Ten years ago my interest in the cross-over between modern classical, ambient and experimental music began. I went through a phase of trawling the catalogue of the label Type Recordings, triggered by a growing love of Deaf Center. On Type, I first came across the music of Jóhann Jóhannsson, in the cinematic score And in the endless pause came the sound of bees, which remains one of my favourite indy-classical scores for its diversity of character, and ability to paint from a minimal palette. Since then Jóhannsson rose to score major cinematic releases, notably Arrival and The Theory of Everything (while disappointingly being replaced by Hans Zimmer for Bladerunner 2049). Against this context of 16 years of increasingly widely-appreciated works, Jóhannsson’s first album proper Englabörn (first released by Touch in 2002) underwent a remaster, accompanied by new takes on the original work by A Winged Victory for the Sullen, Hildur Guðnadóttir and Ryuichi Sakamoto. As this new presentation of Englabörn & Variations was at the CD printers and vinyl pressers, Jóhann Jóhannsson passed away unexpectedly at the age of 48, making Englabörn both his first and last gift.
The shock here is amplified by Sakamoto’s 2017 release async (which Jóhannsson was involved with on the recent async remodels), where he reflected on his own mortality given a recent life-threatening illness, channeling those feelings through a piano recovered from the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami. In async Sakamoto reminded us of the evanescent and minuscule nature of life, both embracing the cliché and personal subtlety of the topic. The passing of Jóhannsson, and their collaboration, abruptly adds that not only is life small, but also unpredictable. With Englabörn we retrace to the start of Jóhannsson’s career, with the variations sadly bookending the work of one of the finest 21st century modern classical masters.
Englabörn itself is an exemplary in repetition and motif, spiraling around a line from the 1st century BCE Roman poet, Catullus. There, we examined where love and hate meet, and the confusion, sacrifice (and perhaps eventual surrender) that humans endure. The rework by Jóhannsson himself with Francesco Donadello, of Odi et Amo, is a study in time-stretching, bending the original into uncalibrated ambient sweeps – yet further irony that one of Jóhannsson’s last works would be a study in the extension of time. That piece though sits in a wider context of enormous affection for the original release and the original artist. AWVFTS paint their canvas in gorgeously familiar expansive strings and sub-bass electronics. Sakamoto seems to mimic Jóhannsson’s own rework, melding oceanic reverb with walking electronic rhythms and unplaceable field recordings, the mimicry being an echo of the examination of time, and all the emotions that weaves. But if the Englabörn Variations feel like the welling of tears, it is with the Theatre of Voices’ version of Holy Thursday and the closing reprise of Odi et Amo that the welling becomes rolling. And every piece in between, from the perfect piano of Vikingur Ólafsson to the icy sounds of long-time collaborator Hildur Guðnadóttir, feels raised in such excruciatingly beautiful suspense, that the release and resolution presented by the choral works is all the more devastating.
The hope that the narrative of this music would reflect a life is what binds the Variations; the skill and emotional depth of the players raises it to artistic mastery; and the context of Jóhannsson’s passing brings a cruel, dizzying relevance to Englabörn & Variations, in one of the most exquisitely satisfying expressions of melancholy.
In memoriam, Jóhann Jóhannsson, 1969 – 2018.
Englabörn & Variations is released on Deutsche Grammophon.