Jóhannssonia

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Looking around at the weekend for Jóhann Jóhannsson concerts turned up a few freely available recordings plus a two-hour mix by the composer that I hadn’t come across before. I must have about three quarters of the Jóhannsson discography on disc by now but a handful of rarities remain stubbornly out of reach. Discoveries like this help me resist the temptation to consider spending £150 on a secondhand copy of End Of Summer, a CD/DVD recording of a Jóhannsson collaboration with Hildur Gudnadóttir and Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe. Given Jóhannsson’s reputation, and that of Hildur Gudnadóttir who worked with him on other albums, I’d be surprised if some of these scarce recordings weren’t reissued eventually.

KEXP (2010).
Jóhannsson with the Acme String Quartet in a 36-minute session for the Seattle radio show. The ensemble perform five pieces which include a version of Flight From The City six years before its appearance on the Orphée album. Also two compositions that are only available on singles or compilation albums, Tu Non Mi Perderai Mai and Corpus Camera.

FatCat Podcast #66—The Miners’ Hymns live at Winter Gardens (2012).
The Miner’s Hymns was a score for a Bill Morrison documentary about the mining communities of North East England for which Jóhannsson used a range of brass instruments like those found in colliery bands. This is a live performance of the entire score by the Wordless Music Orchestra that accompanied a screening of the film in New York.

FACT Mix 527 (2015).
Linked here before, an 55-minute mix which includes a number of unsurprisingly sombre orchestral selections from Mihaly Vig, Gloria Coates and Witold Lutoslawski, together with two pieces by Meredith Monk. The latter point the way to the Monk-inflected vocalisations on the score for Arrival.

KEXP (2016).
A 50-minute session on video which includes more selections from the Orphée album. During the discussion interlude with Kevin Cole, Jóhannsson talks about his soundtrack work, including his score for Arrival.

Electronic Explorations 461 (2017).
A two-hour mix which repeats some of the FACT mix—Lutoslawski’s Funeral Music was evidently a favourite—and which also shows Jóhannsson’s sense of humour. Of all the many pieces he might have chosen by the early music historian David Munrow, the two recordings that open and close this mix are from Munrow’s unreleased score for John Boorman’s Zardoz. Then a third of the way through there’s an abrupt transition from the droning doom of Sakrifis by Mohammad to Au Suivant by Jacques Brel, a song better known to Scott Walker and Alex Harvey listeners in its Mort Schuman translation, Next.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Last and First Men

More Invisible Cities (and an invisible author)

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Marco Polo describes a bridge, stone by stone.

“But which is the stone that supports the bridge?” Kublai Khan asks.

“The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,” Marco answers, “but by the line of the arch that they form.”

Kublai Khan remains silent, reflecting. Then he adds: “Why do you speak of the stones? It is only the arch that matters to me.”

Polo answers: “Without stones there is no arch.”

Italo Calvino

The new album by A Winged Victory For The Sullen (Adam Wiltzie & Dustin O’Halloran) is a beautiful thing. This was originally a score commissioned for a theatrical staging of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, an adaptation produced by Leo Warner and given its first performance at the Manchester International Festival in 2019. I considered going to the premiere but was disgruntled by the way all the promotional materials for the event—posters, flyers, website—managed to avoid mentioning Calvino even though the work was obviously based on his novel. The author is similarly invisible among the album credits despite being acknowledged on the group’s Bandcamp page. I’m always surprised when people do this, especially professionals like the ones who staged the Manchester event, people you know would cause a fuss if they were denied credit for their own work in this manner. “Without stones there is no arch.”

Anyway, the music is very good, if a little solemn for something derived from a writer whose prose tended to the opposite. The late Jóhann Jóhannsson feels like the ghost at this particular feast. One of Jóhannsson’s final works, Last and First Men, had its premiere at the Manchester International Festival two years before Invisible Cities, and the latter’s choral harmonies, muted piano chords and grainy electronic textures situate the compositions very much in the Jóhannsson zone. As with Jóhannsson’s soundtrack albums, I wish some of the pieces were longer. Among the musicians are Robert Hampson—who I’d guess was generating some of those grainy textures—and Hildur Gudnadóttir whose cello-playing was a feature of many Jóhannsson recordings. Does the music work as a soundtrack for Calvino’s travelogue? A good reason to read the book again.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Invisible Cities: Miscellanea
Seeing Calvino: Invisible Cities
Gérard Trignac’s Invisible Cities
Colleen Corradi Brannigan’s Invisible Cities
Le Città In/visibili
Mikhail Viesel’s Invisible Cities
Bookmark: Italo Calvino
Crossed destinies revisted
Crossed destinies: when the Quays met Calvino
Tressants: the Calvino Hotel

Recoil and Cabaret Voltaire

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Since it was announced this week that Cabaret Voltaire will release a new album in November, here’s a short Cabs-related film that used to be impossible to see. A Sheffield art student, Nick Allday, made Recoil in 1981 as part of his course work, and managed to persuade Cabaret Voltaire to create a soundtrack:

The concept originated with raw material of video feedback and some sparse nuclear bomb footage available at the time. The idea was to represent in abstract form the cruel chaotic dysfunctional nature of the human condition with all its potential for self destruction. It was conceived as a manifestation of wretched anger, fury, and regret. (more)

Very typical of the early 1980s, in other words. The film was mentioned in a few of the group’s interviews around this time, and was also screened before some of their performances, but it otherwise remained a mystery until the footage was rediscovered and restored a few years ago. The copy of Recoil at Vimeo was uploaded by the organiser of the Gofundme launched to pay for the restoration, revealing music that sounds like an outtake from Red Mecca. (According to the post linked above this was mostly the work of Stephen Mallinder rather than the group as a whole.) And having written about Last and First Men a couple of days ago, it’s worth mentioning that Chris Watson, who was still a member of Cabaret Voltaire in 1981, recorded the natural sounds for Jóhann Jóhannsson’s film.

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As to the forthcoming album, Shadow Of Fear, I’m not the only person who finds everything credited to the group since Plasticity (1992) to be barely distinguishable from many of Richard Kirk’s solo works. Stephen Mallinder seems to be present in name only on these albums which makes you wonder what there is about a CV release that differs from a Kirk release, especially when the preview track, Vasto, sounds like more of the same. The real shadow of fear is the worry that a worthwhile project is being perpetuated for no good reason.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Pow-Wow by Stephen Mallinder
TV Wipeout revisited
Doublevision Presents Cabaret Voltaire
Just the ticket: Cabaret Voltaire
European Rendezvous by CTI
TV Wipeout
Seven Songs by 23 Skidoo
Elemental 7 by CTI
The Crackdown by Cabaret Voltaire
Neville Brody and Fetish Records

Last and First Men

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“Existence has always been precarious. At any stage of its career, humanity might have been exterminated by some slight alteration to its chemical environment, by a more than usually malignant microbe, by a radical change of climate, by the manifold effects of its own folly.”

I loved this, but then it had several points immediately in its favour: a late work by Jóhann Jóhannsson (with a superb score written in collaboration with Yair Elazar Glotman); a study of the concrete memorials from the former Yugoslavia known as spomeniks; narration by Tilda Swinton; and science fiction that isn’t more tiresome Hollywood space opera. Olaf Stapledon’s novel was published in 1930 but it took until 2017 for it to reach a cinema screen when Jóhannsson’s film was premiered at the Manchester International Festival. The film is not only the first adaptation of the novel but also the first film based on any of Stapledon’s novels. Last and First Men and Star Maker (1937) have inspired many notable writers but the philosophical nature of Stapledon’s work combined with the colossal spans of time he deals with make his novels resistant to adaptation by popular narrative forms. Jóhannsson’s film is very small-scale—mostly black-and-white, and shot on grainy 16mm—but it demonstrates how a work that those with greater resources might consider unfilmable can be turned into a substantial drama. The technique of using narration to connect disparate images is a familiar one from documentaries but is less common in fiction cinema despite its flexibility and convenience, especially for low-budget films such as this.

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Tilda Swinton’s voice is that of a spokesperson for “the Eighteenth Men”, a terminal evolution of the human species 2,000 million years in the future. The last humans now live on the planet Neptune, a forced relocation after the expansion of the Sun has made the inner planets of the solar system uninhabitable. Swinton’s unidentified messenger is speaking to us, “the First Men”, describing some of the history that awaits while also warning of an impending and inescapable cataclysm. This is the last section of Stapledon’s novel, the previous chapters of which relate the intervening aeons between our time and the distant future. While the voice informs us about humanity’s fate we contemplate the enigmatic spomeniks, filmed in close-up or at a distance, in bright sunlight or shrouded in mist. What connection there is between the narration and the concrete structures is for the viewer to decide, there are few points of direct correspondence. The combination of strange architectural forms with a vast, invented history had me thinking of At the Mountains of Madness by HP Lovecraft, although in Lovecraft’s story the stellar evolution is an alien one which human beings discover. The congruence is reinforced by Lovecraft’s enthusiasm for Stapledon’s novel which he called “a thing of unparalleled power“. It should be noted, however, that Jóhannsson never suggests that the monuments are anything other than what they are.

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Roger Luckhurst’s Sight & Sound review of the film included questions about the use of the spomeniks, while elsewhere Owen Hatherley has expressed concern about the fetishising of memorials and structures that mark sites of wartime massacre. Stapledon’s novel explores the continuity of human endeavour in all its best and worst aspects; warfare and strife remain persistent problems, so Jóhannsson’s roaming views may be taken as signposts to the future as much as remembrances of the past. There’s also one significant detail that many critics will be unaware of (and which Luckhurst does acknowledge): the first part of the novel is titled “Balkan Europe”, and the opening chapters describe the wars that ravage the Earth throughout the 21st century, wars which have their root in the very conflicts that the spomeniks record. Stapledon’s future history was an attempt to consider the ways in which humanity might overcome its worst impulses. Beyond this, the concrete structures also stand as simple markers of the passage of time; many of the monuments are now weathered and eroded, blained with lichens and besieged by weeds. Humanity may live long enough to resolve its own internal conflicts but its creations, whatever they represent, face a continual struggle against the universal process of entropy.

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Jóhannsson’s film is available in a digipak release from Deutsche Grammophon which packages a blu-ray disc with a CD of the score. This is now a memorial to its creator so the sombre livery seems appropriate: the last major work we’ll have from a remarkable, much-missed artist.

Further reading: The Spomenik Database.

Weekend links 528

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The Rhinoceros (after 1620) by Albrecht Dürer.

• “Today—Tolkien, Lovecraft, Miéville and M John Harrison!” Paul StJohn Mackintosh at Greydogtales explores HP Lovecraft’s lack of interest in fictional worldbuilding. The piece includes one of my book covers (ta!) plus a link to an earlier post I wrote about the cover designs of M. John Harrison’s Viriconium books. Since I’m connected to the thesis I’ll suggest that Lovecraft was resistant to the worldbuilding impulse in part because he was almost always writing horror stories. Having studied the genre at length he was well aware of the need to leave suggestive voids for the reader’s imagination.

• RIP Denise Johnson. All the obituaries mention the big names she worked with, notably New Order and Primal Scream, but being in the pool of Manchester session artists she also appeared on a couple of records by my colleagues at Savoy. Her voice is one of those you first hear on the PJ Proby cover of I’m On Fire, while with friend Rowetta she improvised her way through a Hi-NRG original (and a favourite of Anohni’s), the scurrilous Shoot Yer Load.

• At the BFI: Axel Madsen interviews Fritz Lang in 1967; Serena Scateni on where to begin with Nobuhiko Obayashi; and Roger Luckhurst reviews the spomenik-infested  Last and First Men by Jóhann Jóhannsson.

• “Be more aware of the rest of the world!” says Jon Hassell, talking to Alexis Petridis about a life spent making music.

John Boardley on the Renaissance origins of the printed poster. Worth it for the selection of engraved details alone.

• “What Ever Happened To Chicken Fat?” Jackson Arn on a tendency to over-abundance in Jewish humour.

Erik Davis has a new writing home at Substack that he calls The Burning Shore. Bookmarked.

• Mix of the week: The Ivy-Strangled Path Vol. XXII by David Colohan.

• Garry Hensey on The Strange World of John Foxx.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Sergei Parajanov Day.

Romantic Rhino (1981) by Ananda Shankar | The Lone Rhinoceros (1982) by Adrian Belew | Blastic Rhino (2000) by King Crimson