"LAST & FIRST MEN" - A TOWERING ACHIEVEMENT
“A breath-taking requiem for the final human species in civilisation, majestically put together over seven years by a composer who is destined for sheer greatness.”
Manchester Evening News
- Jóhann Jóhannsson’s magnum opus set for world premiere at Berlinale 2020 in February and release on Deutsche Grammophon soon afterwards
- Last and First Men, a haunting multimedia project, draws from classic cult sci-fi novel and images of mysterious monumental sculpture to create elegiac meditation on memory and loss
Last and First Men is Jóhann Jóhannsson’s poetic swansong. The Icelandic composer was working on the score of his magnum opus at the time of his death in February 2018, distilling and intensifying the symphonic soundworld that he had premiered at Manchester International Festival (MIF) little more than six months earlier. Jóhannsson devised the multimedia work’s visual concept, travelled to the former Yugoslavia to shoot footage of isolated locations and futuristic war memorials, then set about marrying haunting images to music.
The final version of the film, which tells the story of the extinction of humanity, was completed by Norwegian cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grřvlen. It is narrated by Oscar-winning actress Tilda Swinton, and features performances by several of Jóhannsson’s regular musical collaborators, including members of Theatre of Voices, and the Academy Award-winning Hildur Guđnadóttir on vocals, cello and percussion.
Last and First Men receives its world premiere on 25 February at the 2020 Berlinale and will be issued digitally worldwide by Deutsche Grammophon on 28 February. The film will then be released on Blu-ray, packaged together with the original score recording on CD (27 March internationally, with an earlier release date of 28 February in Germany, Switzerland and Austria), and as part of a Limited Deluxe Vinyl Art-Edition, which also comprises three art prints (27 March internationally; 10 April in the US).
The project was conceived a decade ago as an idea for a film inspired by Olaf Stapledon’s eponymous science-fiction novel, a chilling “future history” first published in London in 1930 and now a cult classic, and by Antwerp-based photographer Jan Kempenaers’ Spomenik, a collection of mystical images of brutalist war monuments commissioned by Marshal Tito and built on the sites of World War Two massacres and concentration camps in the republics of the former Yugoslavia.
“We wanted to film these sculptures in a formalistic manner to emphasise their strange asymmetrical beauty. We woke every morning at four o’clock to be ready for sunrise and stayed outside filming all day until there was no light. It was one of the happiest experiences in my life, and one of the most gruelling.” (Jóhann Jóhannsson, 1969-2018)
Jóhannsson’s vision evolved into a multimedia artwork shot on high-definition 16mm black-and-white film and accompanied by music of mantra-like intensity. He worked on the project between creating the Oscar-nominated soundtracks for James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything and Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, before finally drawing together images and music in the summer of 2017 to form the grand movie he’d always dreamed of making.
“I think Last and First Men will live on in many different incarnations. It’s a big ask for people to sit for 70 minutes and look at concrete and hear about the end of humanity, but hopefully we’ve taken all these elements and made something beautiful and poignant. Something like a requiem.”
(Jóhann Jóhannsson in an interview with journalist and author Andrew Male)
After the premiere of the original version at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, Berlin-based composer and sound artist Yair Elazar Glotman worked together with Jóhannsson on transforming the score. “He said Last and First Men was a work in progress and that he was interested in scaling down the orchestra in order to create a more direct and intimate sound,” recalls Glotman. Following Jóhannsson’s death, he spent almost a year interpreting his friend’s wishes, as well as composing the missing parts of the score. “I could no longer consult with him, but since we’d collaborated on the project beforehand, I had a map, an idea of where to go.”
That map led Glotman to work with musicians close to Jóhann Jóhannsson and also to incorporate the composer’s treasured harmonium into the work’s final version. “It’s been with his family for three generations and was about to be sent back to Iceland,” he notes. “So my first priority was to make sure we recorded on it before it returned home. That was incredibly emotional. It’s now an integral part of the sound of Last and First Men.”
JÓHANN JÓHANNSSON - 12 CONVERSATIONS
Deutsche Grammophon to issue world premiere recording of 12 Conversations with Thilo Heinzmann a twelve-movement string quartet by Jóhann Jóhannsson performed by Echo Collective.
The album is set for release on 20 September 2019, a day after the composer would have turned 50
Jóhann Jóhannsson’s sudden and untimely death in February 2018 put an end to his unique practice of bringing different art forms together. The Icelandic composer was known for his inventiveness in allowing music and literature, music and theatre, music and film to communicate with one another in his works, and for combining classical and electronic elements with original, profound and often melancholic results.
British philanthropist and art collector Richard Thomas was fascinated by this process of breaking down artistic boundaries. He came up with the idea of commissioning a work that would establish a dialogue between music and the visual arts, with neither form overpowering the other, and in which the production and interpretation aspects of each would blend together to create a single entity. Thomas already had an artist in mind for his project – Berlin-based painter Thilo Heinzmann. He in turn thought instantly of Jóhann Jóhannsson.
Thomas’s original inspiration had something of an ulterior motive – his conviction in the ideals of the European Union. Now he had an Icelandic composer based in Denmark working with a German painter on an idea originated by a British music-lover, a project which would later also involve the Brussels-based musicians of Echo Collective – all in all a reflection of the cultural unity which, for many, is central to the EU.
Over a period of four years, Heinzmann and Jóhannsson met up from time to time and engaged in a series of in-depth conversations about art, politics and their own lives. Working to, or rather with, a painting by Heinzmann, Jóhannsson composed a new work for string quartet, 12 Conversations with Thilo Heinzmann, which will be released by Deutsche Grammophon on 20 September, the day after what would have been his 50th birthday.
Commissioned by the Richard Thomas Foundation, 12 Conversations is both exceptional in and typical of the composer’s output. The Golden-Globe-winning Jóhannsson, who was born in Reykjavík in 1969, established connections not only between music and other artforms – almost standard practice among Icelandic artists of his generation – but also between different musical genres and eras. A brilliant auto-didact, who learned the trombone and the piano, and studied languages and literature at university before cutting loose to immerse himself in Iceland’s hugely varied and often raucous indie rock scene, he was constantly aware of the interplay between genres, between all times and sounds.
One of Heinzmann’s paintings adorned Jóhannsson’s studio wall as he worked on 12 Conversations, a score of absolute purity, written just for string quartet and entirely devoid of electronic elements. It is, in a way, a pattern book of his musical craftsmanship, which – in the light of his early death and the realisation of what he might yet have been capable of writing – gives serious pause for thought.
The work’s dozen movements amount to a creative union of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s personal expression and the influences that shaped his musical language. These conversations involve a dialogue not only with Thilo Heinzmann’s art but also with the spirit of musical Minimalism past and present. Echoes of simple Baroque ground-basses and sustained affects range across the composition’s expressive universe, at times used to build hypnotic states of high tension, at others to open a still space for inner reflection. There’s room, too, for laments and elegies – reminders of our mortality – and for melancholy dances. After exploring the infinite possibilities of tonal textures and sound colours in so many of his works, Jóhannsson creates a new expressive world in 12 Conversations. The string quartet’s intimacy and the direct, heartfelt emotions of simple melody, stripped bare of electronic or digital clothing, set this album apart from his earlier releases.
12 Conversations seems tailor-made for the Echo Collective players heard on this recording – violinists Margaret Hermant and Sophie Bayet, viola-player Neil Leiter and cellist Thomas Engelen. The musicians of this ensemble have made a name for themselves as genre-defying pioneers, dismissive of any barriers between classical and diverse musical genres. They have worked with contemporary artists such as Dutch pianist Joep Beving and A Winged Victory for the Sullen.
Jóhann Jóhannsson worked with them for three years on an earlier work, Orphée, and came to admire them greatly because, he said, they understood that apparently simple music is not to be taken lightly, that its dynamics and expressive aspects require absolutely precise calibration. Shortly before his death, he invited them to help him realise a definitive edition of 12 Conversations. In the event, they were tragically deprived of the opportunity of discussing the finer points of the score with him, instead basing their interpretative decisions on the conversations they had managed to have with him about the work.
Premiered in London in 2016, 12 Conversations with Thilo Heinzmann as now recorded by Echo Collective, forms part of Deutsche Grammophon’s ongoing celebration of Jóhannsson’s life and work. The Yellow Label’s tribute began with the release of Retrospective I, the first of a two-part edition comprising his most significant compositions. Retrospective II and a number of previously unrecorded works and unissued recordings are set to follow at a later date.
Echo Collective will be performing 12 Conversations with Thilo Heinzmann live on tour this autumn, with concerts in Germany, Belgium, the UK and elsewhere (a summary can be found here).
Jóhann Jóhannsson – RETROSPECTIVE - CAPTURING THE ESSENCE
Deutsche Grammophon celebrates the life and work of the late Jóhann Jóhannsson with a two-volume retrospective edition
RETROSPECTIVE I to be released on 26 April 2019
A year has passed since the untimely death of Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. In tribute to an exceptional artist and musical storyteller, Deutsche Grammophon is set to release a two-volume selection of his most important works. RETROSPECTIVE I will be issued on 26 April as a deluxe hardcover book edition, with seven albums featuring Jóhannsson’s earlier works, including his previously unreleased soundtrack to the documentary White Black Boy. All seven albums will now be made available on the Yellow Label.
The phenomenal Jóhann Jóhannsson was, in his own words, “obsessed with the texture of sound”. Together with a serious dose of creative inspiration, that obsession enabled him to distil music into primal forms. He had a gift for bringing together highly complex themes and starkly contrasting musical ideas with both apparent ease and striking emotional directness. The composer died a year ago at the age of just 48. Deutsche Grammophon is now celebrating his legacy with a two-part retrospective project which will encompass all his major works, along with a previously unissued soundtrack album. The first part of this special edition will appear on 26 April and will comprise seven albums and a hardcover book.
Born in Reykjavík on 19 September 1969 Jóhann Jóhannsson was involved with music from an early age. As a young man he played in various rock and pop bands and was part of Iceland’s indie scene, before eventually deciding to focus on writing music rather than performing. His debut album, Englabörn, which came out in 2002, reveals that even at that early stage, he was already a master storyteller, a composer who could translate feelings and emotions into powerfully atmospheric soundscapes and compelling musical portraits. Jóhannsson gained international renown for his 2013 score for the film Prisoners – just two years later he won a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for the score for The Theory of Everything. A second Oscar nomination followed in 2016 for the thriller Sicario (2015). He went on to write the scores for the science fiction film Arrival and for The Mercy – the latter album was released shortly before his death; further Hollywood projects were in the pipeline.
A pioneering figure in the contemporary music scene, Jóhannsson ignored the barriers between classical and electronic music. By fusing together Minimalist elements, traditional forms, symphonic expansiveness and both acoustic and electronic sounds, he created not only hynotically lyrical images, but also an entirely new musical idiom.
The selection of early works that have been chosen for Deutsche Grammophon’s RETROSPECTIVE I show Jóhannsson to have been a composer of imagination and versatility in equal measure. The earliest recording is Virđulegu Forsetar (2004), an hour-long elegiac work for eleven-piece brass ensemble, percussion, electronics, organ and piano, recorded in Reykjavík’s Hallgrímskirkja. The soundtrack album Dís features an exceptional array of artists, including members of the bands The Funerals and Singapore Sling, and singer Ragnheiđur Gröndal, who all give intensive voice to Jóhannsson’s melancholy narrative. And in the Endless Pause There Came the Sound of Bees – which weaves together orchestral writing with electronic synth sounds in unique style – was written to accompany the animated short Varmints, while The Miners’ Hymns is the audiovisual masterpiece that resulted from a hugely productive collaboration between Jóhannsson and American filmmaker Bill Morrison. The documentary soundtrack Copenhagen Dreams is Jóhannsson’s tribute to the city in which he was living at the time – a moving sound collage for string quartet, clarinet, celesta, keyboard and electronics. As for Free the Mind, it was written to underpin a documentary about the power of meditation, and is evocatively scored for orchestra, piano, percussion and electronics.
A special inclusion in this first retrospective volume is Jóhannsson’s score for White Black Boy. Previously unreleased, this is the soundtrack for the Danish documentary of the same name which sensitively tells the story of Shida, a Tanzanian boy with albinism who is taken away from his parents and sent to boarding school, in order to be kept safe from witch doctors who would otherwise target his body parts and blood.
This vibrant and revealing musical portrait of Jóhann Jóhannsson is accompanied by a hardcover book containing essays by Wyndham Wallace and John Schaefer and a generous selection of photos of this most modest of artists, providing further insight into his life and work.
Christian Badzura, Director New Repertoire at Deutsche Grammophon, says:
“As Jóhannsson´s releasing label we are honoured to continue celebrating his hugely rich and diverse catalogue, and look forward to issuing previously unreleased recordings and compositions in the years to come.”
RETROSPECTIVE II will follow in 2020, and will include, among other works, his more recent soundtracks for the films Arrival and The Mercy and the 2016 studio album Orphée. The albums of the RETROSPECTIVE edition will also be available digitally through platforms including Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon, Deezer, Google Play Music, YouTube Music.