From the musical mines of Iceland


Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson has scored several films, but his haunting music, as heard on his new album, ‘The Miners’ Hymns’, stands up alone, writes SINEAD GLEESON

ASK PEOPLE TO name an Icelandic musician, and most will answer Sigur Rós and Björk. Both have had geographic monopoly when it comes to representing their country musically, but Jóhann Jóhannsson deserves as much acclaim.

Born in 1969, Jóhannsson has established himself as a contemporary composer whose work fuses traditional classical elements and modern electronic aesthetics. He grew up in Reykjavik and his father was an “amateur musician . . . He played percussion, accordion, trombone, and his taste in music was very eclectic. I had three older sisters whose record collections I borrowed, so I was listening to The Velvet Underground as well as Bach, and brass band music.”

Jóhannsson began studying piano at 11, but admits he quickly became interested in making his own music. “Very early on I started improvising. I was more interested in the music that came out of me than any music I heard.”

Jóhannsson released his first record, Englabörn, a decade ago. Its centrepiece, Odi et Amo, was a haunting arrangement of strings with futuristic, digitised vocals. Before that album’s release, Jóhannsson’s main musical work was in film and theatre. He scored several feature films and plays by Icelandic writers, and has since created music for works by Sophocles and Ibsen. The common denominator connecting these projects is music, and Jóhannsson has, unsurprisingly, different ways of working.

“Sometimes you write music to a script, or while a film is being edited. Sometimes I write without seeing any images, but that’s rare. The approach is often based on practical decisions, but I’m interested in the narrative and physical space that music can occupy in a film or play. With that kind of work, there are often tight schedules, that I don’t have with my own work, but all music comes from the same place.”

The idea of overlap, and the order in which work is created, resurfaced with The Miners’ Hymns. It began in 2010 as a project between Jóhannsson and filmmaker Bill Morrison, and last year Jóhannsson released it as a stand-alone album. It was a project that really intrigued him (his father had played brass instruments and records to him as a child) and he was commissioned to write music around Morrison’s edited archive footage of coal miners in the north of England. Many northern towns that had mines, factories or large industrial centres had their own brass bands, and Jóhannsson wanted to pay respect to that tradition.

“Brass has a very distinctive sound. It’s delicate but powerful, but it’s also melancholic and plaintive. Neither Bill nor myself are from Durham, so culturally and historically we came to it as strangers. It had to be approached carefully, with humility and respect. Even though it seemed to be outside of my cultural experience, lots of the songs that the brass bands played were church music, including songs my grandfather used to play on the harmonium.”

The Miners’ Hymns also reinforces Jóhannsson’s interest in preserving old traditions, technologies or objects. His 2002 work IBM 1401, A User’s Manual drew on work his father did in the 1960s as one of the first computer programmers. Fordlandia was inspired by Henry Ford’s simulated city in the jungle. This trilogy was completed with A Prayer to the Dynamo, which premiered in the US earlier this year. Using a Henry Adams poem, it links religious fervour and 19th-century industrialisation.

On Sunday and Monday, the composer completes a triple bill with Hauschka (German composer Volker Bertelmann) and Dustin O’Halloran for shows at Cork Opera House and the Sugar Club in Dublin. He was in Cork last year for The Reich Effect, a concert to celebrate composer Steve Reich, who looms large as an influence for the next generation of classical composers.

“Reich was part of that group that includes Terry Riley and Philip Glass, who had to work outside of the usual institutions and the academic world,” says Jóhannsson.

“They didn’t fit in with the established modes of presenting music, so they formed their own ensembles. They had to carve out their own space – literally, in art galleries – because concert halls were not open to them.”

Those composers have also had huge influence on everything from techno to electronica and the genesis of “classical crossover” – an expression Jóhannsson is comfortable with, especially as his albums have been released by labels such as 4AD and Fat Cat.

“It used to be lonelier. There were fewer people doing this when I started out, but it’s become a more accepted field. It still sits very much between genres, and I’m very happy about that. I don’t want to be part of a genre. I’m more interested in the gaps between them and what’s on the borders.”

Jóhann Jóhannsson, Hauschka and Dustin O’Halloran play Cork Opera House on May 19th, and two Dublin shows at the Sugar Club on May 20th (3pm and 8pm)