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Jóhann Jóhannsson - IBM 1401 - A User's Manual

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Artist: Jóhann Jóhannsson

Album: IBM 1401 - A User's Manual

Label: 4AD

Review date: Nov. 23, 2006

Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson first generated international waves in 2002 with Englabörn, an album originally written for a play of the same name. The record’s tragic melodies captured the seemingly infinite, icy air of his native country in a similar vein as Noble Prize-winning author Halldór Laxness’ novel Independent People, both breathing a specific, epic power. His second release for the venerable Touch imprint Virthulegu Forsetar contained one hour-long piece for brass, organ/piano and percussion. Glacial in execution, its live debut took place in Hallgrímskirkja, a church in Reykjavík and the tallest building in the country. While the arrangements found on these releases are steeped in the grandeur of past, Jóhannsson stands out in the fledgling post-classical movement due to his use of electronics.

Last year he released a soundtrack for the film, Dis, on L.A. label The Worker’s Institute, featuring collaborations with members of the Funerals and Trabant among others that could only be categorized as a pop record. One of Jóhannsson’s other projects, the Apparat Organ Quartet, consists of four organists and a drummer who bonded over an affinity for outdated electronic equipment, farfisas, faulty synthesizers and Steve Reich. His latest release, the first for 4AD, is closest in theory to Apparat.

IBM 1401, A User's Manual was originally composed to accompany a dance piece by Erna Ómarsdóttir. The album’s title refers to the story behind the recording. In the 1960s, Jóhannsson’s father was the chief maintenance engineer of the IBM 1401 Data Processing System - one of Iceland’s first computers. Also a musician, he configured the computer to create music employing the machine’s emission of electromagnetic waves to produce programmable “songs.” When the machine was retired in 1971, it was treated to a funeral where its melodies were played a last time and recorded, signaling one of the first examples of electronic music in the country. Jóhannsson learned of the tape the same year he met Ómarsdóttir, whose father also worked for IBM. The piece has since been performed across Europe.

For the album, Jóhannsson conducted a 60-piece string orchestra, juxtaposing humanist emanations with the mechanical sounds of the computer, directly echoing one of the work's general themes: the human relationship with technology. “Part One - IBM 1401 Processing Unit,” launches with the computer emitting a lonely, oscillating tone that is slowly enveloped by flecks of electrickery and finally by the massive, unsettling orchestration. The computer tone, although dimmed, remains constant throughout until a soft distortion spells its end.

“Part Two - IBM 1403 Printer,” begins with what sounds like a turn-the-page “bell” of a children’s read-along audio book (on repeat) before giving way to spoken instructions from the manual of the namesake printer. Outdated tech consulting like “The pins of the coils must be properly latched ... to fix them more securely use cellulose glue” play like artifacts of the early computer era. Apparently his father recorded the computer’s melodies over an audio training guide, the sound source here. A sheepishly stray cello develops around the monotone voice before heightened strings flood every channel. As the orchestration fades we’re left with the guide’s uninspired intonation, which slowly disintegrates as if William Basinski was left in charge of the reels. The track then segues into “Part Three” – the record’s plaintive centerpiece.

“IBM 1402 Card Read-Punch” is as compelling as anything Jóhannsson has put to tape. Sighing cello notes transmit an overarching sense of nostalgia as the manual voice evaporates like breath on a Reykjavik night. Over the last minute and a half the strings retreat from a low-end more akin to Tim Hecker or Pan Sonic – a buzzing hum and wheeze. The orchestration returns for “Part Four-IBM 729 II Magnetic Tape Unit,” the most overt example of the man/machine motif; strings waft away in counterpoint, sharing space with hearing test chimes, static interference, and processed moans.

The finale, “The Sun's Gone Dim and The Sky's Gone Black,” based on a Dorothy Parker poem, was added to the suite solely for the recording of the album. After a computerized voice recites the verse “The sun’s gone dim, and the moon's turned black / For I loved him, and he didn't love back,” the composition peaks as the strings revolt once more above the whirr of dying machines.

By Jake O'Connell

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