Beauty through tension: Kiasmos interview

The very mention of techno music used to bring the establishment out in a rash. In its early years, techno and wider club culture was simply a byword for hedonism and anarchy, an extrapolation of the punk spirit to piss off your parents, the mainstream, the government and whatever else you’ve got. It’s no coincidence that the most revered techno collective is called Underground Resistance.

In recent years, though, techno has not only been assimilated by the wider popular culture, it’s gone one better and intertwined with the modern composition and classical music world. Underground Resistance founder Jeff Mills was artist in residence at the Louvre last year, while fellow Detroit techno pioneer Derrick May plays with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Dublin’s National Concert Hall has hosted Pantha Du Prince and the Bell Laboratory, and Mills is playing there in October with the RTE Concert Orchestra.

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In the past, electronic and classical composition used to blur in the form of cheesy trance remixes of pieces like Adagio For Strings, but now the lines blur chiefly through close collaboration and a realisation, in Jeff Mills’ words, “that ideas and impressions are changing about electronic music and how it should sit in society”.

The duo Kiasmos is a perfect realisation of this blurring of the lines. Icelandic composer and multi-instrumentalist Olafur Arnalds and Faroe Islander Janus Rasmussen of electro-pop act Bloodgroup have been collaborating for around seven years, but only released their debut album last year. The self-titled record is one of the most refined electronic albums of recent years, taking Kompact-style techno and deftly brushing it up with Arnalds’ piano and minimal strings. It’s an album as elegant as anything by Pantha du Prince or GAS.

The duo’s name is a variation of the word ‘chiasmus’, a literary device that suggests two opposing clauses balanced against each other, and Arnalds says: “I think we always thrive to get some tension into our music. It’s fun for us to try out something new and exciting when we get the time to write music together. There’s a real sense of payoff when your crazy ideas actually start sounding good.

Rasmussen adds: “Kiasmos was a side project for many years. One could say we didn’t decide we wanted to do anything with this project before sometime in 2012, that’s when we wrote Thrown.”

Rather than working in separate studios and a semi-detached method of pinging bars and loops through email, Kiasmos is very much a collaborative project. Arnalds is a spontaneous composer, creating one piece of music per day for his album Found Songs, and more recently his improvised minimalist album composed over one night with Nils Frahm, Trance Frendz.

“Every Kiasmos song starts with an improvisation,” says Arnalds. “We might have some basic idea or concept to work around but we start by just playing around with it. Janus tweaking buttons on a drum machine while I improvise with a theme on the piano is a very common sight at our studio.”

Rasmussen adds: “We set aside time to work together, which with our tight schedules can be a tricky thing to make happen, hence it taking so many years for us to finally write an album. I think it’s important to our sound that we sit down in the same studio to bounce ideas back and forth between each other. Everyone you collaborate with will inspire you to try something different, so it’s a win-win situation really.”

Arnalds has said before that Kiasmos was a way “to dance on stage and get everything out before going back to playing sad songs”, and anyone at their early evening set at last year’s Body & Soul can vouch for the dancing, with the pair throwing fists to their centrepiece song Looped, a true euphoric moment.

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“I’ve been frequenting techno parties and raves for many years so none of this is exactly new to me,” Arnalds says. “But standing on a stage with maybe even thousands of people dancing, jumping with their hands in the air… that’s a new experience for me! My concerts tend to be a bit more conservative, but it’s all good fun and very refreshing.”

Janus adds: “Improvisation also plays a big part live. We have to keep things interesting for us on stage – playing all these shows would be rather boring without some unexpected excitement. Its pretty much inevitable that seeing how people react to our music at our shows really gives us ideas to where to go from here.”

As well as festival slots and techno clubs, Kiasmos is also suited to more refined venues, and a performance at London’s St John at Hackney Church was one highlight for the duo. On the supposed clash between dance music and classical/modern composition, they just point out that the lines are beyond blurred these days, with Rasmussen adding: “There have been so many genres that were considered outsider music at some point in time. I’m just happy to be able to play at venues that are not only sweaty basement clubs.”

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The pair joke that they were also working up a sweat recording the album, with Janus recalling: “Here’s a weird one… we were working on Oli’s old dying computer… it was crashing like every five minutes. To keep ourselves busy while waiting for it to restart, we decided to do push-ups and other exercises… let’s just say we were getting pretty buff and frustrated towards the end of the process.” Before we start imagining the pair in bro-vests pumping fists, to EDM drops, Olafur assures us: “I’m happy to report that i’ve got a new computer for the studio since then so we are not buff anymore.”

  • Original version in Irish Daily Star