Whether poised behind his laptop or seated at the grand piano, Jóhann Jóhannsson maintained a stoic and unfathomable expression most of this evening. Though the Icelandic musician was set to make his US debut in the fall of 2008, that show was unfortunately cancelled. But this summer he started a short American jaunt with two performances at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City as part of the Wordless Music Series. In his minimal style, he builds recurring themes from traditional orchestral instruments and electronic elements. His last two albums — IBM 1401, A User’s Manual and Fordlandia — are two parts in a planned trilogy of conceptual albums with technological and corporate American themes.
Accompanying Jóhannsson was the New York based American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) who opened the evening with a performance of Gavin Bryars’ piece, “String Quartet No 1 (“Between the National and the Bristol”)”. After a short break to rearrange the stage, ACME returned on strings, backing Jóhannsson at his laptop, devices, and piano along with Matthias Hemstock fiddling away with electronics and percussion.
The show began with three songs from the newer Fordlandia: “Fordlandia”, which welcomes and guides the listener along before bursting open over a vast glacial panorama, “Melodia (i)”, and the ever-persistent “The Rocket Builder”. Projections of early footage of automobiles and highway construction shone along the walls.
Jóhannsson and ACME also took songs from earlier works, like his debut Englabörn including “Jói & Karen” and “Sálfræðingur”. These songs evoked cinematic images of hurriedly traversing dark alleys observant of peril, as the strings kept the melody and tempo verging on panic before unexpectedly it cuts to black. The sinister aura leaves an uneasy feeling lingering afterwards.
Other pieces were excerpts from past compositions, “Corpus Camera” and “Viktoria og Georg”, and two parts from IBM, “Part I Processing Unit” and “Part V The Sky’s Gone Dim and the Sky’s Turned Black” whose forlorn, processed titular vocal vanishes as it switches to sweeping operatic singing and strings that descend to a more hopeful place.
The sole encore was “Odi et Amo”, a short piece that continued the evening’s somber mood (rarely interrupted aside from waitresses bringing out beer or milk and cookies). And though the stark white lighting rarely varied, only shifting into red and blue tones near the end, the projections remained monochromatic, changing from archival film footage to Icelandic landscapes to abstract scribbles. But finally as the applause came, ACME took their bows and Jóhannsson broke his stoney façade, smiled and bowed.