Fresh perspectives unveiled on poignant reissue of the late Jóhann Jóhannsson’s debut album, set for release by Deutsche Grammophon in remastered form with additional album of ‘reworkings’.
During the weeks before his untimely passing on February 9, award-winning Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson was closely involved in preparations for the reissue of his debut album, Englabörn. Originally released in 2002, the record had been especially remastered, and a second disc containing reworkings of a number of its tracks had also been assembled. Some were by Jóhannsson himself – including a piano version of the title track, performed by fellow Deutsche Grammophon artist Víkingur Ólafsson – while others involved included Ryuichi Sakamoto, A Winged Victory for the Sullen and Hildur Guđnadóttir. Following discussions with his family, the release of Englabörn & Variations will go ahead on March 23, 2018.
The late Jóhann Jóhannsson was already a familiar face within the Reykjavik music scene when his compatriot Hávar Sigurjónsson approached him to compose for Englabörn, his latest play. The musician had played in countless guitar bands since the mid-1980s, as well as collaborating with other like-minded souls, and he was also the mastermind behind Kitchen Motors, an art collective and record label with an electronic and experimental bent. So widespread were Jóhannsson’s interests, in fact, that the same year as Englabörn he released the debut by his latest band, Apparat Organ Quartet. The two couldn’t have been more different: while Apparat Organ Quartet traded in playful instrumental keyboard pop, performed on refurbished vintage instruments alongside a drummer, Englabörn sounded like little anyone had ever heard. A peaceful, graceful intermingling of style, form and content, it was sometimes agonisingly desolate, sometimes gloriously uplifting, but never less than astonishing.
These days, of course, it’s almost impossible to imagine a world without music like Jóhannsson’s. Alongside composers like Max Richter – whose debut, Memoryhouse, had appeared only a few months earlier – he helped blur the lines between classical and electronic music, giving birth inadvertently to a genre now known somewhat disingenuously as ‘new’ or ‘neo-classical’. Over the years that followed, he composed some of the greatest film scores of the contemporary age, and others since – including Ólafur Arnalds and A Winged Victory For The Sullen – have joined him in bringing this new, strangely indefinable sound into the mainstream. Back then, however, this delicate mesh of digital and analogue, of traditional and radical, of old and new, was considered exceptional, in every sense of the word. Moreover, it displayed everything that would set Jóhannsson’s work apart, even if it took time for the world to recognise how the simplicity of its beauty matched the purity of his premise. But catch up they eventually would.
Englabörn – the album – isn’t the original score to Sigurjónsson’s play. Instead, that blossomed into a free-standing album, its sixteen sublime miniatures steeped in austere melodic elegance and profound melancholy. “The music took on a life of its own,” Jóhannsson recalled during preparations for the reissue. “It wasn’t intended to be my first album as a solo artist. Like a fine example of Taoist serendipity and ‘doing without doing’, this material simply demanded to exist as a work in its own right. And, as someone who embraces chance and letting go, and who tries to listen to what the music I compose wants to be – rather than what I want it to be – I was happy to oblige and spend the time required to make it into its own independent work.”
At the time, though it received some positive international coverage, Englabörn’s seamless blend of classical and electronic instruments – released by London’s experimental Touch label – remained something of a hidden gem. Slowly, however, word seeped from his homeland, far out in the North Atlantic, to the world beyond. “There weren’t many composers combining classical instruments with digital processing in this way then,” Jóhannsson said, “but people were ready.” That it’s ended up being reissued sixteen years later by Deutsche Grammophon confirms how far the world has now come.
In many ways, ‘Odi et Amo’, Englabörn’s opening track, represents the album’s essence, and indeed contains the seeds of much of Jóhannsson’s later work. It set to music a short poem by the Roman poet Catullus – known today as ‘Catullus 85’ – which encapsulates the complex nature of human relationships, most notably the grain of hate contained within love’s pearl. This conflict – “Odi et Amo” means “I hate and I love” – was reflected, too, in the way that Jóhannsson matched two forms of music-making that had previously stood largely in opposition to one another. Even within the play itself, its contemplative stillness stood in stark contrast to the chilling onstage cruelty.
“I finalised the music,” Jóhannsson commented of the composition, “during that strange and what seemed, for a day or two at least, apocalyptic autumn of 2001. I wanted the music for the violent end scene to be a vocal rendition of a descending harmonic motif that ran like a thread throughout the play. I’d read ‘Catullus 85’ at university, and it popped into my mind, as ideas do. I was experimenting with a simple application that allowed you to program the computer to ‘sing’ melodies and words using its speech synthesis capabilities. The result – which involved a lot of work to get the computer to enunciate something vaguely resembling Latin! – had an eerie and disorienting quality, and seemed beautiful, tainted, almost defiled, and uncanny at the same time. All these contrasts and seemingly incongruous juxtapositions are of great interest to me. I like to use uncomplicated ideas that have resonances or layers that reveal themselves by association with certain lyrics, concepts or other things. The instrumentation – string quartet and computer voice – objectively reflected the contradictions explored in the poem, while the whole seemed to resonate strongly with the play’s themes.”
Revisiting Englabörn offered Jóhannsson the chance to survey fifteen years of artistic and personal development, and the Variations album, he believed, connected his current creative interests to the album that launched his career. The first to rework tracks were Dustin O’Halloran and Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie – otherwise known as ambient music duo A Winged Victory for the Sullen – and Jóhannsson’s close friend and long term collaborator, cellist and composer Hildur Guđnadóttir. The process gathered further momentum after Jóhannsson remixed ‘Solari’, a track from Ryuichi Sakamoto’s 2017 album, async. The Japanese composer responded in kind by reworking Englabörn’s ‘Joi & Karen’, and further tracks were contributed by composer Alex Somers, composer and producer Paul Corley, and violinist, orchestrator and composer Viktor Orri Árnason.
“The rest of Variations is really my own work,” Jóhannsson continued, and these new visions range from a solo piano version of the title track, performed by fellow DG artist Víkingur Ólafsson, to an arrangement of ‘Odi et Amo’ for unaccompanied choir, interpreted by Theatre of Voices and conducted by Paul Hillier. There are also two further, deceptively simple instrumental takes made by Jóhannsson in collaboration with producer and sound engineer Francesco Donadello. Each reworking, while able to exist independently of its progenitor, provides a distinct twist on the original, simultaneously underlining and enriching the majesty of the material that inspired it.
It no doubt pleased Jóhannsson to see old and new lining up alongside one another, and in a sense that makes Englabörn & Variations as appropriate a release as one might imagine within these distressing circumstances. But there’s something especially poignant in how the album that started his solo career has ended up being the one that caps it. Despite the fact no one ever envisioned it thus, it represents a suitably serene resolution to the conflict that his music so often addressed – Odi et Amo, Alpha et Omega – as though the circle of life was now complete. Like Catullus before him, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s work managed not only to confront life’s most irreconcilable forces, but also to embody them. As he himself said not long before he left us, “Simplicity is hard,” and yet he made it seem so easy. That was never more so than on Englabörn.
By the time Jóhann Jóhannsson left us so horribly prematurely, sixteen years after Englabörn’s release, on February 9, 2018, at the age of only 48, he’d already bequeathed the world some of its finest music in years. Since the early 2000s, he’d written and recorded prolifically, leaving behind eight studio albums – one a collaboration with Hildur Guđnadóttir & Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe – as well as a wealth of film scores. For these he received countless prizes and nominations – too many, certainly, for a humble man like him to list – but among them were scores for Dennis Villeneuve’s Sicario and James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything, both nominated for an Oscar® and a BAFTA. The latter also won him a 2015 Golden Globe, as well as picking up a Grammy nomination, and his score for Arrival, furthermore, earned him BAFTA, Golden Globe and Grammy nominations. Anyone, though, who’d listened to his debut album, Englabörn, back in 2002 would have contended that this was inevitable. The man always had a gift.
In Memoriam Jóhann Jóhannsson
© Anders Ladegaard
The team at Deutsche Grammophon are in deep mourning over the loss of our friend, Jóhann Jóhannsson. In the three years of our close collaboration, a true friendship had grown.
We are speechless and take comfort in the memory of Jóhann’s warm, enigmatic personality, his intelligent dry sense of humour and his relentless uncompromising search for new sounds and concepts. Jóhann’s sonic scapes are unique and the void left by his passing can never be filled.
The power of his music will live on and continue to touch us.