I suppose that this story doesn’t even start with Jóhann Jóhannsson and his live performance this past Tuesday at New York’s (le) poisson rouge. Perhaps it begins with a lucky lacquered piano that gets rolled out onto the stage each time a pianist is in town. Or maybe it’s all about the 52 white and 36 black keys that get wiped down before each new concert, and subsequently touched once again by the hands of a great mind, passing through this city on their latest global tour. Yes, those same keys have felt the weighted tap of fingers belonging to the likes of Max Richter, Dustin O’Halloran, Hauschka, Alexandre Tharaud, Valgeir Sigurðsson, Goldmund, Ólafur Arnalds, Chilly Gonzales, more than a hundred others, and of course Jóhann Jóhannsson. They are the lucky witnesses to the show.
On the stage, Jóhannsson uses his whole body as a conductor’s baton to move the accompanying ACME quartet in time with his chords, and the strings blend with the background synth ambiance to drown me in dire in solemn textures. The music is at once familiar and strange. I recognize the pieces from almost every past release: “The Cause of Labour is the Hope of the World” from The Miners’ Hymns (130701, 2011), some from Fordlandia (4AD, 2008), “The Sun’s Gone Dim and the Sky’s Turned Black” off IBM 1401, A User’s Manual (4AD, 2006) and one of my all time favorite compositions, “Odi Et Amo” from Englabörn (Touch, 2002). Although Jóhannsson was commissioned to score the upcoming film Prisoners by Denis Villeneuve, I don’t believe that this Icelandic composer is on tour to promote a newest release. But with the little time he spends on tour, you must surely catch him!
Oh, but Jóhannsson is sporting a full bushy beard around his perfectly round head, appearing at first unapproachable and cold, perhaps in preparation for that long and dark Reykjavik winter… but when I finally shake his hand after the concert, it’s friendly and snug, and he smiles and speaks in a soft cozy accent. The performance leaves me with more thoughts and memories, ones which I intend on analyzing in my head at a later time in more detail. Suffice it to say that there was a moment in time when I completely got lost in the blanket of sound, and as the dynamics of frequencies increased, I perceived a thin layer of reality being slowly peeled back to reveal something else, not sufficient for music, not sufficient for words.
Jóhann Jóhannsson w/ ACME String Quartet: