SEEDBANK 4: Virðulegu Forsetar & the Legacy of Jóhann Jóhannsson

SEEDBANK is a sporadic review series highlighting recent history’s most influential, cultified and all-around masterfully crafted documents of experimental music, ranging from pioneering works to modern day classics.

JJ_Virðulegu Forsetar

Icelandic musician and composer, Jóhann Jóhannsson, died on February 9 of this year. He was only 48 years old, but had to his name accrued a sizeable list of albums and accolades. Jóhannsson became widely known for his scores for films like Sicario and Arrival, but it was his novel approach to classical composition that separated him from the pack. His experimental touch was strongest before he even played or wrote down a note. It began with brilliant concepts that would become the architecture in which his pieces became alive. His most lauded work, IBM 1401, A User’s Manual, stands as one of the better examples of Jóhannsson’s music rising up to meet its conceptual backbone (the album is a tribute to the composer’s father, who worked for IBM computers. A manual is heard read aloud in parts of the album).

Jóhannsson’s 2004 release for Touch, Virðulegu Forsetar, gives even more clout to the claim that simpler is better. The album is not the conceptual powerhouse of his discography, but it remains one of his strongest works (personally, I think the strongest). Born from the idea of assembling an ensemble and playing a piece in a specific church (the Hallgrimskirkja cathedral in Reykjavik, Iceland, to be exact), the music carries with it the weight and emotional resonance of that place of worship and its history. Sonically, the elements will appeal to even the most naive of listeners, featuring the pleasantries of horns, organs, glockenspiel and bells. Compositionally, on the other hand, Virðulegu Forsetar is a monster. This music is not designed for the passive listener, rooted with a long view patience reminiscent of Phill Niblock and the type of subtle instrumental hue changes that would make Éliane Radigue proud.

Virðulegu Forsetar is split into four parts and immediately opens with a cluster of notes for organ and brass. This recurring cluster is the album’s mainstay, ascending triumphantly from a bed of smouldering drones at varying intervals. As the music rolls onward, the quiet sections get longer, to the point where minutes will go by before the familiar phrase is heard again. I feel a near unwavering anticipation take hold during these low rumbling sections, knowing full well that those luminescent horns will soon cut through again like a beacon of light. An astute audience will notice how the cluster plays out a slightly different way each time it is reintroduced; that’s probably not enough to curtail a superficial opinion of this music being too repetitive, but it is precisely one of many reasons it doesn’t stale.

Jóhann Jóhannsson never made the same record twice, but on Englabörn (2002), IBM 1401, A User’s Manual (2006), and the more recent Orphée (2016), he played the comfortable role of composer, if not a little too assured of where his music would take him. On Virðulegu Forsetar he was an explorer. Restricted to the bare necessities, Jóhannsson took his music across wide expanses and eternal planes and back again. Somehow he evokes the boundless and immutable presence of all that can reside in this world. He would never again attempt to achieve this grandeur. I like to imagine that this was a deliberate choice, that maybe a composer should only delve once into a sonic territory as unforgiving as Antarctica. And what is Virðulegu Forsetar if not percisely that: an album whose unmapped terrain possesses a singularly unclad beauty.

May he rest in peace. Jóhann Jóhannsson (09/19/1969 – 09/02/2018)

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