Jóhann Jóhannsson Miners' Hymns
Jóhann Jóhannsson was born in Iceland but currently resides in Copenhagen, Denmark. His work frequently combines electronics with classical orchestrations. His work bears the influence of minimalism, drone music, baroque music and electro-acoustic music and Jóhann’s background in Iceland’s flourishing independent music scene also informs his work. He released his first solo record "Englabörn" in 2002 on the well respected British label Touch on which he combined the influence of Erik Satie, Bernard Herrmann, Purcell, Moondog and the electronic music of labels like Mille Plateaux and Mego. Later works include "Virthulegu Forsetar" (2004), scored for a brass ensemble, electronic drones and percussion, and the orchestral albums "Fordlândia" (2008) and "IBM 1401 - A User's Manual" (2006), a composition which uses sounds produced from the electromagnetic emissions of the old IBM 1401 mainframe computers.
Jóhann’s most recent project is a collaboration with the experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison called "The Miners' Hymns" (2011), a film and accompanying composition for brass band, pipe organ and electronics. The piece had a live premiere in Durham Cathedral in July 2010 and was released on CD and DVD in May 2011. Jóhann is founding member of Kitchen Motors - an art organization that curated events, commissioned works and released records and has been an influential part of the art and music scenes in Iceland for the last 10 years. Members of múm, Sigur Rós, Amiina and many others were all affiliated with Kitchen Motors and participated in their projects. Jóhann's many side projects include the all-analog Apparat Organ Quartet and the electronic “supergroup” Evil Madness.
Jóhann is also an award-winning film composer with many international feature film credits to his name, including The Good Life (Eva Mulvad, DK 2010), Dreams in Copenhagen (Max Kestner, DK 2009), Varmints (Marc Craste UK 2008) and By Day and By Night (MX 2009). He is a prolific collaborator, having worked and performed with artists such as Marc Almond, Barry Adamson, Pan Sonic, The Hafler Trio, Jaki Liebezeit, Laetitia Sadier, David Tibet, Baby Dee, Larsen and many more. Jóhann is also an accomplished composer for contemporary dance and theater. His acclaimed collaborations with the internationally renowned choreographer and dancer Erna Ómarsdóttir, “IBM 1401, a user’s manual” (2002), and “Mysteries of Love” (2005), have been performed widely across Europe.
Jóhann performs regularly throughout Europe and the rest of the world with his 6 piece ensemble, which includes a string quartet, piano, electronics and percussion.
Your latest release, The Miners' Hymns is a collaboration with a filmmaker Bill Morrison - how did you meet Bill and how did you come to write the music for his documentary?
The piece was commissioned by Forma Arts and Media and the Duham Brass Festival. Forma contacted me about the project two years ago and suggested working with Bill. I was already aware of his film "Decasia" which I liked very much. This is very much a collaboration but I wrote the music first and the film was edited to the music - I had not seen an edit when I started writing, although I had seen some of the source material that Bill was using. We spent some time in Durham researching the piece; I worked with the local musicians and Bill did research in the film archives. Preparing the piece, Bill and I talked about the themes we wanted to work with, the kind of imagery that interested us and the story we wanted to tell. There was a lot of material, as the industry had been well documented through the years and there were images available to us from every decade of the last century - so the film spans 100 years of history of the coal miners' of the North of England. What interested me was the idea of making a kind of requiem for a lost industry and for the culture that disappeared with it. Coal mining was the lifeblood of the region for 200 years and over a few years in the 80s it was all closed down with significant consequences for the community.
You chose to use a lot of brass this time around, which I'm guessing was a deliberate choice to provoke working class culture, colliery bands etc.?
In the North of England, there was a brass band in every coal mining village and the band members were mostly coal miners. The brass bands were the soundtrack to the coal miners' lives, from cradle to grave. Even after the industry had disappeared, the brass bands still remained and are now manned by the sons and daughters of coal miners. I was interested in working with this heritage of brass music and it for me it was important to work with local players. We worked with the NASUWT Riverside Band, which has been in existence since the 1870's.
You're obviously better known for strings and electronics -- how was it to write for brass to this extent?
I'm a trombone player and I played in brass bands as a teenager and so did my father, so I've always been interested in the sound and texture of brass. Previously I'd written a piece for brass band, organ and electronics called Virthulegu forsetar, which was released on CD in 2004.
You recorded the the record in a cathedral in Durham, is that right? I'm guessing that wasn't a purely acoustic decision - was it a condition of the commission?
We premiered the film with live music in Durham Cathedral in July of last year. It was a part of the original idea to present it there, as the Cathedral plays big a role in the film as the center for the Miners' Gala, which is the annual "Big Meeting" of trade unions and brass bands in Durham, so it was a natural choice. I decided to record the piece in the Cathedral as well which we did a couple of months after the premiere.
Did you draw on any other works for this project, in any way?
I listened to a lot of brass music preparing for the piece and the music that I connected with the most were the Victorian hymns, this kind of Salvation Army music that these bands played a lot and still do. The title of the piece comes from a hymn composed by a miner to commemorate a mining accident in the town of Gresford in the 1930's where hundreds of miners died - it's well known in the region and is commonly called "The Miners' Hymn". It's an incredibly affecting piece of music and when I heard it, the project kind of fell into place for me, it gave me a key to how to approach this - although I don't refer to the hymn musically in any way, I just borrowed the title. When you work with a cultural heritage that's not your own you have to approach things with a certain humility especially since this is even now a very thorny issue in the region. I approached the music very much on my own terms and I think there's much more Iceland in the music than Britain, but I also think that the themes we're working with in the piece are universal and apply everywhere. You don't have to know anything about coal mining or it's tragic history in the UK to connect with the piece.
How has the reception to the project been so far? The reviews I've seen have been very positive.
The reception has been very positive both for the film and the music. There will be a screening of the film with live musicians in New York end of January. There are some more shows planned, which will be announced later.
Finally, what else are you working on - I heard Apparat have been signed to a new management label, is there anything happening there this year, as in shows or releases?
I´ll start work on a new commission, an orchestral work for a Canadian orchestra this summer. I´m also working on a film score, as well as some theater music for an Australian company. I'm playing some solo shows this year and planning a solo tour of the US and Europe net year. Apparat Organ Quartet's album, "Pólýfónía", will be released in Europe in September. We´ll tour a bit in September, Germany, Scandinavia - and follow this up with some more shows next year.
Jóhann Jóhannsson's Website
Source: Iceland Music Export (IMX)