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Viking heritage inspires soothing lullabies from Icelandic pianist Gabríel Ólafs

Gabríel Ólafs drew inspiration from Viking tunes for his album <em>Lullabies for Piano and Cello</em>, featuring cellist Steiney Sigurðardóttir.
Courtesy of Universal Music
Gabríel Ólafs drew inspiration from Viking tunes for his album Lullabies for Piano and Cello, featuring cellist Steiney Sigurðardóttir.

While strolling in his home city of Reykjavik last year, Gabríel Ólafs wandered into a bookstore, where he found an out-of-print collection of ancient Viking melodies. The Icelandic pianist-composer found inspiration to explore his heritage in a new way as he flipped through the volume of tunes collected by a traveling priest around 150 years ago.

History books and popular tales remember the Vikings as ruthless, seafaring warriors who pillaged their way through Europe between the eighth and 11th centuries. But Ólafs encountered another narrative in the book, which documented melodies otherwise only preserved by oral tradition. There were no chords or harmony, so Ólafs added his own.

"The Vikings actually weren't only conquerors. They were also storytellers. Their main thing was trade and telling stories," Ólafs tells NPR's Morning Edition host Leila Fadel. "They were very early in terms of human history in writing things down, and they were writing poetry. So I would say something that people generally don't know about my ancestors, the Vikings, is that they were quite sort of into the arts and they preserved art in some ways."

Gabríel Ólafs, a self-taught composer, was just 14 when he wrote "Absent Minded," a piece that landed him his first record deal.
Anna Maggy / Universal Music Group
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Universal Music Group
Gabríel Ólafs, a self-taught composer, was just 14 when he wrote "Absent Minded," a piece that landed him his first record deal.

So the self-taught composer, who was only 14 when he wrote the piece that ultimately landed him his first record deal, adapted Viking tunes for piano and cello arrangements, and wrote others inspired by these ancient melodies.

The lullabies are soft, transporting the listener to a soothing landscape. "It's really about honoring my ancestry," says Ólafs, now 24. "It's always fun to explore your roots." The cello, played by longtime friend and collaborator Steiney Sigurðardóttir, serves as "the mother's voice" singing to her young child.

Sigurðardóttir herself had her first child while working on the album. "I actually think you can hear it in the music. You can sort of hear her new motherly qualities in her playing. And I think it's absolutely beautiful," Ólafs says.

In "Bambaló," the pair play a traditional lullaby that originally came from Ireland — a country with which Iceland shares deep roots. About half of Iceland's original settler population is believed to be Celtic (with Norse people accounting for the rest). The title means rock-a-bye, just like the traditional nursery rhyme. The tune is eerie, with a sense of danger lurking just below the soft but hoarse voice of the mother/cello.

The original song's lyrics, removed for the instrumental version here, speak to this sinister feeling: "My little friend I lull to rest / But outside, a face looms at the window." Ólafs remembers his mother singing these lines to him. The melody has been previously adapted, including the post-rock band Sigur Rós.

Ólafs and Sigurðardóttir recorded the album at Reykjavik's Eldborg Hall, where they experimented with playing back to back, rather than a traditional seating arrangement where the players can see each other and pick up on visual cues.

"I always tell people that because we've been playing for so many years together, that we have sort of an unspoken emotional connection through music. And I wanted to test that out," Ólafs says, recognizing it was a "challenge" playing that way. "I also just thought it was a beautiful look, sort of almost like us becoming one person for this performance where we sort of sit back to back."

The digital version of this story was edited by Majd Al-Waheidi. The audio version was produced by Phil Harrell.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Olivia Hampton