I remember my first computer. It was a Little Professor calculator. It wasn’t your typical calculator, mind you. You see, instead of punching in a math problem and the happy Professor providing you with the answer, the Professor would provide a math problem and you would have to provide the answer. Kind of backwards, but it was meant to help the math-deficient kids of America to catch up with the rest of the world(this was 1981, so it wasn’t nearly as bad as it is now.) Despite my lack of math fundamentals I loved playing with this Texas Instruments tool, but not nearly as much as I enjoyed playing with the Tonka twin engine plane I got that same Christmas.
Ehh, such is life.
The next “real deal” computer I owned was a Compaq computer system my wife and I bought in 1998 at Radio Shack. It was over $3,000 and came with a copier/printer/scanner and about $200 worth of software(mostly educational stuff like ‘The Oregon Trail’ and ‘Where In Time Is Carmen San Diego’.) It sort of felt like a whole new world once we had that computer….and the internet! Holy shit. Despite the dial-up snail’s pace it still felt like we had somehow tapped into this secret connection to the universe and had access to galaxies that were far reaching, right from the spare bedroom in our house. I can remember sitting at that desk in the spare room choppily typing and looking for websites dedicated to favorite bands till the wee hours of the night.
I went from feeling like Captain Caveman to feeling like Buck Rogers(or Flash Gordon.)
Those were pivotal moments, discovering man made technology so intricate and catered to me. Were they pivotal enough to make me want to dedicate an album to them? Probably not, but they were pivotal nonetheless. Johann Johannsson on the other hand seems to have been quite moved by a computer. So much so that the Icelandic film composer wrote an album based on one.
Over the last couple years I’ve come to be quite a fan of Johann Johannsson. His work in films such as Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival, and The Theory of Everything is filled with such boundless emotion and otherworldly eccentricities that it seems Johannsson has found some new musical language. He’s quickly become one of my favorite film composers, as well as composers in general. Until recently I wasn’t aware of his original works(as in, stuff not for film.) I saw that 4AD was releasing his 2006 album IBM 1401, A User’s Manual on vinyl for the first time and felt I needed to investigate further. Upon filling my head with this record all weekend I can safely say that Johannsson is one of the best working today. This is a glorious work filled with lush strings, ghostly sounds, and feather-light passages that teeter between desolation and consolation.
So what’s Johannsson’s connection to this long extinct computer? Well here’s what I found:
In 1964 the IBM Data Processing System arrived in Iceland. Seven years later, when it became redundant, it wasn’t simply thrown away. Instead, the melancholic melodies produced by the machine’s electromagnetic waves were recorded for the final time by the computer’s chief engineer (and Johannsson’s father), Johann Gunnarsson. After stumbling across the tapes in the family attic, the only natural thing for the ever-thinking Johannsson to do was to incorporate their seminal splutterings into his work.
Ahh, the emotional connection. Johannsson’s dad was a chief engineer on the computer and had recorded the melancholy sounds of the defunct machine. Johannsson finds these tapes in an attic and decides to write a piece of music based on it. Makes sense.
The album was originally written for a string quartet, organ and electronics and to accompany a dance piece by long-standing collaborator friend, Erna Ómarsdóttir. For the album recording, Jóhann has rewritten it for a sixty-piece string orchestra, adding a new final movement and incorporating electronics and vintage reel-to-reel recordings of a singing 1401 found in his father’s attic.
I’m sure the original concept would’ve been equally moving, albeit maybe slightly more spooky with the organ and electronics. But with a sixty-piece orchestra this music soars.
Despite the size, there’s still a very intimate atmosphere with this record. It’s written in five parts: “Part 1/ IBM 1401 Processing Unit”, “Part 2/IBM 1403 Printer”, “Part 3/IBM 1402 Card Read-Punch”, “Part 4/IBM 729 II Magnetic Tape Unit”, and “Part 5/The Sun’s Gone Dim And The Sky’s Turned Black”. There’s a very cinematic feel on this record. Each piece moves effortlessly into the other. At times Johannsson comes across as an orchestral counterpart to fellow Icelandic musicians Sigur Ros. The concept here comes through beautifully with old, spoken-word moments as a voice explains the various IBM machines, giving the music a ghostly feeling. Like finding some withering audio tutorial, with Johann Johannsson scoring these tutorials. Something that was probably very dry and free of any emotional investment now comes across like a memorial to a long lost mechanism from a bygone era.
I’ve never been a big follower of classical music. I’ve enjoyed certain pieces throughout my life. Some Bach, some Beethoven, some Mozart, and Debussy have hit me hard here and there but I’ve never followed modern classical music. Johann Johannsson has opened me up to the possibility. He takes the traditional approach to composing for an orchestra and turns it on its head. He adds mechanical resonance, eerie atmosphere, and an overall ethereal feel to his work. It’s like Philip Glass, John Cage, and Steve Reich morphed into a Voltron-like compositional music super hero. Johannsson adds experimental vibes to his work that at times almost feels like avant garde, but not in some pretentious way. Rather, taking well worn conventions and turning them into something new and beautiful.
IBM 1401, A User’s Manual is an overwhelmingly beautiful listening experience. And knowing where the inspiration for its creation lies makes the album that much more powerful. I mean, the IBM 1401 is no Little Professor, but it seems pretty important to Johann Johannsson.