for being tired, saying he’d flown from San Diego to Chicago around 3 a.m. and had barely slept. He said he’d nodded off three times during the short interlude between his two Constellation performances. “This is a strange place for a concert,” he said, looking around the room, which has the plain, unadorned style of a music or dance rehearsal space. “It’s the smallest place we’ve played in years.” Later in the show, he remarked: “It kind of feels like playing in my living room, which is nice. … It’s like you didn’t pay 30 bucks to see me and I just invited you.” (According to Althea Legaspi’s review for the Chicago Tribune, he made similar remarks at the early concert.)
Arnalds asked the audience to sing a middle C, which he recorded and played back on his iPad, which was sitting on top of the piano. He joked that he could switch out this crowd’s vocals with a prerecorded track if he needed to, and we wouldn’t realize what he’d done — but then he praised us for doing a good job. With that “ah” sustaining in the background, Arnalds began playing the piano.
Throughout the concert, as Arnalds played songs from his latest album, For Now I Am Winter, and other recordings, he kept his hands clustered together near the middle of the keyboard. His right hand seemed to stay in the octave above Middle C, while the left hand stayed in the space just below Middle C, both playing spare, seemingly simple sequences of notes. Arnalds doesn’t appear to be striving for impressive virtuosity; rather, he’s striving to convey his melodies and musical moods in a clear, distilled form. (His website includes free downloadable sheet music of some compositions.)
Violinist Viktor Orri Árnason (of the band Hjaltalín) and cellist Rubin Kodheli accompanied Arnalds, and so did that iPad, which delivered electronic beats, ambient textures and other recorded tracks, without ever overwhelming the live performers. An extended and expressive solo by Árnason was one of the concert’s high points, leaving the strings of his bow shredded by the end. “I guess I have to buy him a new bow,” Arnalds commented.
Vocalist Arnór Dan Arnarson (of the band Agent Fresco) also joined in with the group on a few songs, singing in a high, quivering voice a bit reminiscent of Antony Hegarty. He had apparently just joined the tour. “He wasn’t supposed to be here tonight,” Arnalds said. “He just showed up.”
The audience applauded enthusiastically after Arnalds and his musicians left the room. Finally, he sleepily wandered back in. Someone in the crowd called out, “Sorry!” Arnalds remarked, “I took a while because I fell asleep … It’s very lovely to play when you haven’t slept for 24 hours.”
For his final song of the night, Arnalds played “Lag fyrir ömmu,” which means “Song for Grandma.” As he explained, the song is dedicated to his late grandmother, “the person who got me into this non-death-metal music.” Arnalds was alone now in the performance section of the room, playing on the piano without any accompaniment. Midway through the song, the sound of Árnason’s violin drifted in from the room next door. Árnason did not come back into the room, but his violin solo sounded like a voice calling from the distance. It was a beautiful and touching moment.
Thursday’s concert also included a lovely opening set by Danish singer-songwriter Lisa Alma, whose soft, meditative ballads started out the evening on a sweet note.