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Jóhann Jóhannsson – a new kind of classical

June 6, 2010

  You’ll find out pretty quickly, if you plan on spending any time on this blog, that I am a fan of Icelandic composers.  I’ll be writing about more of them in future posts, but for me, top of that list is Jóhann Jóhannsson.  With a library of varied works and collaborations under his belt – everything from electronic ambience to alternative organ rock – his solo albums, starting with Englabörn (2002), take on a decidedly more expansive and contemplative tone.

I had the chance to see Jóhannsson on solo tour not too long ago in a tiny, dark club, well off the beaten path – absolutely not befitting the magnitude of his talent, or his influence on the Icelandic music scene, or the sounds that were coming off the stage.  But much like a Narnian wardrobe, for those of us privileged enough to be there, he opened the door to a world much larger than the one we were listening in.

I’m only a few years into this world but it doesn’t take long to recognize the strong sense of musical self that exists among the Icelandic people in general.  Many have tried to define the reasons for this phenomenon, but perhaps there is no one reason; that like a perfect storm, all the ingredients have come together for this time in an ideal amalgamation of creativity.  In any case, no matter what this island produces, it seems to be marinated in magic and innovation.

Jóhannsson is no exception.  It was effortlessly apparent that night why, over the past 10+ years, he has emerged as one of the country’s leading composers of electronic experimental classical music, and also as a pioneering voice for breaking through previously established definitions of art and musicality.

With his solo works, Jóhannsson creates a lush minimalist soundtrack, tapping into the subtle pulses and shifts of life, unearthing its joys and melancholies, frailties and ideals, all in the same breath; building layer upon layer with a tender but unyielding insistence that will take you to the edge of heartbreak only to pull you back again.  Stories and themes are given the time and space to mature with an unnatural grace and patience.  Breathing slows and deepens.

It’s tough finding the words for why I like this music so much; why I go back to it again and again and again and again when nothing else will do; why I can crawl into it for hours and still crave more.  Quite simply, Jóhannsson has woven something that leaves you breathless, exposed, vulnerable.  And we are lovelier for it.

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