February 24th 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Weatherill demand places Murray-Darling in jeopardy

EDITORIAL China completes island building in South China Sea

CANBERRA OBSERVED Greens: wouldn't know a cowardly act if they did one

REDEFINITION OF MARRIAGE Government forms say it is fluid gender marriage

FREEDOM AND LAW Gender and anti-discrimination: wedges between you and freedom

HISTORY A look back at B.A. Santamaria gives us a forward impulse

GENDER POLITICS Transgenderism: A state-sponsored religion

LAW AND SOCIETY Protecting freedom of religion in Australia

HISTORY Hungary, 62 years on from the anti-Soviet uprising

MUSIC Reel to real: Johann Johannsson, RIP

CINEMA Sweet Country: Sour taste of bush justice


BOOK REVIEW Lessons from the UK front of the GFC

BOOK REVIEW The dragon has woken and rumbled

BOOK REVIEW Recovery manual for morals and culture


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Reel to real: Johann Johannsson, RIP

by David James

News Weekly, February 24, 2018

The news of the passing of Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson at 48 was as sad as his music. As one commentator opined, it is almost as if he wrote his own requiem.

Jóhannsson was considered a forerunner of the post-classical or neoclassical movement. The defining features of his music were intensely moving string writing and the use of synthesised or artificial sounds. His piece IBM 1401, A User’s Manual, which was inspired by a recording of an IBM mainframe computer that his father made on a reel-to-reel tape machine, features some exquisitely beautiful writing for a 60-piece string orchestra juxtaposed with technological banality.

The contrasts are deeply evocative. In the opening section he uses a repeated figure on a cheesy-sounding synthesiser that contrasts with the lush strings to create a sense of the collision of the mechanical and the natural. The impression given is that the increasingly artificial world we inhabit represents a diminution, a loss of past glories.

This is reinforced in the second section, where the use of a recording of a technician giving instructions about proper maintenance of the computer collides oddly with the potent string orchestration. This tension between the artificial sounds of a mechanistic world and the more natural sounds of the orchestra is explored throughout the rest of the piece.

Jóhann Jóhannsson

It was a tension that Jóhannsson was to maintain in much of his work. It gave his writing a modern, even post-classical, quality, although the string writing was mostly diatonic. There was little effort to use the dissolution of conventional harmony that characterises most “modern” classical writing.

Where he differed was in his use of time. He exploited the push towards resolution that is available in conventional harmony – and which tends to be lost in post-diatonic harmony – but he does it extremely slowly so that the tension often becomes unbearable. We are encouraged to listen to the unfolding of the parts, the sonic texture, as much as where the parts are going.

The combination of synthesised sound and more conventional music has become commonplace, and the results are often bland. What made Jóhannsson different is the exceptional beauty of his string lines, whose movement is graceful and articulate. In his pieces the inelegance of the synthesised sounds are contrasted with their opposite in the string writing, a kind of deeply evocative musical dialectic.

Such a clash produces a rare depth of sadness; a melancholy that is almost unmatched. To enter into Jóhannsson’s world is to embrace not so much hopelessness, as emptiness. There is a trace of futility, especially in a piece like Fordlandia, which was based on a failed utopia: Henry Ford’s attempt to establish a rubber plantation in the Amazon in 1920s, which he dreamed would become an idealised American town in the middle of the jungle.

But for the most part, the impression created is one of dislocation. Eternal longings contrasted with the mechanistic and mundane. To that extent it is very much music of our time; the sounds of the Anthropocene.

It is surprising that more musicians do not try to exploit these sonic tensions, the varieties of sound that hit our ears continually: the strains of a Bach fugue on the car’s sound system being drowned out by the screeching of traffic; Nina Simone’s outpouring of pain and anger competing with the sound of a coffee machine in a café. Such collisions are the aural textures of our time.

Austrian jazz keyboard and synthesiser specialist Joe Zawinul attempted to combine these elements in some of his later ensembles. But for the most part, they are not greatly explored.

They were anything but trite with Jóhannsson. By drawing attention to these collisions in our life of sound he was able to achieve a paradoxical effect in the listener. It is hard to hear to his better music without becoming reflective, and with that comes a type of silence. Silence in the modern urban environment is the one thing that is not heard: competing sounds are everywhere.

There is also, finally, a somewhat otherworldly quality about Jóhannsson’s stately music. The secret of his musicality was that he was in the world of modern, artificial sounds; he was never of it.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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