Jóhann Jóhannsson IBM 1401, A User’s Manual

[4AD; 2006]

Styles: modern composition
Others: Gavin Bryars, Henryk Górecki, Sigur Rós

In the 20th and into the 21st century, minimalism spread over practically all elements of music. Distortion came around, the back beat took precedence, and things got a lot simpler and noisier on the whole. At some point around the mid-20th century, popular music became completely disjointed from what we now call 'classical music.' There was really no overt point of connection between the highly compact and comparatively labyrinthine forms. So much harmonic territory had been tread in the last hundred years that the forward-thinking modern composer was almost forced to explore things like spatial relationships and extreme variances of tone within their music. The new composers' 'genre' grew steadily until it was truly classifiable. It also grew to the point where, some might say, anything with strings and without a back beat was considered modern composition. IBM 1401, A User's Manual doesn't have a back beat and is littered with strings, but will immediately refute any claims of lacking integrity. On it we see the Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson coming into his own, and in some ways bursting notions about what modern composition should or shouldn't be.

The themes of IBM 1401, A User's Manual, are derived from Jóhannsson's father, who worked for IBM in the '60s, when the 1401 model came into production. By altering electromagnetic waves via the computer's programmed memory, melodies were, in Jóhannsson's words, "coaxed out" of the machine. The proceeding album blends lush, orchestral compositions around a host of these old IBM melodies. Unsurprisingly, an immediate sense of nostalgia is established through each theme's unrelenting consonance. Four of the five 'movements' begin with strings that lumber alongside understated electronics, constantly building and resolving tension. In the minimalist tradition, chords are stretched out through slow arpeggios that seem to ascend endlessly, but never abandon the tonic. Such structural elongation bears breathtaking results that are achieved simply, beautifully, and with little fanfare. Only the User's Manual's last piece breaks from the IBM motif with heightened rhythmic and harmonic movement. Some might say the finale's comparative dynamism depreciates everything preceding it, but with a runtime of only 42 minutes, the album feels completely interdependent when considered as a whole. Even when a computerized voice enters, methodically relaying computer maintenance instructions, the dense harmonies that eventually surface reinforce an overall emotional concept.

In a sense, Jóhannsson's album is a eulogy for the first generation of synthetic intelligence. It reaches beyond most notions of form into the conceptual territory, expounding on another modernist tradition of indistinguishably linking music with other aspects of art and society. That may be a bit much for the casual listener to swallow, but the sheer nuance, depth, and restrained beauty of the piece deserves acknowledgment at the very least.

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