Úlfur Eldjárn

Icelandic multi-instrumentalist composer and all round musical Gandalf, Úlfur Eldjárn, of  Apparat Organ Quartet fame, is a level one musical magician across multiple genres: from pop through indie around jazz via electronic and avant-garde to classical, he has cast a creative spell on them all. 

His current composition is the spellbinding ‘Poyekhali!’, a stunning classical-electronic fusion, taken from his forthcoming solo album, The Arisókrasía Project. A forerunner of the Icelandic classical/electronic scene alongside Ólafur Arnalds, Eldjárn conceived of this fantastical musical project based on the experiences of Russian astronaut, Yuri Gagarin, the first man to orbit the earth, from “songs and ideas that have been floating around each other for some time. It’s not so much a story—it’s a collection of interrelated things—space travel, utopian visions of the future, and some nostalgia and regret.”

I asked Úlfur some questions on the background to his fascination with space, particularly Gagarin, electro-classical music and performing live.

What drew you specifically to Yuri Gagarin – was it purely because he was the ‘first’ person in space??
“I’ve been fascinated by his character for a while, and I specifically fell in love with him when I read a transcript of his communication with Earth during his flight. The lyrics of the song are based on his own words, where he describes the Earth from space, as seen by a human being for the first time. It’s pure magic. Also I feel that his persona could be better recognized, in the Western world.”
Why do you think electronic music sits so comfortably with classical?
“It doesn’t always actually. But there is strong connection, since both tend to be more instrumental based and the approaches are similar.  Electronic music, like classical orchestration aims to create elaborate soundscapes with a carefully selected palette of different timbres, hues and textures. Whereas in pop/rock, singer/songwriter music – the focus is usually more on on lead vocal idea, arranging the music to support that.”
What difficulties (if any) do you face when performing this music live & how do you perceive the place of the audience?  Do you see the audience as “viewer and listener” or in a more participative role?  Is the end result ever guided by what you feel or think the audience might want or like to hear?  Or is it purely taking direction from where ideas are taking you?
“With this project, the audience is in a rather conventional role, but the mix of strings, electronics and live percussion does seem to have a very direct emotional effect on them. I’ve previously done work such as the Infinite String Quartet (www.infinitestringquartet.com) where I’m trying to put the audience in a participating role, allowing the listeners to interact and create their own versions of the music.
I’m really looking forward to performing ‘Poyekhali!’ live at the Iceland Airwaves festival, where I’ll be playing the Gamla Bio venue.  I’m performing with my string quartet and brother Halldór on drums. It’s a rare opportunity to come see us perform, since I don’t intend to do a lot of touring with this setup. It’s amazing to perform with those string players live.”


The extended, ‘classical’ intro to ‘Poyekhali!’ is as serene as it is nostalgic and poignant; a melancholic string lament backgrounded by fuzzy recordings of Gagarin live from space, just short of three minutes long, it is a spare, but highly evocative musical score, not dissimilar to some of the Arnalds/Ott outputs on the Chopin Project.

From here the piece moves quite unexpectedly from the sublime to the audacious, submerging the stark string arrangements in synth curios, intermittent pulses, delineated and at times, military style percussion, vocoded lyrics and a vibrant electronic melody. From the loneliness of solitary isolation to being overwhelmed by universal acclaim, from being fearful of the unknown to ending up as exultant conqueror, this highly charged piece runs the musical gamut of emotions that Gagarin must have felt from trepidatious outset to triumphant end to his pioneering space mission.

Like Gagarin, ‘Poyekhali!’ journeys through it’s own odyssey, and like it’s Russian predecessor, takes us with it into “a utopian world of space travel, intelligent machines and futuristic societies.” The track was premiered in conjunction with visuals from the film ‘First Orbit’, a modern day recreation of Yuri Gagarin’s orbit around earth, directed by Christopher Riley and filmed in high definition from the International Space Station by austronaut Paulo Nespoli, thereby creating in Eldjárn’s own words “a unique concert experience … transforming the concert hall into a space vessel, taking the audience along for a journey into space.”

‘Poyekhali!’ is indeed as spectacular as the space mission that inspired it!

Úlfur Eldjárn plays the Iceland Airwaves Festival – Gamla Bio, 22.30hrs Friday November 6th.  ‘Poyekhali!’ is currently available to stream via Spotify.

Note* The original review of this track, excluding the extended interview, was published in Ja Ja Ja Magazine on 18th October, 2015.

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