Jóhann Jóhannsson – Power of Dynamos

By Taylor Burgess

Among the DJ Hedspin and Big Fun craziness which is happening this weekend, The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s New Music Festival is is beginning its forward-thinking series. This year’s festival is featuring Stylus favourites Tim Hecker and Jóhann Jóhannsson, among many other established experimental composers.
This isn’t the first that Winnipeg sees of Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, 41 years old. Years ago, as part of the Núna Now festival, he led an awe-inducing concert—an interlocking of overbearing electronics, shoegaze atmospherics, and a proficient string quartet. His performance on NMF’s closing night, though maintaining those characteristic elements, will be a markedly different honour, as he is premiering a new composition. The piece, A Prayer to the Dynamo, comes rather quickly after his full-length album The Miners’ Hymns (a film soundtrack, to put it simply) yet the piece to make its world premiere has an entirely different concept behind its aura.
“I had a starting image—when I start a piece I always like to have some idea, or some abstract or not-so-abstract image or concept before I start. The thing I was working with in this instance, and which I also take the title, is a chapter in The Education of Henry Adams, where Henry Adams describes a mystical experience he has at the World’s Fair in Paris, in the year 1900.”
Historian and novelist Adams attended an exhibit titled the Great Hall of Dynamos—large-scale and relatively new power converters, and he was amazed, ‘had a mystical experience,’ much in the same way that Jóhannsson was struck by Adams’ words.
“He wrote this whole chapter,” continues Jóhannsson, “which is very lyrical and beautiful, where he equates his experience in front of these dynamos to the power of religion and the power of the Marian cult. In it, he compares the power of medieval religion to twentieth century mechanical energy, manifested in the form of electrical energy. He found this strong interrelation between electric currents—steam and the electric currents—to the cross with the cathedral.”
It was a concept that the composer could relate to, as he laments we no longer experience trepidation at this still wondrous thing.
“We don’t really experience electricity like that. It’s so mundane and taken for granted. That’s what’s so amazing about reading the chapter—this was such a new, strong, mystical, and kind of unexplainable force. Of course, People were aware of the mechanics and the physics behind it, but it was still such an enormous and new source of power with ramifications of possibilities. He gives voice to this awe and fascination that it has.”
Jóhannsson took a poem from the chapter, its title for his composition, and used it as the basis of his piece. Where the free-flowing energy of Adams’ words took him were the modern-day dynamos of his native country land.
“In Iceland, the countryside is littered with power stations which generate power from waterfalls and thermal energy. So I went and recorded the sounds beside these places—the really powerful drones and the sounds of the dynamos in action.”
In addition to his field recordings, to begin and end the piece, Jóhannsson uses a 50 Hz hum, which occurs naturally in electricity, like when electronic gear is connected poorly. Jóhannsson challenged himself to work with the harmonics in the tone.
Naturally, it’s his love of all things electric that set him on his current course of being a contemporary composer with his unique blend of influences.
“I come from a rock background. I used to play in rock bands, like, wall of noise guitar, and I still do. I am very interested in the extremes of the spectrum—going from softly and quietly to having this whole dynamic range, which is why it’s so amazing to work with a string section. If you amplify it, you can go up to a deafening noise. Like you say, this immersion, I like music that creates an atmosphere, an environment almost, to live in. It’s kind of ritualistic in a way.”
He comments that he doesn’t grandstand while on stage, for the sake of his compositions.
“When I perform, I don’t talk or address the audience because I don’t want to insert my personality into the experience. I just want to create a moment where you get lost or the saturation of the moment, where [the listener] becomes totally engaged in the constant experience.”
Jóhannsson’s use of dynamics is certainly something to experience firsthand, though they hold up just as well on record—like on The Miners’ Hymns, which was influenced by the loss of England’s coal mining industry, and the brass bands comprised of miners that still hold the torn communities together to this day.
But at the behest of Jóhannsson’s compositions, how do classically trained players contribute to his unusual sounds?
“Working with classical musicians, you have to speak their language. You have to basically communicate very clearly what you want to do. If you communicate very clearly on paper, then it works out fine. Of course, it’s preferable to work with players who are enthusiastic about new music and are kind of adventurous. And it’s great when classical musicians are, and can improvise a bit. And these days, a lot of young musicians are—they have a background in electronic music, in rock music and have a much more open approach—they’re flexible and they can approach different environments. It’s amazing when you can have the best of both worlds, when you can have players with amazing technical ability, but also a kind of flexibility and a kind of openness to other ways of working which are not purely academic or classical. I’m lucky to have worked with a lot of players like that. Most of the players on my records have a history like that.”
And thankfully, with the WSO having run its New Music Festival for 21 years, who better to play out Jóhannsson’s composition?

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