Eternal Themes: History’s End Through the Eyes and Ears of Jóhann Jóhannsson

One of the last soundtracks that Jóhann Jóhannsson completed before his untimely death in February of 2018 was for Panos Cosmatos’ stunning psychedelic horror film Mandy. It is strangely fitting. Most of those familiar with the composer’s work agree that loss is a major theme running throughout it. And Mandy is certainly a film about loss, specifically the kind that drives Nicolas Cage’s lumberjack Red toward psychotic violence, the kind of loss that takes the boundaries of sanity with it. Without the person who, we are led to believe, rescued Red from his own brutal past and addictions, nothing tethers him. On his way through slaughtering the cult members responsible for Mandy’s (Andrea Riseborough) death, he collapses back into addiction and hallucination.

The music for Mandy captures all of this. Non-diegetic music is by its definition music that plays over the film’s events. Its characters, ostensibly, cannot hear it. But in the case of Mandy, Jóhannsson has crafted such an other-worldly soundscape that it’s difficult to believe Red isn’t conjuring up this soundtrack himself as he descends into hallucinogenic madness. Eerie synthesizers play next to the droning guitars of Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley. There is foreboding here, and unspeakable, almost Lovecraftian terror. But as is almost always the case with Jóhannsson’s work, there is also an indifferent patience, a certainty that what will come will come. No matter how horrible it might be.

Though the “when” of Mandy is not particularly emphasized by the film itself, it takes place in 1983. This is significant if only because the isolated “where” of the film – remote, woodsy and mountainous – is still grappling with that moment in the 1970s when the dreams of the 60s had soured. The clothes, the technology, the musical and aesthetic preferences (King Crimson, Black Sabbath), all are dwelling in a curdled utopia, where the joyous communes have turned to violent cults, where freedom is only possible on top of an ever-growing hill of corpses. Other than the title card and the unmistakable synth-heavy Carpenterisms of the film’s score, the only indication that it takes place in the 1980s is the voice of then-president Ronald Reagan pontificating about a spiritual (read: conservative) awakening in America, briefly heard on the radio of Red’s truck before he switches it off.

If this film – and its music – is about one man’s loss, it is very clear that something far greater, something on a grand historical scale, something ineffable but essentially collective in nature, is also vanishing. Red’s story is just an avatar, his hallucinatory grief building itself outward into an increasingly terrible world.

Jóhannsson never really labeled his politics. Or at least, he never did in English. If there is anything in his native Icelandic in which he declares himself a socialist, then I lack the fluency to find it. A thorough internet search for the words “Jóhann Jóhannsson socialist” will yield little definitive other than a Facebook post from Jacobin magazine in the days after his death, which describes him as a socialist. It’s not much to go on. But then, Jóhannsson really was one of those artists who could let his art do most of his talking.

Case in point: accompanying the Jacobin post is a clip from Bill Morrison’s 2010 film The Miners’ Hymns, also scored by Jóhannsson. Pensive, mournful and spare, the score centers the instrumentation of brass bands that were once common among the coal miners of Scotland and the north of England.

Increasingly, these bands are nothing more than memory, their near-extinction brought on by the closures of the pits that followed the defeat of the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-85. The Miners’ Hymns both looks and sounds like inevitable defeat. There is no dialog in this documentary. Just the historical and newsreel footage of miners entering the pits, accompanied by the dirge-like groans of tuba, the mournful cries of trumpet, plaintive cornet and flugelhorn.

The compositions, many of them divided into more than one movement, carry titles like “An Injury to One is the Concern of All,” “Freedom from Want and Fear,” and “The Cause of Labour is the Hope of the World.” All slogans or aphorisms familiar to anyone with any experience in the labor movement, albeit in a more modern, less stilted parlance. But the embellished prose, the slightly arch, almost Edwardian cadence; these remind us that what we are seeing and hearing is experienced through a temporal veil, an irreparable fissure between past and present. It inevitably poses a question. If the past is indeed past, if there is no reaching back to correct tragedy or gain back what is lost, why bother remembering in the first place? Is it simply that it cannot be forgotten? Or is there something else, something at once more tragic and vital that pulls us in the direction of the past?

During an interview with The Quietus, Jóhannsson acknowledged the fine line he and Morrison walked in commemorating miners as laborers without celebrating an ecologically destructive mining industry.

I think these are eternal themes. Where we once had coalmines, now we have Amazon fulfilment centres, food processing plants and call centres. Coal-mining is a dirty industry and not very beneficial for the environment, but there is a lesson to be taken from the way the miners were able to organise and create better conditions for themselves and to create an entire culture, which included music and painting, such as the Pitmen painters. There is also a lesson to be learned from what happens when the foundation of this culture is suddenly destroyed and the wounds this leaves in the communities involved. 

This is, to my knowledge, the closest Jóhannsson got to defining his politics in English. He is blunt. “We do need electricity,” he said, “but we also need to restrain the inherently exploitative and ravenous nature of capitalism. There is a lot of resistance to this kind of exploitation in Iceland and hopefully it is having an effect on policy.”

Few countries have so vividly illustrated for them the slow creep of doomsday like Iceland does. This is a country that, in 2019, installed a plaque on the coastline commemorating the death of its first fully melted glacier, acknowledging loss on an existential level.

Any regular movie-goer recognizes Jóhann Jóhannsson’s compositions. He won a Golden Globe for the score of The Theory of Everything. He was a frequent collaborator with director Denis Villeneuve, providing the score for Prisoners, Sicario, and Arrival, the last of which was nominated for an Oscar.

Villeneuve also recruited Jóhannsson to write the score for his Blade Runner 2049, though this was abandoned after the two mutually agreed that the film needed something more in the vein of Vangelis’ score for the original Blade Runner, after which Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch were brought in. This seems a curious decision considering that Jóhannsson’s score for Mandy veered into sonic territory not at all alien to Vangelis. In any event, barring an undiscovered recording of some kind, we can only imagine what kind of atmosphere Jóhannsson would have created for Blade Runner 2049.

His most compelling compositions, however, were crafted for films that were never made and were never intended to be made. Jóhannsson was a profoundly immersive composer, surrounding himself as much as he could with the world of a story, searching for the contours that could be filled in or emphasized by sound. It points to the porous boundary between diegetic and non-diegetic. It also meant that Jóhannsson did not have to wait for a script, or even the inkling of one, to create a world. This is best illustrated in Jóhannsson’s 2008 album Fordlandia.

Epic and sweeping in scope, this is an album that is inspired, in part, by the failure of Henry Ford’s rubber colony of the same name. Almost a hundred years ago, Fordlandia was constructed, at Ford’s behest, about 200 miles south of the Brazilian city of Santarém and relatively deep in the Amazon rainforest, in order to circumvent British monopolies on rubber by going straight to the source.

Fordlandia wasn’t just a factory, though. Per Ford’s twisted version of a utopian vision, it was an American-style company town. The houses of the workers – mostly indigenous Brazilian – were complete with picket fences. There was a golf course, and a dance hall where workers were required to attend mandatory square-dancing lessons.

Workers’ homes were also regularly searched in order to enforce bans on alcohol and football. Ford’s managers also had no clue how to maintain rubber plantations, and the trees were frequently subjected to blight and insect infestations. Not only was the settlement an ecological failure, workers frequently revolted, chasing off management. One revolt was so beyond the company’s control that the Brazilian army was called in.

Jóhannsson’s Fordlandia is an exploration less of the history of the settlement than of the themes thrown up by it. The opening title composition conveys a sense of European Old World grandeur colliding with something it does not understand here. Tinges of electronics dance around longing strings and pipe organ, constructing a feeling of some kind of imminent relief or hope. None comes. Rather, the tempo of the orchestra slows and slows and slows. At the end of the fourteen-minute track you are left lingering in the space where cathartic triumph should be.

There is a tension in the remaining tracks, a contest between Promethean arrogance and the architectonics of the natural world, with ordinary human beings caught in the fault-lines. There are heroes and villains conjured in the titles of the songs. “The Rocket Builder (Lo Pan!)” is inspired by Jack Parsons, the rocket engineer and dilettante occultist who, despite being a brazen charlatan, essentially established rocket science as we understand it. There is doom in this song, centered around the interplay between cello and dark, droning guitars. Later, the elegiac “Chimaerica” points to what creativity recklessly wielded mutates into, while “The Great God Pan is Dead,” which references the Greek god of the wild, conjures the specter of complete ruination of both nature and industry.

By the time we close the album with “How We Left Fordlandia,” the ruination is complete. Fordlandia was finally abandoned in 1934. Its ruins still stand in the Amazon rainforest. “How We Left Fordlandia” sounds less like the catharsis we’ve been denied through the past 45 minutes and more like a final resignation, listlessly gazing at empty buildings that might have at one point embodied hope, inevitably hollowed out by the belief that they could exist beyond consequence.

In a short video introduction for Last and First Men, Bill Morrison, director of The Miners’ Hymns, said that “Jóhann was a great composer of time, whether that was aural time or visual time.” Released posthumously in 2020, Last and First Men is the only film Jóhannsson made himself. Adapted from the 1930 science fiction novel of the same name by Olaf Stapledon, and narrated by Tilda Swinton, it is a work that demands we sit and tarry with our own impossibility. Three times we are told to “listen patiently,” and we abide.

It is a chilling, sometimes harrowing watch. There are no humans onscreen. Only long, black-and-white shots of the high modern, almost other-worldly monuments built in Tito’s Yugoslavia to commemorate the struggle against Nazism in World War II. Most of which are, after the nation’s breakup and the fall of the Eastern Bloc, no longer maintained, left to fall apart in the elements.

These structures, along with Swinton’s narration, are the only indication that human beings ever existed in this world. And indeed, the story Swinton tells us is of a human race two billion years in the future, unrecognizably evolved but still human, facing the certainty of its own extinction, reaching back and begging us to right our own course for the sake of their survival. We, watching, are confronted both with the brilliance of our own creation and the awesome enormity of oblivion.

The music pulls in long strains, urging us to fall in love with these descendants who, through their own ingenuity, have made themselves unrecognizable physically, culturally, and emotionally to us, but are still us, indeed are more us than we are. Deep, vibrating drones weave in and out with strings, occasionally accompanied by voices that, beautiful as they are, cannot or will not make themselves intelligible to us.

More and more frequently, the sounds and instrumentations swell into an imposing crescendo, at least twice followed by sudden silence, dramatizing what is being invoked for us. “The loyalty of the forces of life, embattled against death.”

Well before his film scores were being nominated for awards, in fact well before he had much of an international profile, Jóhannsson released IBM 1401, A User’s Manual. Like others in his catalog, the record serves as a soundtrack to a film that was never made – though Bill Morrison mentions that, at the time of Jóhannsson’s death, the two were assembling footage for a film version of IBM 1401. The four songs tell a distinct story and build a distinct world. And it is a world in which computers possess a soul.

Growing up, Jóhannsson’s father worked as an engineer for IBM, which may account for how Jóhannsson was, as a composer, able to instill a machine with human emotion. Wherever it might come from, it is difficult to listen to most of the songs on this short album without weeping. Particularly its final track, “The Sun’s Gone Dim and the Sky’s Turned Black.” This is a song sung by a computerized voice, devastated and heartbroken, as the sad sounds of a string orchestra, interspersed by electronic shimmers and glitches, build around it.

Whether intentional or not, there’s more than a bit of Kurt Vonnegut’s short work “Ipecac” in this, the story of a computer that accidentally learns how to love, then self-destructs when it learns that the human it has fallen in love with will never love it back. I’ve written about the story before in relation to last summer’s debate over whether an artificial intelligence had in fact achieved sentience. And it is difficult to recall that episode without thinking of “The Sun’s Gone Dim,” in a similar way way to “Ipecac.” Even the sparse lyrics of the former – “The sun’s gone dim and the sky’s turned black / ’cause I loved her and she didn’t love back” – capture a strikingly similar conceit as Vonnegut’s story. Both he and Jóhannsson seem to have firmly believed that humanity’s best and most productive attributes had the potential to exist well beyond the boundaries of flesh and bone.

If there would be a way to describe the socialism of Jóhann Jóhannsson, this would be it. It is a socialist humanism, but by that same turn a humanism forced to acquaint itself with a post-human world. By showing us our most human traits – our ability to create, to build, to love – outside of our actual presence, perhaps he is also showing us how to save ourselves from that same, increasingly plausible oblivion. Even if these loves and creations aren’t trans-historical, aren’t eternal in any kind of meaningful way, it would behoove us to treat them as an indelible part of all existence. Therein may be the possibility of a new matrix of human interrelation, and of a future.

First performed in 2015, but only recorded after Jóhannsson’s death and released in 2022, Drone Mass takes this exploration of humanity-beyond-the-human to its most extreme. One therefore struggles to definitively categorize it. The composition is realized with a vocal ensemble, a string quartet, and carefully interspersed electronics. There are for the most part no words, and even where they are, they are elongated and over-enunciated to the point of incomprehensibility. The instruments, both string and electronic, seem to stir beneath these vocalizations, sometimes making room for them, other times pushing them to rise further.

As with his other compositions, there is a collision of temporalities produced here, but this one seeming to span much further than in Mandy, Fordlandia, or IBM 1401. In fact, the gap spanned here feels more akin to that in Last and First Men, as if these were ancient sounds rediscovered and recreated by some intelligence we can’t quite grasp.

What we do comprehend is the rituality of it all. Conductor Paul Hillier, whose Theatre of Voices provides the vocals for Drone Mass, confirmed that the “drone” of the title contains more than one meaning in an interview:

There are two kinds of drone – the more traditional one is a low continuous sound, generally of a bass note or at least something in the lower registers. The other kind of drone is created when a motif keeps repeating, as happens in one section of the work. Other things happen around that motif, so it operates bit like a drone too – but it’s placed higher up in the texture… I think that Johann wanted to imitate the seriousness of a Mass, a ritual after all, and so he created a series of relatively static pieces that build and then fall away again; I can see a strong sense of ritualism in it, but not something liturgical.

Drone Mass is, therefore, an exercise in a kind of spiritual devotion without a godhead, an invocation of a greater power by secular means. Even in its other-worldliness, it creates a reverence for the process of creation itself.

It’s not altogether dissimilar from Anatoly Lunacharsky’s God-building in revolutionary Russia, or Ludwig Feuerbach’s “religion of humanity,” which helped inspire Lunarcharsky’s ideas. Both believed that the communal bonds between humans forged by religion would not die out in a socialist society, but would be reinvigorated by a human race finally able to become more than the sum of its parts.

We might supplement this today by saying that this new humanity would necessarily adopt a fundamental awareness of its surrounding ecology, a willingness to explore the synthesis between the human capacity to reshape and nature’s capacity to adapt rather than arrogate ourselves above it. If the metabolic rift is a metaphor designed to help us conceptualize the ways in which capitalism has created a divide between human society and nature, then we should consider how “metabolism” is fundamentally a concept of rhythm and pace, of relationship to time. And, in turn, how Jóhannsson, the great composer of time, seeks to bridge the rift, bringing the severed temporalities back together.

Drone Mass places its mystical hymns in what almost seems a void, as if the essence of creation has been distilled down to its purest and most isolated form, able to experience itself on its own terms and reshape the abyss in its own image. But listen closely and you can hear an earthiness in the strange vowels, an awe stemming from the knowledge that our environment and the cosmos can dispense with us at any moment or hold us aloft. Our choices matter, not just in negation but also in affirmation.

If Last and First Men is Jóhannsson’s most apocalyptic work in an end of the world sense, then Drone Mass is his most apocalyptic work in a historic sense. This mode of apocalypse is mapped by Evan Calder Williams in Combined and Uneven Apocalypse, revelation as history’s calamities unveil a deeper reality. And while that reality won’t necessarily be better than the one we’ve already had constructed for us, it may yet force us to confront the an essential but dormant capacity to recreate it. It won’t give us back what we’ve lost, but it may yet allow us to survive, even restart our history anew.

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