IBM 1401, A User's Manual
By Mark Abraham | 28 October 2006
Dom mentioned this in our Pitchfork Festival coverage, but the only thing that really interested me at all about the Icelandic music documentary we saw was just how cool Jóhann Jóhannsson is, and not just because his shiny shorn head reflects the winter sun like an inert eclipse. Dude knows his stuff; he’s a classical composer who composes with very specific goals in mind. Englbörn (2002) gave us Eleanor Rigby’s sixteen happier siblings, pop suites that explored the drippy snow-settled-on-street-lamps ambience of string quartets. Virðulegu Forsetar (2004) adapted note clusters into an epic exploration of space, exploiting early minimalism’s concepts of decay into a demand of alternate renderings by the performers, but it’s just the same thing over and over, awesomely. Dís (2005) was soundtrack work, so while it didn’t quite further Jóhannsson’s conquest of classical experimentation, it certainly showed him playing out other ideas, and made him a bit more human—as did his track on the Touch compilation earlier the year.
But even though Virðulegu Forsetar was borrowing ideas from the same library, IBM 1401, A User’s Manual is the first time he’s been so overt about his Gavin Bryars fetish, and he wears the swooping noise just as well as anything else he’s done. If you’re a fan of Jóhannsson, you already know the basic components of his sound: graceful, melancholic strings slurring across each other, their bowed synapses constantly shifting into beautiful resolutions, but they take their time getting there. Meanwhile, Jóhannsson’s dropping subtle electronic accents underneath, from the plaintive reed organ synth patch that opens the album, to shifting bits of experimental percussion, to found sound, to actual instructions on how to use your computer. It’s very much like Bryar’s classic The Sinking of the Titanic (1975), but here Jóhannsson plays the game through constantly morphing figures, rather than repeating the phrase until it washes away.
Consequently, this is isn’t an ambient album in the formal sense. Jóhannsson is playing with the sound process of Bryar’s work, but his compositions are never quite so simple, and here, though the main idea sounds similar, the players are constantly following his shifting melodies and harmonies, building on the basic figures with a more classical, cinematic feel. And the players are central: check “Part II – IBM 1403 Printer,” where, as a recording explains how to fix a broken device, the strings start in two chord pulses, and the tension is built as the played insert various emotions into each rendering. Just hearing the group insert their own human emotion in the figures is spine-chilling, and the rests in between the surges become endless caverns where you’ll end up inserting your own interpretations, and they’ll bounce around, echoing in the silence.
Strings enter slowly around the cyclic organ patch that opens “Part I – IBM 1401 Processing Unit”; some strings let go, slow rises and cadences figure with brief moments of clarity at the end of phrases, and slight electronic addendums bloom. It’s a slow open to an album that never really speeds up (perhaps in homage to the computer processing speeds of the past), but the details in that hesitance are brilliant, like the chimes that lead the chords into a major resolution, and the grinning distortion that creeps up underneath at the same time. The lush orchestration is unpredictable, moving up where it should go down, or inverting itself when you think it will explode.
“Part III – IBM 1402 Card Read-Punch” is the most compelling track overall, I think. If the main motifs sound like a lazy stream, Jóhannsson is working overtime to capture the effects of every pebble and twig and leaf that are contained therein. Behind the constantly morphing strings Jóhannsson has also inserted a thunder-like wash of noise—it’s too faint to identify exactly, but the effect is fascinating, especially when combined with the swooping sighs of noise he accents the highest register with. The space of the strings—the sense of the room in which they play—is transformed into an endless series of geographies and weathers, and as everything fades to what sounds like distorted guitar and animal noises, it’s like we’ve entered the underworld of hunter and prey upon which the beauty of nature is supported. “Part IV – IBM 729 II Magnetic Tape Unit” rises out of those ashes, the high pitched wails still soaring overhead, but the deep rumbles are slowly transformed into accents on the melody, and he’s punching their entrance, like cannon shots in the distance.
And that might be my only beef here, since at times this album feels a little like a soundtrack album to some overblown epic. And before anybody gets on my case for hating on soundtrack work, it’s the “epic” that is problematic here. Whereas before Jóhannsson has found transcendence with a minimum of means, here the emotion can feel artificial. For the first time it seems like he’s relying on the tropes of classical music, or, even more egregiously, the moments of an epic those tropes should evoke given the way they are typically used in soundtrack work; that is, to tug heart strings. This is only mild criticism, since the album is still one of the most beautiful and haunting things released this year, but I’m not sure it’ll have the endless replayability of his previous efforts. Especially since it ends with something that sounds like the victorious music you play at the end of a period piece when the hero returns. In fact, anyone who has seen a Hollywood epic should be able to plug a narrative into the moments of this album, intentional or no: innocence, a call to arms, an early victory, retribution resulting in a loss of hope, a renewed attempt to rally for the cause, the underdogs emerge victorious from the final battle, and … cue the clipped thunderous cello runs and soaring violins. Okay, I’m being a bit harsh, but the fact remains that while this is beautiful, languid, and momentous, at times it’s just too much. Which, while I don’t really want to drop a hackneyed anecdote about sex and pizza, it’s kind of true, because even if this is my least favorite of Jóhannsson’s albums, it’s still really good, and yet another example why he’s a master of this stuff. Maybe we can get him to do some string arrangements on some indie albums or something, eh?