Tom’s Music Salon: Jóhann Jóhannsson vs. Philip Glass

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Everybody knows who Philip Glass is.  He’s famous for his big productions with Robert Wilson (Einstein on the Beach, Akhnaten, etc).  He’s scored many films too, such as Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Bent, Mishima, and many others.

IBM 1401Few, however, have ever heard of Jóhann Jóhannsson, who has also written soundtracks for feature films, documentaries, works for theatre, and several large-scale compositions out on CD.

Although he is virtually unknown outside of his native Iceland, Jóhannsson’s conceptual scope and creativity certainly rivals Glass’.  While the latter is known for his amazing soundtracks for Godfrey Reggio’s films, Jóhannsson wrote a sweeping work for a 60-piece string orchestra using text from the owner’s manual of the IBM 1401 printer’s manual, an early variable word-length decimal computer from 1959 that was used by small businesses as well as an adjunct computer for large scientific computers (!).  The CD is aptly called: IBM 1401, A User’s Manual.  The monotone voiceover from the reel-to-reel tape service manual, accompanying the IBM computer, drones on about what parts to lubricate, clean, etc. against a backdrop of soaring strings that border on Wagnerian ecstasy.

Jóhannsson also wrote a musical treatment of Fordlândia, Henry Ford’s failed rubber plantation in the Brazilian rainforest.  About this work he commented:

Fordlandia“One of the two main threads running through it is this idea of failed utopia, as represented by the “Fordlândia” title—the story of the rubber plantation Henry Ford established in the Amazon in the 1920’s, and his dreams of creating an idealized American town in the middle of the jungle complete with white picket fences, hamburgers, and alcohol prohibition.  The project—started because of the high price Ford had to pay for the rubber necessary for his car’s tires—failed, of course, because the indigenous workers soon rioted against the alien conditions.”  I would add that they preferred drinking and whoring to what to Ford offered them.

Give these two works a try.  They are startlingly original and unusual, and Jóhann Jóhannsson deserves to be better known.  He also comes to LA with a string sextet (location tba) in May.

–Tom Schnabel