In Conversation: Vikingur Olafsson

In Conversation: Vikingur Olafsson

On his Deutsche Grammophone recording, playing Glass with Glass and waiting to bloom. 

Vikingur Olafsson
Reykjavík, Iceland

In Conversation: Vikingur Olafsson

On his Deutsche Grammophone recording, playing Glass with Glass and waiting to bloom. 

Your debut album with Deutsche Grammophon is in honour of Philip Glass' 80th birthday on January 31st. You've recorded before on your own label Dirrindi Music. Based on these experiences, were there any notable differences in the recording process?

There is something very indy about where I come from, Iceland, and so it was quite natural for me to start my own record label when fresh out of college. I learnt a lot from having full control over everything - and that also means having to do so much work on top of the piano playing. So I very much enjoyed working with Deutsche Grammophon on the release, and probably appreciated their excellent work more as I know that SO many things can go wrong in the process of making an album.

The artistic side of my first DG record - the choice of music, the planning of where to record, on what instrument, with what sound engineer (what kind of sound we were looking for), what repertoire - all of this was mostly in my hands but also in close dialogue with the brilliant Christian Badzura from the A&R at DG. We are very much on the same wavelength and he brought some great insights and ideas.

A year ago, you performed Glass' Etudes with the composer himself, alongside three other pianists. What's it like playing for the composer of the works you're performing? How did you manage the pressure of that performance?

Actually, it's not as difficult as one might think. I guess it varies from composer to composer but my experience from working with living composers has been very good - they are all very open to experimentation and finding new ways to listen to and play the music, and Glass is certainly no exception. In some ways, it can be very freeing for a performer to work with a brilliant living composer, compared to reading a 200-year-old masterpiece of Beethoven's from the printed page. It's easy to get the feeling that the classical scores are a bit set in stone, so to say, that a mezzo forte in Beethoven cannot be altered into a forte for example. However, there is no doubt in my mind that an openness to re-think the music, to be free in it and to always seek new ways of playing it, has been the case with the great composers throughout history. After all, composers like Beethoven, Bach and Mozart were all the leading improvisers of their time.

Your performance programs in the past have included Bach's Das Wohltemperierte Klavier and Chopin's 24 preludes; your Birdsong program featuring Rameau, Ravel, and Messiaen; and your Fleeting Images program which "dances on the borders of the tangible and the intangible, somewhere between seeing and hearing." How do you respond to the idea that minimalism is starkly different from these works - do you approach minimalist pieces differently to other genres, or are there more similarities than at first glance?

When I started to learn the piano etudes of Glass, I saw a lot of repetition on the printed page, and I didn't quite know what to make of them at first. So I began repeating them over and over to memorise them - or internalise them, so to say. And by repeating them I soon realised that there is no such thing as repetition in music, not as long as time continues to move in a forward direction. One cannot step twice into the same river, and we never hear the same music twice, even though the chords look to be the same on the page. And that is, to me, the key when it comes to interpreting and listening to minimalism. We are not treading the same path, but rather travelling in a spiral, always finding new perspectives to look at the same object. I approach this style pianistically much like I would approach Bach or Chopin, aiming for absolute transparency of texture, layered sound and rhythmic vitality, so in that respect it's not that different from the old masters. 

You're Artistic Director of Sweden's Vinterfest and the Reykjavik Midsummer Music (which you yourself founded). You've also been involved with many other eclectic projects, such as working with Björk, the classical music television series Útúrdúr (Out-of-tune), and in 2014 playing Scriabin’s Vers la flamme on a floating stage in the middle of Lake Vertigo, with an interruption by a helicopter! How do you balance your time between these projects and practising?

It's a constant battle, but it's a fun battle to fight. I am always trying to tell myself that now I will do fewer things, have more time for myself, etc. Maybe one day I will actually manage to do that, but in the meantime, I consider myself lucky to have so many interesting things happening.

Finally, many of our readers are pianists thinking about their future careers. Do you have any advice for them that you wish you'd had when you were starting out?

Alfred Brendel told me a few years back (when I was worrying that nothing much was happening in my career) that I should be patient as "it takes 15 years to become famous overnight". It had been that way for him. That was very good advice. I think that if one is open and sows good seeds, the time will come when they will all start to bloom simultaneously.

Stream or buy Víkingur's new album here. 

Stream or buy Víkingur's new album here