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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

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.”

Of course.

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