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Jóhann Jóhannsson “IBM1401: A User’s Manual”

Published in Blog, Culture Bully. Tags: , .

Roughly a month ago it was brought to my attention that Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson would be releasing an album of new material, this time with an interestingly historic running theme surrounding his relationship with both his father and one IBM1401. After initially reading about the project I began to search further as to where the inspiration came from, which would be discovered as an ongoing historical event that ran through multiple generations of his family.

It was in 1964 when the first IBM1401 was introduced to Iceland and Jóhannsson’s father, Jóhann Gunnarsson, became the chief maintenance engineer for the computer. Over time Gunnarsson, an inquisitive music fan by his own right, discovered that the computer’s memory emitted strong electromagnetic waves that produced significant distinctive tones when placed in the range of his radio receiver. Jóhannsson explains that his father recorded the computer’s funeral, of sorts, which it was given in 1971 when the computer was put out of service; a recording which much of IBM1401: A User’s Manual uses as its general basis. When the composition had been completed it was given to choreographer Erna Ómarsdottir for use in a routine which she was developing. Throughout the recording and performance phase of A User’s Manual Jóhannsson collected The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra in order to add depth and significance to the tones and recordings that his father had proven beautiful so many years before. All of this brings us to the album’s official release.

When issued in a comparative manner, A User’s Manual seems fitting for praise that controls no limits. It is a direct antithesis to much of modern anti-technological rhetoric, that ranging from punk rock figureheads Bad Religion (“I Love My Computer”) to any number of other critical sources which find this intimate relationship between man and machine to be both disheartening and counterproductive. The album should be viewed as not simply a commanding composition but one that serves as a forecast for the remainder of Jóhannsson’s career. One of Jóhannsson’s strongest releases was 2004’s Virðulegu forsetar which was ranked as the 37th best album of the year by Pitchfork Media among numerous other year end celebrations, but I feel that A User’s Manual entirely outshines that effort to no end.

Ambient electronica has been a genre that has historically found distinction simply between its artist’s nuances rather than that of dramatic musical separation. A casual listener would most likely have a hard time finding the difference between any number of artists who have at one point in time or another found themselves creating music within the genre’s field. To some degree this can be said for Jóhannsson’s past recordings as well, which swayed very little from the tone-synch that has become ambient. A User’s Manual on the other hand is different. It adds context to the music like never before and does not continue to walk the line of its traditional predecessors. A User’s Manual is brilliant, compelling, and a true piece of art that has the power to spark generations of fan and musician, pushing them to discover inspiration in not simply their surroundings but their history.

[This post was first published by Culture Bully.]