The subterranean performance space at (Le) Poisson Rouge quickly grew silent when the six musicians of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble filed on the stage last Sunday night. They took their seats and began to play an overview of the music of Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who died earlier this year at the age of 48. The most recent work included was bc, a gorgeous elegy for cello and electronics co-composed with ACME’s cellist and Artistic Director, Clarice Jensen and recently released on her debut solo album. bc found Jóhannsson honing many of the ideas about repetition, texture and emotional impact that he had been working on since at least 2009 when ACME put on the first concert of his music in New York on this very same stage.
Selections from that concert were also played, which could lead to the temptation to see this show as the completion of a circle. But, as Jensen pointed out in her brief remarks, Jóhannsson’s music will live on in the many films he scored, such as Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario and Arrival, and the Golden Globe-winning The Theory Of Everything. As one of the leading cinematic composers of our time, Jóhannsson’s influence will also continue to be felt in theaters for years to come. Jensen also expressed her wish that his music live on in the concert hall as well. “There’s a big hole on stage,” she remarked, “but there’s a lot left, too.”
Taken as a whole, the concert was as strong an argument for Jóhannsson’s ongoing presence in our musical lives as can be imagined. The performances were superb, exquisitely emotional but also precisely controlled, with all of the players deserving special mention: Ben Russell and Laura Lutzke, violins; Caleb Burhans, viola; Paul Wiancko, cello; and Grey McMurray, piano, guitar and electronics. Each musician became a stand-in for the many facets of our grief about Johansson’s death, their faces expressing emotions ranging from stoicism, deep sorrow and calm acceptance.
The program, which can be found in this playlist, was also well-sequenced, beginning with selections from Jóhannsson’s first album, 2002’s Englabörn, and then traversing his career outside of film. Corpus Camera, a work for string quartet, was played, along with an excerpt from Fordlandia and a piece from IBM 1401 A User’s Manual. bc was the penultimate work before the ensemble ended with Flight From The City from Jóhannsson’s last album, Orphée. For this, one of his signature pieces, Jensen joined McMurray on the piano bench and played the piano part while he handled the electronics. It was somehow deeply satisfying to watch her fill the space between iterations of that beautiful phrase with a movement, a gathering of breath, that might have seemed exaggerated if not for the heavy emotional freight of the moment. And it is a marvelous phrase, seeming to embody reflection, memory, sorrow and regret, while maintaining an optimistic forward motion. When the piece ended, it was our turn to take in a breath, leading to a brief pause before a rapturous standing ovation.
We applauded ACME for the care and love they had shown to Jóhannsson and his music throughout the night, and indeed over the last decade. We applauded the members of his family who were present, letting them know they were not alone in their loss. And we applauded Jóhannsson’s music and all he had accomplished in his too short life. “It was like witnessing a resurrection,” my friend said after we had gathered our thoughts for a few minutes, which was true as Jóhannsson had seemed so present for an hour. But while he may be at rest now, the music must continue to be a part of our lives. Besides ACME’s playlist, I also recommend this episode of David Garland’s Spinning On Air podcast where he revisits another LPR concert from 2010 and his interview with Jóhannsson from the same year.
There is also new music to discover, such as the soundtrack to The Mercy, which came out just days before his death. This music for the story of failed circumnavigator Donald Crowhurst finds Jóhannsson in top form and is filled with detailed electro-acoustic vignettes. Just listening tells a story, from the bright, busy Boating For Beginners, like sunlight dancing on water, to the uncertainty of The Doldrums, when things are going wrong. I also imagine it captures all the feelings and images of the film with perfect acuity. While Jóhannsson repurposed some tracks from his earlier score for Free The Mind, The Mercy represents a significant addition to his legacy. There’s also his score for Mary Magdalene, which I haven’t heard yet but can see it being a perfect fit with the hymnal elements in Jóhansson’s music.
Finally, there’s the reissue of that debut, now called Englabörne & Variations, which Jóhannsson was working on when he died. Besides the original album there’s a second disc of remixes and reimaginings by his collaborators, contemporaries and influences, including Hildur Guðnadóttir, A Winged Victory For The Sullen and Ryuichi Sakamoto. Although it wasn’t conceived as a tribute album, it does the job handsomely and points out the rich tapestry of relationships and resonances Jóhannsson wove in his career. I hope there will be more projects like that, and performances such as we heard at LPR. As Jóhannsson told Garland in the interview linked above, “I think it’s probably something quite visceral which I’m after, something very down in the stomach, in the blood — with the emotions. That’s where the music comes from in a way, and that’s where great music hits me.” I don’t think I’m alone in saying that Jóhannsson’s music hits me there, too, so let’s keep it circulating.
Note: ACME will be performing Jóhannsson’s Drone Mass in Athens, Greece on June 18th. Keep an eye on their website for future performances.
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