Making a note of the human cost of industrialisation

Wed, Jul 27, 2011, 01:00

Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s latest work is elegant, haunting and inspired by mining culture in the northeast of England. It means bringing out the brass again, writes JIM CARROLL

THERE’S ALWAYS BEEN a ghostly presence at the heart of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s music. The Icelandic composer’s works to date have been elegant, haunting and melancholic, perfectly pitched for the themes that fascinate him.

On albums such as Fordlandia, IBM 1401and his latest, The Miners’ Hymns, Jóhannsson has busied himself with the emotional fallout and human cost of industrialisation. Fordlandiawas based on the story of Brazilian workers who worked for Henry Ford on his rubber plantation in the middle of the Amazon forest, while IBM 1401was inspired by his father’s work with mainframe computers in the 1960s.

The Miners’ Hymnstook Jóhannsson and American film-maker Bill Morrison to the northeast of England on the back of an invitation from Durham County Council to produce a work on the area’s mining culture and brass band tradition.

“I had some very superficial knowledge about the mining industry,” says Jóhannsson. “When you grew up in the 1980s, you heard about the miners’ strikes on the news and you were aware of it in the background. But I didn’t have a lot of information about the culture and history so I had to do a lot of research.

“The same was true of Bill. We were approached as two foreigners coming to work with a cultural heritage which was not our own. There are certain humilities you have to have for something like this because it’s still a delicate issue in the communities.

“But I tried to approach it in my own way and I think there is more Iceland in the music than Britain. It’s all filtered though my own sensibilities.

“You’re working with themes which are, after all, universal so you don’t have to know everything about the history of coal-mining to make a connection with the piece.”

The project also gave Jóhannsson an opportunity to incorporate and experiment with brass instrumentation again, an opportunity he seized upon with relish. “Brass bands are part of my upbringing, brass band records were among the first records I listened to. I am a trombone player and that was my first instrument. My father, who is a percussionist, was in brass bands for many years.

“I’d worked with brass bands before The Miners’ Hymnsso I’ve always been interested in the sounds and textures of brass. It’s a very strong colour to add to a composition. It’s often used as punctuation and to reinforce certain passages, but I’m very interested in the delicacy a brass instrument can have when played very softly, which is a side you don’t hear often. I was very interested in exploring these textures as well as the more strident, almost martial qualities. There are no marches on this one.”

Contextually, the album fits into Jóhannsson’s creative focus on the aftermath of mass industrialisation. “I’m fascinated by the ruins and remains of industrialisation. In this post-industrial society, when we’re moving away from what was the norm, we have to deal with what it has left in its wake in terms of the impact on people and the environment.”

Jóhannsson is not so sure about how or why this fascination came about. “Maybe it’s a nostalgia for a more human model of the world and the idealism where industrialisation was a progressive movement towards a better quality of life for all, which has manifestly not been the case.”

He notes that there was little heavy industry in Iceland when he was growing up. “Maybe the reason for my interest is that we don’t really have that in Iceland,” he suggests. “We have some heavy industry but it’s limited to aluminium smelting and that happened quite recently. We don’t have trains, we don’t have coal. In a way, I suppose, these themes are a reaction to not growing up in an environment where this was all around me.”

Iceland’s recent economic problems have yet to have a direct impact on Jóhannsson’s work, though he believes they will inevitably inform future pieces. “Something like that always has an effect on artists, but it’s an effect which might only become clear later or in hindsight. There’s a lot of discussion going on about it and I know it will be fodder for a lot of work.

“In general, though, the arts in Iceland are not so much worse off than they were. There are obviously fewer public supports and private funds for the arts, but then there wasn’t that much to begin with. The arts flourish at a time like this so it’s a good time for culture in Iceland at the moment.”

Jóhannsson will be performing at the Reich Effect festival, in honour of Steve Reich’s 75th birthday, in Cork this week. He’s a fan of the American composer.

“The first pieces I heard were the tape pieces Different Trainsand Come Out.I was fascinated by his use of found recordings and his use of process and how the slow process becomes the composition. Hearing those pieces a long time ago was quite exciting and definitely an influence on me when I started composing myself.”


Jóhann Jóhannsson performs with the Iskra String Quartet at Triskel, Cork on July 31st as part of the Reich Effect festival. More info at corkoperahouse.ie