Apparat Organ Quartet and Johann Johannsson

(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
Johann Johannsson: Englaborn (2002), 6.5/10
Apparat Organ Quartet: Apparat Organ Quartet (2002), 6/10
Johann Johannsson: Virthulegu Forsetar (2004) , 7/10
Johann Johannsson: Dis (2005), 5.5/10
Johann Johannsson: IBM 1401 A User's Manual (2006), 6.5/10
Johann Johannsson: Fordlandia (2008), 6.5/10
Johann Johannsson: The Miner's Hymns (2011), 5/10
Apparat Organ Quartet: Polyfonia (2010), 6/10

Iceland's composer Johann Johannsson specialized in grandiose constructs for orchestra, choir and electronics. After Englaborn (Touch, 2002 - DG, 2018), a droning soundtrack for a stage play scored for chamber instruments, percussion, electronics, piano, harmonium and voices, and fragmented in 16 short pieces, Johannsson found his true calling with the hour-long ambient sonata Virthulegu Forsetar (Touch, 2004) for eleven brass players, keyboards and bells. The first movement sets the tone with its gentle, slowly-unfolding drones juxtaposed to glitchy hyper-bass turbulence/flatulence. It sounds like a church-like version of Brian Eno's Music for Airports before it pauses and then resumes again, a tactic that Johannsson follows in every movement to restore the listener's attention. The second movement feels like a funereal baroque adagio. It dies after six minutes but then reawakens and the trumpets intone an anthemic motif before the placid resigned ending. The third movement takes almost ten minutes to coalesce in an organic melody. The fourth movement provides an angelic ending, initially sprinkled with bells, an understated symphony of tones that halfway rises solemn, moving, then dies for a few minutes, then rises one last time.

After the film soundtrack Dis (Worker's Institute, 2005), devoted to a Michael Nyman-esque take on orchestral kitsch, the wall of (orchestral) sound further increased on IBM 1401 A User's Manual (4AD, 2006), an "opera" about a historical computer. The orchestral Part 1/ IBM 1401 Processing Unit is oddly romantic for a piece dedicated to a machine, radiating a naive sense of yearning. The orchestral counterpoint reaches an unusual (for him) degree of complexity, tempo and loudness in Part 3/ IBM 1402 Card Read-Punch. Waves of melody flood Part 4/ IBM 729 II Magnetic Tape Unit. The machine sings through a vocoder in Part 5/ The Sun's Gone Dim And The Sky's Turned Black, a tender robotic carillon-like melody that Laurie Anderson would have liked with an arrangement that sounds like vintage Ennio Morricone.

Fordlandia (4AD, 2008), the second part of the trilogy about technology. unwound a looping symphonic adagio a` la Pachelbel, the 13-minute Fordlandia, a series of variations for guitar and orchestra over the same melody. The 15-minute symphonic poem How We Left Fordlandia is basically an ecstatic version of the same idea. The nine-minute crescendo of Melodia, one of Johannson's most energetic compositions, has a Dvorak-ian exuberance that almost spills into Slavic folk dance.

A completely different musician was the one who contributed to the hilaarious Apparat Organ Quartet (founded in 1999), consisting of four keyboardist and a percussionist, who debuted with the futuristic synth-pop of Apparat Organ Quartet (Skelt, 2002), notably the robotic disco-music of Stereo Rock & Roll, The Anguish of Space Time , almost a tribute to Todd Rundgren's Utopia, the emphatic horror sci-fi waltz of Seremonia, and Global Capital, which sounds like a remix of Eddy Grant's Electric Avenue (1982). Eight years later they followed it up with Polyfonia (12 Tonar, 2010), containing the effervescent march Babbage, the childish singalong Konami, Síríus Alfa, a metal update of the robotic disco-music of Stereo Rock & Roll, the elegant rhythmic mutations of Pentatronik, from pow-wow beat to hysterical punk-rock and back, and especially Polynesía, which sounded like a remix of Gershon Kingsley's Pop Corn (1969) and in fact a medley of instrumental hits from the 1960s.

Evil Madness, a supergroup comprising BJ Nilsen, Johann Johannsson and Sigtryggur of Stilluppsteypa, debuted with the neo-disco horror soundtrack of Demon Jukebox (12tonar, 2006), later replicated on Super Great Love (Editions Mego, 2011), Cafe Cicago (Ultra Eczema, 2010) and Super Great Love (Editions Mego, 2011).

Johannsson's The Miner's Hymns (2011), recorded in a cathedral, sounds more like an exercise in "rhythm" (in deciding when to play and when to stop playing), than an exercise in liturgical melody.

He quickly became one of the world's greatest specialists in film soundtracks: And in the Endless Pause There Came the Sound of Bees (2009), Free the Mind (2012), Copenhagen Dreams (2012), Prisoners (2013), I Am Here (2014), McCanick (2014), The Theory of Everything (2014), Sicario (2015), End of Summer (2015), Arrival (2016), Mandy, etc.

I Am Here (2014) was a collaboration with BJ Nilsen.

End of Summer (Sonic Pieces, 2015) was a collaboration with cellist Hildur Gudnadottir and Lichens.

His oratorio Drone Mass was premiered in 2015.

Orphee (Deutsche Grammophon, 2016) contains 15 instrumental pieces inspired by the myth of Orpheum.

Johann Johannsson died in 2018. His first film came out posthumously, Last and First Men (2019).

(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
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