[25 February 2009]
Since his birth as the artist as we all know him, Jóhann Jóhannsson seems duly committed to the idea of making “more-than-music”. The label he runs on the side, Kitchen Motors, doubles as a “think tank” dedicated to “the search for new art forms and breaking down the barriers between forms, genres and disciplines”, as though their highest achievement would be the creation of a room that allowed us to experience music through all five senses of the body. (That would be pretty cool, actually.) The records he releases under his own name reflect his ambition, both in concept and execution. Englabörn, his first, was an achingly beautiful set of miniatures derived from music he had written for a tumultuous Icelandic play, utilizing a string quartet, acoustic percussion and electronics. Virðulegu Forsetar stretched drones, pianos, organs, and a brass band over an atmospheric hour, and IBM 1401, A User’s Manual paired (if not married) a 60-piece string orchestra with the sounds of a 1960s IBM mainframe computer that was the lifeblood of Jóhannsson’s father before mainframes became obsolete.
Fordlândia is Jóhannsson’s most extravagant work, attempting a sense of cinematic grandeur, elegiac sadness, and high drama. It’s also his most straightforward. The electronics that appeared at least sparingly on previous recordings are now completely gone. Jóhannsson still claims a hands-on approach that involves processing the heck out of his instruments, but that’s not really apparent from the available evidence; the strings sound exactly like strings, the woodwinds sound exactly like woodwinds, et cetera. At this point Jóhannsson’s music has essentially become modern classical, and Fordlândia—with its time-honored leitmotifs, classical music traditions (a five-minute ritardando!) and rigid adherence to orchestral instrumentation—is far more contiguous with Gabriel Fauré‘s Requiem in D minor than it is with that Junior Varsity KM disc it sits next to in the electronica section of your local record shop.
The pieces that bookend Fordlândia are long and build ever-so-slowly to climaxes we can see coming a mile away, filling the void that Sigur Rós left when they went all Animal Collective on us. Though the three-minute songs on Englabörn were far easier to take than the quarter-hour songs on Virðulegu Forsetar, “Fordlândia” and “How We Left Fordlândia” demonstrate that Jóhannsson can be just as effective in the extended format. The title track, for a 50-piece string orchestra, pipe organ and guitar, is an auspicious Scandinavian sunrise transported from the medieval period. It’s an accomplished exercise in layering and progression, each set of instruments climbing onto the stair that the previous ones have laid out for it, and though we know exactly where it’s heading, the journey is breathtaking. (For a contemporary, non-classical parallel, see Eluvium’s “Taken”.) In accordance with its title, “How We Left Fordlândia” closes the disc with a conflicted farewell to the landscape that “Fordlândia” painted for us. At the 7:15 mark, when the violins reach their apotheosis and scale downward as they remain at a fever pitch, no other image comes to my mind but a group of heroic soldiers on horseback leaving their poverty-stricken Dutch village at dusk, never to return.
Whether this stripe of long, lumbering classical music will fly with today’s young listeners is questionable, now that Mono, Explosions in the Sky, and a legion of long, lumbering post-rockers have worn out their welcome. The songs in the middle are shorter and employ a similar set of tricks, but somehow feel less rewarding. The four-part “Melodia”, dispersed in pieces throughout the record, begins with a lone clarinet and moves through different instrumentation before the longest version, “Melodia (Guidelines for a Space Propulsion Device Based on Heim’s Quantum Theory)”, expands upon the vignettes without ever really saying much. “The Rocket Builder (Io Pan!)” and “Fordlândia - Aerial View ” are string-led pieces that reference what we already hear in the longer tracks, with a slightly more paranoid and claustrophobic edge. “The Great God Pan Is Dead” keeps the strings but adds the sounds of a storm and—most importantly—a women’s choir. They’re singing a lament for the death of the forest god Pan like crying angels in a statuesque Caravaggio, swirling to the apex of a marbled church. Jóhannsson has opened up the sound here in a way that makes the best use of his recording locations, usually cavernous churches and cathedrals in Northern Europe. (And if he ever were to commandeer an entire album with a choir, I’d be the first in line to buy it.) But if “The Great God Pan Is Dead” is an elegant silk shawl, what surrounds it feels more like a scruffy brown coat from a film set in a wintry Poland during World War II: Substantive? Sure. Pleasurable? Hardly.
I’ve deliberately waited until now to share the backstory of Fordlândia—perhaps the most ambitious that Jóhannsson has penned—because I wanted the music to stand on its own for as long as possible, the way it probably should have. Just as IBM 1401 was a personal, philosophical meditation on the obsolescence of old technology (and the concurrent obsolescence of his father’s importance by his association with mainframes), so does Fordlândia examine the impact of industrialization on our world. The title is a reference to Henry Ford’s failed utopia of the same name, an American compound he tried to establish in the heart of the Amazon rainforest during the 1920s. If this is the record’s dominant theme, Jóhannsson has woven in sub-stories involving rocketry, paganism, quantum mechanics, chimeras and Victorian poetry that, together, make a wicked kind of sense. “The Rocket Builder (Io Pan!)” was inspired by John Parsons, a leader of space travel who blew himself up in his California garage for reasons as yet unknown. (Parsons was also an occultist who chanted Aleister Crowley’s “Ode to Pan” during test flights—hence the title, and the track’s ominous foreboding). “Melodia (Guidelines for a Space Propulsion Device Based on Heim’s Quantum Theory)” is named for the German physicist Burkhard Heim who proposed a method to travel faster than light, and was maligned until after his death. These stories Jóhannsson outlines as the basis for his record are filled with titillating imagery, startling in their sudden violence, and stitched together with the subtle power of a Robert Altman masterwork.
Of course, the music doesn’t have a prayer of competing with the milieu that’s meant to accompany it. Fordlândia is melodious, theatrical and skillfully crafted, as Jóhannsson’s records are wont to be, but it’s far too stodgy and mannered to evoke much more than what I’ve provided here. As Jóhannsson appears to take stabs at eclipsing himself, he’s also becoming increasingly entrenched in a holding pattern that narrows his stylistic range to a disheartening degree. So while Fordlândia may be his prettiest record, it’s arguably his dullest. I do see a little of Jóhannsson in Heim, the German physicist, in his attempts to create something so monumentally, unbelievably huge while the rest of the world laughs or scratches their heads. I’ll put a little money on the possibility that Jóhannsson saw a little of himself in Heim as well. Yet his failure to turn his provocative inspirations into similarly provocative music is the reason why Fordlândia is not a magnum opus but a tragic near miss. “How We Left Fordlândia” is supposed to leave us with an image of the Amazon growing over the vestiges of Henry Ford’s failed experiment; I’m left instead with the thought of traveling to the Amazon and expecting a lush, intoxicating rainforest, only to be faced with a fully-built Fordlândia—shiny, sterile, and disappointing.