The Icelandic musician and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson specializes in disparate, subtly moving themes and careful musings on the ways in which industry and society intersect. His body of work abounds with thoughtful moments and unexpected stylistic shifts, from the weaving together of sentimental melodies with dense echoes of obsolete technology on IBM 1401, A User’s Manual to the precise, pop-oriented film soundtrack heard on Dís to the more sprawling sounds heard on And In The Endless Pause There Came The Sound Of Bees.
Jóhannsson’s latest album, The Miners’ Hymns, is the soundtrack to the film of the same name by the experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison. It’s his boldest work yet, ending on the hopeful, resonant themes that emerge from “The Cause of Labour Is the Hope of the World.” Over the course of the last few months, Jóhannsson has responded to questions I’ve sent; what follows is the result.
The Rumpus: Did the process of creating The Miners’ Hymns differ substantially from your previous work?
Jóhann Jóhannsson: What interested me was the idea of making a kind of requiem for a lost industry and for the human aspect of this. Coal mining was an important industry in the region for 200 years and over a few years in the ’80s it was more or less shut down with significant consequences for the community. In the North of England, there was a brass band in every 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 origins in the Pelton Fell Colliery band which was formed in 1870, so they represent 140 years of history.
Rumpus: The “requiem for a lost industry” idea seems to dovetail with some of the themes introduced on IBM 1401 and Fordlandia–were there themes or motifs that all three works share?
Jóhannsson: Yes, there are themes that relate to industry, technology, workers’ revolt and such things. Obsolete technologies and the industries etc. IBM 1401 and Fordlandia are intended as part of a series while Miners’ Hymns is on its own, but they do have a lot in common.
Rumpus: How did you first come into contact with Bill Morrison? Had you known him before work began on the film?
Jóhannsson: David Metcalfe from Forma originally approached me with the idea of doing an audiovisual piece working with the mining heritage of the north of England. Bill was one of the filmmakers he suggested as collaborators and as I’d loved his film Decasia, I was keen on working with him. I saw Decasia years ago at a film festival and I thought it was an amazing piece of work
Rumpus: What was the process of working with Morrison like?
Jóhannsson: We spent some time in the region, Bill researching local film archives and me working with local musicians. We talked about what kind of imagery we were interested in and the structure and so on, but the music was composed first and the film was edited to the music. We premiered the film in Durham Cathedral with live music and this was the first time I’d seen the finished film.
Rumpus: Do you feel that the music that you’ve written for films differs substantially from your more standalone work?
Jóhannsson: I approach things very much in the same way, whether it’s music for a film or one of my own albums. I don’t put a special hat on to write film music or for anything else. Of course writing for film places some restrictions on you, you generally don’t have a blank slate, there are certain parameters already laid out, such as structure that you have to follow to a certain extent. In the case of The Miners’ Hymns, it was different because the music was written first, so the music laid out the structure of the film.
Rumpus: Much of your work that’s been released in the US was originally written to accompany films or theatrical productions. Do you think that someone listening to the music outside of this context is getting the full experience of it?
Jóhannsson: My albums are all created and intended as stand-alone pieces. Even though an album like Englabörn is based on music written for a play, it was significantly re-structured and rearranged for the album, creating something which hopefully stands on its own. The same goes for IBM 1401, A User’s Manual, which was written for a dancer, but always intended as a standalone piece as well. For me the choreography is like a branch that grows out of the original idea and the album is another branch. I don’t think one precludes the other and I think people will experience different levels of the pieces depending on how they are presented–as a concert performance, on record, or as theatrical performance –there’s no hierarchy, they’re all equal levels.
Rumpus: How do you balance music that’s complementary to a particular work with qualities that make it satisfying as a standalone work?
Jóhannsson: For a piece of music to work as an album you have to approach it on the medium’s own terms. For a soundtrack album like And in the endless pause… the music was extensively rearranged and re-recorded to make it work as an album.
Rumpus: Looking at your body of work, the arrangements on Dís stand out–do you plan to return to writing for a more rock-oriented ensemble?
Jóhannsson: Dís was a soundtrack record and soundtrack work gives you freedom to experiment with different sounds and styles. I like to use the opportunity when writing soundtracks to work with sounds I would perhaps stay away from on my solo albums. Some of the Dís record is closer to Apparat Organ Quartet, which is one of my side projects. AOQ released an album last year in Iceland, which will be released in Europe this autumn.
Rumpus: Does the music that you play in the Apparat Organ Quartet have any effect on your composition?
Jóhannsson: Apparat Organ Quartet is a collaborative project with four other composers, so there’s much more than just my voice in there. It’s outwardly quite different from my solo music, but there are a lot of things in common, if you dig deeper. For me there’s very little difference between AOQ and my solo work but I realize that may be a minority opinion. For me it’s a matter of instrumentation more than anything else. There are common threads like minimalism, krautrock and electro-acoustic music that inform both projects.
Rumpus: Besides the groups you were writing this piece for, did the music itself draw any influence from the traditional repertoire of brass bands?
Jóhannsson: I listened to quite a bit of brass music as I prepared for the piece and the music I connected to the most were the hymns – -this 19th century religious, Salvation Army music that the English brass bands performed a lot. 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 1930s 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.
Rumpus: Are there any plans to continue the series that began with IBM 1401 and Fordlandia?
Jóhannsson: Yes, I’m working on the third installment now. It will be a 40 minute piece for symphony orchestra that will premiere in Winnipeg, Canada, on February 3rd. I will record it shortly after that and hopefully release [it] some time next year.