Hearts and minds
Reykjavik composer Jóhann Jóhannson is renowned for a his avant garde, intellectual approach to music. Yet, passion and instinct are at the heart of everything he does. “Writing for me is about turning off the intellect and letting the blood speak,” he te
OR A land of just over 300,000 people, Iceland has produced an unseemly amount of international music artists, from Björk and Sigur Rós to Emiliana Torrini, Múm and Mugison. And if Reykjavik is Iceland’s thriving and increasingly international music factory, then Jóhann Jóhannson is the head of its dynamic R&D department.
“I think it’s very much to do with the community,” says Jóhannson, a thirtysomething composer and producer. “It’s a very tight and small scene and it’s very collaborative, and the bands and artists are mutually supportive. Reykjavik is a small town and it’s not hard to get to know most of the musicians in the scene quite quickly. Also, it’s really too small to develop any insulated subcultures, as would happen in a bigger city, so the collaborative instinct wins out.”
Even by the standards of Iceland’s music pathfinders, Jóhannson is something of a maverick. His first album, Englaborn, originally written for a play by Hávar Sigurjónsson, combines pulsing strings and insistent beats with an electronic voice intoning lines from Catullus’s poem Odi et Amo. The contrapuntal entropy of cybernetics and thermodynamics and Nietzche’s “eternal recurrence” inspired his second album, Virdulegu Forestar), a shimmering post-minimalist symphony for brass, percussion, electronica, organ and piano. His third album, Dís, is a pop-kraut-rock score for Icelandic writer/director Silja Hauksdóttir’s debut feature film of the same name.
Written for a dance piece by choreographer Erna Ómarsdóttir, Jóhannson’s most recent album, IBM 1401: A User’s Manual, juxtaposes swelling strings, analog drones and extracts from a Data Processing System maintenance instruction tape that he found in his father’s attic.
“Writing for me is about turning off the intellect and letting the blood speak,” he says. “I find it hard to write without trying to minimise any conscious brain activity. The writing is instinctive and almost unconscious in a way, but after the basic raw material is written, the analytical side of the brain takes over and there is a process of sorting out and developing the material – of contextualising and interpreting it.
“I always try to create an environment where accidents can happen and where things can go wrong. The accidents often tend to be more interesting than the intended results.”
It is Jóhannson’s unique mix of experimentalism and intellectual playfulness, combined with an unerring instinct for the emotionally resonant, that distinguishes his musical sensibility and sound. He begs, borrows and steals ideas from a diverse array of musical, choreographic, theatrical, technological and literary sources – from Thomas Pynchon’s novella The Crying of Lot 49 to the romantic poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning – and transforms them into elegant, lyrical gestures, all the more remarkable for their visceral force and emotional power. Jóhannson is a post-modernist muso with heart.
“I can’t finish a piece of music without having a very clear concept in mind. Once the concept of the piece is in place, completing the music is almost easy. It’s very important for me to have other levels to the music, to make the music resonate with other ideas.
“This is why I like working in films and theatre, as film and theatre music is always in constant dialogue with other ideas. When I write music for its own sake, it has to be in dialogue with a set of ideas, however abstract they are.
“I think the different projects kind of feed off of each other. I don’t think I would like to be a film composer exclusively, and I think I would probably go insane doing only my own stuff all the time, so I like this kind of jumping different trains and seeing where they take me.”
Working in both film and theatre (he recently composed music for a production of Sophocles’s Oedipus cyclein Oslo last January), as well as co-writing and producing with international collaborators as diverse as Pan Sonic, Barry Adamson and Marc Almond, Jóhannson is at core a collaborative artist. A decade ago he co-founded Kitchen Motors, a think tank, record label and multi-disciplinary art collective that encourages collaboration and experimentation in thesearch “for new art forms and the breaking down of barriers between forms, genres and disciplines”.
“It’s a playground for ideas,” he says. “We’re occasionally a record label, sometimes producers or promoters, but more often we like to be a kind of instigator, setting things in motion, then stepping back and seeing and learning from what happens. We regard this as a form of art.”
With an artistic ideology more instinctual than systematic, Kitchen Motors emphasises multidisciplinary innovation and performance. Indeed, one early performance featured a symphony for 20 electric basses and four electric organs playing in unison at deafening volume.
Kitchen Motors has also inspired Jóhannson to create two very different mini-music collectives, the brooding ambient outfit Evil Madness (with BJ Nilsen and Curver) and the bright electronica group Apparat Organ Quartet. Six years after the latter’s critically acclaimed eponymous debut, they are recording a second album.
“I really enjoy the solitary aspect of writing, but I always work with other musicians when playing and recording the music. I get inspired by ideas. I can get the same tingle in the back of my neck from reading philosophy as I would from a Beethoven string quartet or a Leonard Cohen song. I get enormous pleasure from reading poetry. I love to work with poetry in music. I don’t think I would ever consider writing my own words. It’s very hard to do well, though, which is why I haven’t done a lot of it, but I think my next project will involve more words and more vocals.”
Jóhannson’s next project, Fordlandia, inspired by Henry Ford’s failed rubber barony in the jungles of Brazil, will be released this autumn. For now, he is spending the rest of July touring Europe, playing in several art and music festivals. Then he will return to Reykjavik to finish two new projects.
“I’m currently writing and recording a feature film soundtrack, as well as working on a new piece which will premiere in October in Iceland. It’s a piece for choir, guitars and electronics, which will be part of a collaboration with the Icelandic visual artist Ruri. It will be performed live in Hallgrims church in Reykjavik, with giant projections of waterfalls.”