by / July 20th, 2011 /

Top Story: Jóhann Jóhannsson, the post-classical elegist

Iceland’s Jóhann Jóhannsson has, at least since 2006’s IBM 1401: A User’s Manual, been one of the most interesting and productive of a loosely affiliated group of “post-classical” composers and musicians, which includes Peter Broderick, Max Richter, and Sylvain Chauveau. In as much as post-classical means anything, it is that the work of Jóhannsson et al embraces and expands on a taut minimalism of the kind seen in the work of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, typically combining it with the lyricism of Arvo Part, John Tavener, and Henryk Gorecki. Steve Reich’s use of narrative in pieces for strings and spoken word, heard most famously in 1988’s Different Trains, is another key source on which Jóhannsson has drawn.

On July 31st, Jóhannsson plays songs from his solo albums with the Iskra String Quartet in the Cork Opera House, as part of The Reich Effect, a festival to celebrate the 75th birthday of Steve Reich, who remains active. In anticipation of his trip to Cork to pay homage, State asked Jóhannsson about his influences…

State: The show in Cork at the end of July is a celebration of the work of the great New York composer Steve Reich. Could you talk a little about where Reich is in the canon for you and what you’ve taken from him as an composer?

JJ: The first piece I heard by Steve Reich were the phase pieces and the tape pieces, Come Out, and It’s Gonna Rain. I was fascinated by his use of found recordings in the tape pieces and by his method of composition as process.

There seems to be a straight line between Reich’s Different Trains and your IBM 1401 – was that a principal inspiration?

Yes, my use of found recordings in that piece was partly inspired by Reich’s tape pieces and his use of found recordings, but also by some Gavin Bryars and Holger Czukay pieces which use similar techniques.

I once interviewed a musician from Dublin (Caoimhin O’Raghallaigh), and in speaking about classical music he said a lot of contemporary stuff, like Bang on a Can, was “nearly more humans as robots rather than humans as animals”, “humans as animals” representing relatively “earthy”, emotional work and “humans as robots” more technical and academic, where obvious emotion is almost to be avoided. Where would you put Steve Reich in this dichotomy, if anywhere, and where would you put yourself?

I’m very interested in the polarity between the mechanical and the emotional. For me, the interesting area is where the two meet or unite. So I don’t reject emotion in my music and this is a problem for some people, as emotion is often equated with sentimentality. But in general I’m very interested in this kind of overripe romanticism, which is on the brink of decay.

The same interviewee described a show that you did in Grand Canal Dock in Dublin in 2008 as follows: “It was so cool! It was so beautiful, because my conception of what he did was of an immensely long and beautiful downward trajectory, so that it started…. it started quite perturbed, and things going on, and within each piece, and over the trajectory of the entire gig, it slowly brought the entire level down to very, very still. It was really beautiful. And to me, it was quite spiritual in its aim. Its aim was to bring everybody’s level of activity way, way, way, way, way down. It was amazing. It was an amazing kind of concept, and to realise it so effectively.” I always loved that description, and I often wondered what your response to that review by a fellow musician would be.

I don’t have a spiritual aim in my music or performances. But you could argue that all music has a spiritual element. Ideally a performance should be a cathartic experience. My goal is to produce a change in the listener, in an alchemical or magickal sense, so in that sense it’s religious music. But my music is much more about tension than tranquility or serenity.

I read that one of your dream collaborations was with Arvo Pärt. Can you say what it is you admire about him?

Hearing his ‘Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten’ changed my life. I admire the simplicity and power of his music.

What is your take on the other “sacred minimalists”, suck as Henryk Górecki or John Tavener? I can’t help hearing these people in your music (Gorecki in particular, at the opening of Fordlandia and the end of IBM).

I’m a big fan of Tavener’s vocal music, but Gorecki is definitely a very important composer for me. Other Polish composers like Wojciech Kilar and Zbigniew Preisner were also an influence, so you could say Polish music has been important for me.

When 2008’s Fordlandia came out, I seem to remember mention of a trilogy (following from 2006’s IBM 1401: A User’s Manual). Can we expect another carefully constructed suite about faded Western industrial powers?

You could say The Miners’ Hymns fits into that theme quite well, but I have a couple of other pieces planned, so it might turn into a quintet.