Siobhán Kane spoke with Jóhann Jóhannsson ahead of a 2012 performance with Hauschka & Dustin O’Halloran in The Sugar Club
When Englabörn was released in 2002, I was struck by its inherent beauty, the way the cello shivers and shakes, the way the toy piano croaks along. Kate Bush’s most recent record was a meditation on nature, in particular, snow – and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s first record similarly brings to mind a sense of the panoramic landscape, the Iceland he grew up in and created from, harnessing a sense of wonder.
This sense informs all that Jóhannsson does; from his subsequent records which included the nostalgic Fordlandia (2008) and last year’s elegiac, moving The Miners’ Hymns, to the films he has scored, and the plays and dance pieces he has worked on, particularly with the gifted Erna Ómarsdóttir.
He has always been fascinated by the tension between the synthetic and natural world; traditions that are dying and those that are being born. It has brought him from his naturally majestic Iceland, to the synthetically industrialised North-East of England. The latter was the setting and inspiration for last year’s The Miners’ Hymns, a collaboration with American filmmaker Bill Morrison, which explored the experiences and tragically lost history of the coalminers in that area. Performed in Durham Cathedral with a 16-piece brass ensemble, the result is poetic, moving and thrilling, and since Jóhannsson is an “old trombone player” himself, there is a real sympathy with the instruments, which translates into a real sympathy with the stories, which are evoked so well.
His body of work is hugely expansive, taking in Holy Minimalism, electronica, classical, ambient, drone, and folk along the way, and his records often conjure up vivid imaginary landscapes; so it makes sense that his “dream collaborators” would be David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky. His compositions have often been described as “experimental”, but perhaps that is just a tidier way of explaining how his records have come to sound like accomplished abandon, caught halfway between the old traditions and the new. Siobhán Kane talks to Jóhann Jóhannsson
I have always been interested by how space affects people’s creativity, from their studio, to their writing desk, to their kitchen table; to the wider landscape of home, street or area, city and country. In an interview last year, Björk was expanding on how some of her songs have certain tones in them that perhaps reflect where she is physically at the time; the dark menacing notes and drones on “A Pagan Place” for example, is heavily influenced by her time in New York, and that underlying darkness of the city, that she links to Public Enemy, and Swans – with that menace finding its way into her music. What is your relationship to space, and how do you think it has affected your own work?
I’m interested in the way space affects music physically. Where the music is recorded is very important for me and how the physical space shapes the music. The Miners’ Hymns for example was written to be played in Durham Cathedral and the church is almost like another instrument in the ensemble. My physical surroundings don’t really influence me that much – I can write anywhere. I’m often asked if Icelandic nature is an influence in my music and my response is that it is an influence insofar as it’s where I grew up and it’s the place that nurtured me, so it has an effect on me as much as growing up in New York had on Public Enemy. But it’s not something that strongly informs my music, I don’t write music inspired by nature, that’s simplifying things too much. I’m more inspired by ideas, by abstractions. But nature is a strong element and I can’t escape it, so it’s always there somewhere.
I was listening to Englabörn again the other day, it is hard to believe it is ten years old. What is your relationship to that piece of work like now?
It’s a very important work for me, I still perform a lot of pieces from that album live, and it resonates very strongly still. It laid the foundation for what I do now and made my name as a composer, so I feel a lot of gratitude for it.
In some ways, that work seemed indebted to a kind of minimalism – and I wonder how far someone like Arvo Pärt influences you – in terms of his own exploration of Holy Minimalism and sacred music?
Hearing Pärt’s Cantus for Benjamin Britten changed the way I regarded music and it opened up a lot of possibilities for me. It was a huge influence. Gorecki as well. Glass was influential and so were Reich and Terry Reilly. But minimalism is just one of the things that inspired me. I’m just as influenced by electronic music, Krautrock, and film composers like Bernard Herrmann and Ennio Morricone, for example.
Your own work has been so shape-shifting, taking in so much – the creativity of a restless mind, and yet there seems to be a searching for a calm amidst the restlessness – how would you describe it?
I think there’s more unity in my work than people realise. For me, there’s a logical progression from album to album. Maybe the unity will become more apparent later, in hindsight. Of course, the film score albums skew the picture a little bit, as they obey their own laws. But the solo projects have a logical continuity, I think. I do consider The Miner’s Hymns as a personal project and not a film score, as it was created as music first and the visuals were added later. I think it has many elements that refer back to the older albums, Virthulegu forsetar, Englabörn, IBM. Superficially they are all quite distinct, but I don’t like to do the same album over and over, I like to challenge myself and do something new, something I haven’t done before on each album.
Iceland has always seemed like a place where the music is in the wind, somehow. I was struck by how a kind of silence walking down a street in Reykjavík with Esja in front of me almost felt a kind of whispery wind guiding me; how far do you think it has helped you?
Iceland is a great place to do music, it’s small and it has a great music scene. Everyone knows each other and it’s easy to find people to form a band and play concerts. Sustaining a career is harder, as you need to go abroad to do this, the market is too small in Iceland to support a career. But for this reason it has a kind of innocence as well, as people focus on the music and not on careers. Music is kind of a new thing also, as late as the 19th century, we had no orchestras, and music was mostly sung a cappella. We don’t have centuries of tradition to weigh us down, so we have to make our own traditions.
That brings me to the synthetic world – and your record IBM 1401 and the collaboration with Erna Ómarsdótti. What kind of ideas infused that particular collaboration – the sounds that came from electromagnetic emissions – of old IBM computers? Do you believe that the synthetic and natural world need to co-exist for human development?
I saw Erna perform in Iceland in 2001 and I knew I wanted to work with her, there was something in her physicality, a mixture of fragility and strength which I identified with. We met and discussed doing a project together. I had the idea for the music for the IBM piece and we developed it together as a dance performance. IBM 1401 is a piece about our relationship with machines and how we communicate with them. As our tools become more and more complex, they start to resemble us more and more. We wanted to explore this relationship and if it can be considered a nurturing relationship, like one between a parent and offspring.
The tension and duality in the natural and synthetic world is so interesting – is that what drove your trilogy that included IBM 140, and Fordlandia? Is there a fascination with organisations that are omnipresent in our lives, and yet rarely truly explored? Fordlandia seemed like a meditation on Henry Ford’s rubber plant failure in Brazil – I get the impression that you prefer to explore failure than success? Perhaps its effects are far more wide-reaching.
Fordlandia and IBM 1401 are related in the sense that they are about our relationship with technology and nature. Fordlandia is more about the clash between nature and technology while IBM is about the way we relate to machines. Fordlandia is also about failed utopias, about how nature revolts against the encroachment of technology and the melancholy beauty of grand, abandoned building projects slowly being reclaimed by nature.
This brings to mind old traditions – and your beautiful collaboration with Bill Morrison on The Miners’ Hymns last year. I believe you didn’t know too much about the northern English mining tradition at all before then, and it is quite a specific identity. It was poignant and fitting that you performed it in Durham Cathedral. Interestingly, The Unthanks also played in Durham Cathedral, with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band last year. Both seemed like elegies for what has gone before.What feeling did you gain from it about those miners experiences and lives and what has happened to that identity?
I’m interested in this period of industrial history, and the idea of working with this branch of England’s industrial heritage appealed to me, and was very much in line with some of the themes I’d worked with before. The project deals with labour unrest and in this respect it relates to Fordlandia, which touches on similar themes. The Miners’ Hymns is about absence in a way, about how an entire culture and the way of life of entire communities can be wiped out. So it’s very much a requiem for a lost industry and way of life, but it’s also a celebration, because the echoes of this culture and this heritage is still very much present in these old mining communities, for example in the brass band tradition. I played in brass bands as a student and my father did as well, so I know this culture well, even though it was in Iceland and not in the North-East of England. I love writing for brass, but I was always going to approach it very unconventionally. I like to know the tradition and be informed by it, and as a foreigner, I felt it was very necessary to approach this material carefully and do my research, but in the end things are always filtered through my own prism, my own sensibilities.
We spent some time in the North-East of England, Bill doing research in film archives and I working with local musicians. We talked about the structure of the film and what visual material Bill would concentrate on, but the music was written first, I didn’t see any finished edits until just before the live performance in Durham Cathedral.
Your body of work honours various traditions, in order to swell and inspire your own creativity to new heights – what has been the hardest project you have worked on?–that has challenged your capabilities as a musician and composer the most?
I wrote a long orchestral work last year, A Prayer to the Dynamo, which is thematically related to IBM 401 and Fordlandia and is the last part of the trilogy. It’s inspired by the work of Henry Adams, Edison and Nikola Tesla. It premiered in Canada in February and it was a big challenge to write for such a large orchestra.
You mentioned your film scores as being very different to your “personal projects”, could you expand a little on why?
In a way it is very different, especially in logistical terms – you have a limited amount of time to write a certain amount of music and a specific budget to record it, so the creation of the music will always have these practical constraints. But it can be very stimulating creatively to have these constraints – the discipline and time pressures of writing can have a very good effect on the writing. Musically, there’s very often a lot of overlap between my personal projects and the film scores, I don’t really have a special hat I put on for writing for film, it’s the same process and the same approach, but films always have some specific requirements, of course.
You have always been instinctively collaborative, which was the remit of your “think tank” Kitchen Motors. Even though you wound things up some years ago, do you think you might work on anything through Kitchen Motors in the future?
I recently did a collaboration with an electronic duo, KTL, where I orchestrated a long drone piece they sent me, which I recorded with a 60 piece orchestra. I find it necessary to work with new people and I like the feedback and the dynamics of working collaboratively. I do a lot of work on my own, working long hours alone in the studio, so it’s good to break it up occasionally with collaborations. Kitchen Motors was founded on the idea of creating and curating collaborations between different artists in Iceland and to create hybrid projects and art forms. We were very active between 1999 and 2005 and then progressively less active as our own solo projects took precedence so in 2007 we decided to end the project. It was a very strong force in Iceland, particularly in the first two to three years and a lot of things came out of it. It was very much a product of its time and the dynamics that existed at that time. I don’t think it could exist in the same way today, because things are different now, so it made sense to end it.
Going back to space again, you live in Copenhagen – one of my favourite places – how influential a city and space is it on you?
I like its intimacy and that you can bike everywhere, you don’t need a car and everything is ten minutes away. I love their film scene, the Danes have a very highly developed film culture, the festivals are amazing and they documentary scene is very strong.
It is a special experience to see you, Hauschka, and Dustin O’Halloran in one evening, how would you describe the sympathy and kinship between you all?
We’re friends and we’ve worked or played together before. We all get along and we had a window in our schedules, so it made sense to do this tour. We’re all quite different, although there are some similarities as well.
We each have our strengths and hopefully we complement each other.
Also published on Medium.