TO:52 – Jóhann Jóhannsson “Englaborn”

CD – 16 tracks

Track list:

1. Odi Et Amo (3:10)
2. Englabörn (1:34)
3. Jói & Karen (3:24)
4. Þetta Gerist Á Bestu Bæjum (1:02)
5. Sálfræðingur (3:49)
6. “Ég Sleppi Þér Aldrei” (2:57)
7. Sálfræðingur Deyr (3:40)
8. Bað (3:07)
9. “Ég Heyrði Allt Án Þess Að Hlusta” (2:05)
10. Karen Býr Til Engil (3:45)
11. Englabörn – Tilbrigði (1:24)
12. “Ég Átti Erfiða Æsku” (3:41)
13. Krókódíll (2:45)
14. “Ef Ég Hefði Aldrei…” (3:42)
15. …eins og venjulegt fólk (3:51)
16. Odi Et Amo – Bis (4:00)


The Wire:

Upon setting out to score the music for the play Englaborn by Havar Sigurjonsson, Johann Johannsson, co-founder of the Icelandic arts organisation Kitchen Motors, came upon a text by the Latin poet Catullus which roughly translates as, “I hate and I love. Why do I do it, you might ask?/I dont know, but I feel it happening to me, and it’s tearing me apart.” This poem concisely bridges the emotional opposites which clashed within the play itself. As the play’s content was “extremely violent and disturbing” (according to Johannsson), his approach to the music score was one of tenderness, beauty and grace. Johannsson’s score is a set of 16 delicate miniatures, whose variations are amazingly complex despite their simple, descending melodies for strings, glockenspiel, harmonium, piano, organ and electronics. The poem from Catullus appears twice within the score, sung both times by a compute programmed as a Speak ‘N’ Spell countertenor. This typifies Johannsson’s score with its precise use of metaphor, its exceptional balance (digital/analogue, harsh/soft, violent/tender etc.) and its expressive leitmotifs that unveil a profound sadness without ever wallowing in pathos. [Jim Haynes]

Boomkat (Web):

Now this is a nice surprise. Recommended to our ears by our close pal Thaddi Herrmann in Berlin, this new Touch CD by Icelandic musician/composer Johann Johannsson is a work of real beauty. Made from the sounds of string quartet, piano, glockenspiel, harmonium, organ, percussion and subtle electronics. Evoking sounds that you’d associate with the soul wrenching films of Lars Von Trier – the music is charactarised with sad beauty throughout. At times reaching Bernard Herrmanns genius. The string work is akin to Vince Mendoza’s work on Bjork’s ‘Vespertine’. Usual stunning photography by Jon Wozencroft. A rare jewel. Treasure this CD.

Phosphor (Netherlands):

Sometimes one comes across music that is the utmost example of an universal language. Jóhann Jóhannsson created a debut CD full of it. It is as if many Islandic musicians speak this language. Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, Sigur Ros, are a few others that make you feel the shivers on your back, make you sentive for all the misery in life, make you see the colours of the trees and feel love in the air. The music is written for string quartet, piano, organ, glockenspiel and percussion. These elements were processed and manipulated, adding delicate electronic backgrounds to the otherwise entirely acoustic recordings. Sad, intense and full of dramatical tension. Just like Craig Armstrong does with film music, Jóhann Jóhannsson tried to achieve with this play. When faced with the script for this extremely violent and disturbing play called Englabörn, he decided to work against it as much as possible and just try to write the most beautiful music he could. And he did. Being one of the founders of Kitchen Motors, having written music for theatre, docu’s and soundtracks for three feature films and having produced and written music with artists as diverse as Marc Almond (Stranger Things album), Barry Adamson and Pan Sonic, The Hafler Trio, Magga Stina and many others, Jóhann Jóhannsson joined the rangs of the Islandic talents. The openings song, ‘Odi et Amo’, is a setting of Catullus’s famous poem. He says ‘This was a happy accident; I’d written the music and wanted a computerized counter-tenor vocal singing a Latin text and was looking through a collection of Latin poetry when I remembered this poem from college and it did fit the melody perfectly and was also thematically perfect for the play. It’s in the final scene. What I really like about it is the harsh contrast of the computer voice and the strings, the alchemy of total opposites, the sewing machine and umbrella on a dissecting table’. Johannsson continues. The refined electronic tunes in Baò, the sad violins in the next composition, tingling bells in the title track, and the delicate filmic character of most compositions, this all makes you longing for more.

Pitchfork (USA):

Rating: 8.9
Though the lucre here at Pitchfork is plentiful, and I scarcely have time to get one wrecked Lex towed off before a new one is delivered, any promo CD package that falls through my mail slot is doomed. They will ALL be sold unless they can prove something to me, and quick. I don’t need the damn things cluttering my pad. Englabrn, with its pretty little Jon Wozencroft cover, didn’t have a prayer. But through a series of accidents, the disc somehow slipped into repeat mode without my realizing it. By the time I’d caught the error, the album had played through twice, looping and breathing to life, its leitmotifs orbiting the room in blissful, indolent circles, completely entrancing me. This first solo album from Johann Johannsson is absolutely beautiful, and it has only become moreso over the past few months, sustaining me for long periods of time when other music just wouldn’t do the trick. Johannsson is a member of the Icelandic artist group Kitchen Motors, and other than that the loose-knit Kitchen Motors collective has, on at least one occasion, held a concert for cellphones at their local Reykjavik mall, additional information is scarce. So I’ll tell you what I know: Taking cues he provided to a stage play by Hvar Sigurjnsson, Jhannsson’s Englabrn is composed of music he wrote, as performed by the Eos String Quartet, with a light gauze of electronic processing applied to it. Although it’s difficult to ascertain any obvious tweaking in the end result, there is just a slight haze in the air surrounding the sounds, letting the notes levitate and linger.

It begins innocuously enough with an AppleTalk voice reciting Latin scribe Catullus’ poem, “Odi et Amo”. An intriguing selection of text, the poem addresses the agonizing extremes between devout love and consuming hate. To have this very human poem delivered by a droid tenor reveals all sorts of counterbalances at work: Gentle, nuanced music that soundtracked a brutally violent piece of theatre, these acoustic, classical string quartets mixing with digital alchemy, and an ancient voice coursing through the latest in Speak ‘n’ Spell technology. It somehow balances beautifully, graceful in all its gestures. Some of the pieces, like “Karen br til Engil” and “Eins og Venjulegt Flk” recall the similarly melancholy electronic touch that infused the most desolate moments of Radiohead’s Kid A. With subtle, digital rumbles, poignant glockenspiel, and scarce violin sustainment, a dreadful space surrounds each note, allowing the music to resonate deep inside of you. “Ji & Karen” is exceptionally restrained, the piano moving like droplets off of slowly melting icicles, the violin breathing warmth from above. The hesitation of each breath and falling bead feels as though it were a Morton Feldman piece condensed to three minutes. “Slfrdingur” is the most propulsive of the set, sounding like classic Moondog, with shaking rattles, percolating drums, and stately piano. Its counterpoint is on track seven, where the theme is recast with bowed strings, the bass solemn in its slow movements. As the violin shivers against it, Jhannsson reduces it all to scarcely whispered vibrations. This resonates into the music boxes and small squeaked brass of “Bad”. “g tti Gra Aesku” recombines the processional percussion from before with the earlier refrains of piano into a more majestic statement, while “Korkdill” recapitulates the downward movement of piano notes of the opening theme, this time with the voice replaced by profound organ drones. By the time of “Odi et Amo – Bis”, which slows the original recitation to the point of near stasis, each computer tone and bowed note is stilled to the point of absolute zero, the echoes reverberating off of the ice. A rememberance of things past is conjured up as chilling ghosts float in the ether. The emotional strain is apparent with these haunting last moments, somehow remaining elegant and elegiac in the process. Just as Catullus balanced the extreme emotional opposites of love and hate into a composite whole the greater of its parts, so does Jhannsson transform these sixteen miniatures into an exquisite listening experience. With the slightest of movements, and in a handful of descending notes, a shivering gulf of sadness is conveyed. It’s easy to mention something grandiose, but to fully expound upon this subtly gestured work of music is far more difficult a task. While Englabörn remains out of reach with these words, the music continues to enrich. [Andy Beta]

Musicweb (UK):

The back catalogue of the visionary Touch label, for those not familiar with it, represents a broad church, ranging from improv giant Evan Parker, via the Nordic ambient of Biosphere and guitar acoustics of founder member of Genesis Antony Phillips, to ex-Cabaret Voltaire member and BBC wildlife recordist Chris Watson. Couple this with Mike Harding’s and Jon Wozencroft’s impeccable design tastes and comparisons with ECM are, to these eyes and ears, not far wide of the mark (maybe with a bit of Antony H. Wilson’s original Factory thrown in!). Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Englabörn is both typical, in its eclecticism, and atypical, in its immediacy, of the label’s output. It is also a worthy successor to Touch’s previous venture into Icelandic soundtrack music, Hilmar Örn Hilmarrsson’s magnificent Children of Nature. The disc begins and ends with its only vocal pieces, computerised/vocoded realisations of words, Odi et amo, written by Roman poet Catullus. What comes between is very much in keeping with this. The music is plaintive, highly melodic and deeply affecting. In Salfraedingur it really takes flight rhythmically, with muted hunting horns in attendance, whereas Bad must be the sound of icicles melting in Spring. Englabörn – tilbrigdi, in contrast, could be the finest film score short Michael Tippett never wrote. The Eos String Quartet are the constant presence in this recording and they interact completely organically with the composer and gifted percussionist Mathías M.D. Hemstock. In “Eg atti graa aesku”, the musical backdrop is reminiscent of Alan Stivell’s essential Au-delà des Mots and even Howard Shore’s Breakdown of the Fellowship (Lord of the Rings OST)! Although this recording may appear short on time, it is a supremely distilled offering and contains more of value than many discs almost twice the length. If you like the music of Jan Garbarek, cellist David Darling, Arvo Pärt’s more intimate moments, Terry Riley, Roger Eno (especially Between Tides) etc. then you will love this record. A work of modest and thoughtful beauty, like the nation that spawned it; though the vitriolic potency of the compatriot music of, say, Jon Leifs, might suggest otherwise it is hard not to relate this humility to the awe experienced in respect of the primal, natural setting of its genesis. If you have ever been to the Icelandic interior, you will know exactly what I mean, if not then read the liner notes by Manfred Eicher for Garbarek’s Officium (the next best thing). Jóhann Jóhannsson is another great discovery for Touch and living proof that there is a third stream operating within contemporary composition which eschews both the bland and the wilfully uninviting. Superb. [Neil Horner]

debug (Germania):

Endlich fühlt Touch mal wieder nach Island, und man kann eigentlich nur “endlich” brüllen. Nach Hilmarssons “Children Of Nature” ist Johannssons “Englabörn”, das was sich alle erhofft haben. Der Kitchen Motors Mitbegründer und umtriebige Alleskönner adaptiert hier seine eigene Theatermusik und achtet sehr darauf, dass das Ebos String Quartet sanft genug spielt und das Glockenspiel nur leise plinkt. Tief traurige Miniaturen, die so zart und zerbrechlich daherkommen, dass man sich ihenn eigentlich nur noch ergeben kann. Diese Tracks, verzeihung…Stücke, haben keine Zeit für Ecken und Kanten, wozu auch, wenn das, was man sagen will zu wichtig ist, als dass man es hinter irgendetwas verstecken könnte. Jóhannssonn sagt, er wird inzwischen in Island auf der Straße von wildfremden Menschen umarmt, als Dankeschön für die wundervolle Musik. Musik, so schön, dass alle Worte einfach überflüssig sind. Musik, die den Tag ausbremst, bevor er begonnen hat. Ich glaube, ich wollte das heute so.

[translated by babelfish:

Touch feels finite times again to Iceland, and one can actually only roar “finally”. After Hilmarssons “Children OF Nature” is Johannssons “Englaborn”, which which all expected. The Kitchen of engine joint founder and umtriebige Jacks of all trades adapted here its own theatre music and make sure much that the Ebos stringer Quartet plays gently enough and the bell play plinkt only quietly. Deeply sad miniatures, which come along so tenderly and fragile that one can surrender ihenn actually only. These TRACKS, pardon… pieces, do not have time for corners and edges, to which also, if what one wants to say is too important, than that one could hide it behind something. Jhannssonn says, it in the meantime in Iceland on the road of wild-strange humans is embraced, as thank beautiful for the wonderful music. Music, so beautifully that all words are simply redundant. Music, which out-brakes the day, before he began. I believe, I wanted that today so.]

All Music Guide (USA):

An important figure in Iceland’s new music scene at the turn of the millennium, Jóhann Jóhannsson was mostly known as the co-founder of the production company-cum-record label Kitchen Motors until he released his first solo album Englabörn on the British label Touch. Words melt upon listening to this exquisite music, so simple yet indescribable. Written for a play by Hávar Sigurjónsson, it was re-organized for this release to stand on its own. It still wears an incidental gown, but its 16 short tracks do hold together nicely. Jóhansson aimed for beauty in simplicity. Scored for string quartet, keyboards (piano, harmonium, organ), glockenspiel, electronics, and percussion, the music consists of slow melodies drowning in melancholia. Sad and profound, it could have sounded affected but on the contrary what comes through is honesty and a sense of light despair that has nothing theatrical about it. One thinks of Godspeed You Black Emperor! after the storm, Tibor Szemzö’s use of strings (long fading chords in “…Eins Og Venjulegt Fólk” and many other places), or Boris Kovac’s string quartets and stage music. Above it all reigns an immaterial Nordic aura, something the listener can instantly recognize as Icelandic in essence — in the tiny trickles of glockenspiel, the solemnity of the sustained harmonium chords, the fragility and beauty that give this music its porcelain doll looks. Englabörn is tremendously cute on the outside, but the emotions it carries have little to do with sweetness. The listener comes out of it with a heavy heart, drenched, happy but surprised by the manipulative power the music had on him or her. Highly recommended. [Francois Couture]

echoes (Germany):

Das Urteil
Der aus Island stammende Musiker, Produzent und Kitchen Motors-Labelgründer Jóhann Jóhannson bringt mit „Englabörn“ sein erstes Soloalbum auf dem rennomierten englischen Label Touch heraus. Als Musik für ein Theaterstück komponiert, wurden die ursprünglich rein akustischen Aufnahmen von Streicherquartett, Percussion, Piano, Glockenspiel und Harmonium mittels Rechner neu überarbeitet und manipuliert. Gleich im Eröffnungstrack macht sich dies sehr deutlich bemerkbar. Eine Computer-Tenorstimme trägt ein lateinisches Gedicht zu molllastigen Klaviermotiven und flehenden Streichersequenzen vor – aufgrund dieses spannenden Kontrastes gleich zu Beginn eines der besten – zumindest das hervorstechendste – Stücke der CD. Der folgende Titeltrack ist ein wunderschön geratenes, kurzes Streicherintermezzo, an welches ‚Jöl & Karen‘, ein sehnsüchtiges Zusammenspiel zwischen Piano und Violine, anschließt. Percussion und Glockenspiel lassen im fünften Track etwas Drive aufkommen, und in ‚Karen b‡r til engil‘ heben sich sanfte Glockenspielklänge über subsonisches Donnergrollen und zarte Bleeps. Und auch die weiteren elf Tracks bieten feine elektronisch angehauchte Kammermusik zum Träumen, so dass Jóhann Jóhannson ein melancholisches und wunderschönes Album gelungen ist, welches im Rahmen der Möglichkeiten durchaus abwechslungsreich, atmosphärisch dicht und immer spannend gerät. Einziger Schwachpunkt ist die zeitweise ein wenig zu steril wirkende Produktion, so dass man hin und wieder etwas stärkere Kontraste und Dynamik – besonders bei den Streichinstrumenten – vermisst. Wie bei vielen Veröffentlichungen isländischer Künstler lässt auch Jóhannsons Musik sehr oft Bilder der außergewöhnlichen und fremdartig erscheinenden Landschaften dieser einzigartigen Insel entstehen – und wenn nach einem langen, dunklen Winter die Tage wieder länger werden, die Nebel sich lichten und die Sonne die Gletscher schmelzen lässt, steht Ennio Morricone in einem endlosen, schwarzen Lavafeld, und die glasklare Musik von „Englabörn“ flirrt durch den kalten Westwind.

Vanguard Online (UK):

Odi et Amo are the words to the beautiful but forlorn shrill that opens up Englaborn, a wondrous set piece of string and piano based music. The album cover is imbued with the coldest of ocean blues. These blues reflect the depth of sadness manifest throughout this production. Sadness captured by quivering bows and icy cold glockenspiel. Track number three, Joi & Karen is like the first glint of Spring – piano played softly and twinkling in the moonlight. Karen byr til engil is like a Warp records impression of the inside of some icy cold cave. But not a drum to be heard. Then all of a sudden Englaborn – tilbrigoi bursts into action. Strings bouncing all over the place. Sparkles of sun. The flowers bloom. Short lived though. Sadness comes into play once again with Eg atti graa aesku. You get a serious sense of deja-vu as the quivering sadness threads itself down your spine. The tragedy is marked by big bell chimes and thuds. Krokodill is a piano rendition of Odi et Amo but with the foot pressed down on the old reverb pedal. The same themes and melodies continue to reappear throughout the forty-eight minutes. It’s almost like memory. This album tells a story of centuries. [Mike Williams]

The Sound Projector (UK):

I won’t say this is a ‘revelation’, but it is very enjoyable modern and melodic semi-classical music which is sure to appeal to those who like Moondog, or Michael Nyman when he was (briefly) quite good. Jhannson is one of the main men behind the Kitchen Motors music scene in Reykjavik – for more of his work, be sure to check out the excellent Motorlab compilations.This music was commissioned for a stage play, and has some restated themes. It is fundamentally rather melancholy music, despite some jaunty pieces, and has moving qualities similar to the film score work of fellow Icelander, Hilmar Orn Hilmarrson. A good one. [Ed Pinsent] (Germany):

Und wieder ein grandioses Album aus Island, was ja schon längst kein weißer Fleck mehr auf der musikalischen Landkarte ist. Johann Johannsson, der u.a. mit Marc Almond und Barry Adamson zusammen musizierte, hat auf “Englabörn” eine Musik kreiert, die auf wundersame Weise zum träumen anregt. Ursprünglich komponierte Johannsson die Lieder auf “Englabörn” für den Soundtrack eines gleichnamigen isländischen Schauspiels. Daraufhin bekam er so unglaublich positive Resonanzen, dass der Isländer mit dieser Musik nun sein erstes Soloalbum produzierte. “Englabörn” enthält so verträumte und zerbrechlich wirkende klassisch angehauchte Musik, die der Pianist mit Hilfe eines Streicherquartetts und eines Percussionisten regelrecht zelebrierte. [MD] (Belgium):

Denken in stereotiepen is een gevaarlijke bezigheid. Neem nu ‘Englabörn’, de eerste solo cd van de IJslander Jóhann Jóhannsson. Gemaakt als muziek bij een ronduit gewelddadig theaterstuk en toch werd het geen auditief beulenwerk. Want zo agressief als het theaterstuk is, zo kwetsbaar klinkt de muziek. En dan kan het tweede stereotiepe beeld komen. Want IJslands en fragiel? Een mens zou voor minder aan múm en Sigur Rós denken. En niet geheel ten onrecht, want fans van deze bands zullen met ‘Englabörn’ ook wel weg weten. Sprookjesachtig, melancholisch, repetitief en meditatief als in de muziek van Pärt of aangenaam geheimzinnig als Mike Oldfields Tubular Bells versmelten een strijkkwartet, percussie, piano, klokkenspel, harmonium, orgel en fijne elektronica hier tot een geluid dat warm en koud tegelijk is. Volledig tonaal en consonant en met terugkerende akkoordenreeksen en traag ontwikkelende melodieën gaat de muziek snel vertrouwd klinken zonder daarom voorspelbaar te worden. De muziek verdampt en condenseert waar de luisteraar bij zit. Zoemende tremolo’s van de strijkers bevriezen het geluid, lang aangehouden klanken laten het verstenen en de goedgemikte stiltes zetten zelfs de tijd in ‘Jói & Karen’ stil. Klokkenspel, piano, harmonium en orgel worden over de strijkers gestrooid of fonkelen er tussen. De elektronica wordt slechts sporadisch aangewend en verstoort nergens de sfeer: een zachte, vervormde stem, één gesamplede trompetklank, zacht geplopper en gezoem of licht stotterende klanken mengen zich bijzonder mooi in de feeërieke sfeer. Wanneer het ritme dan iets nadrukkelijker wordt, gaat de muziek een beetje opwarmen. Zo bezorgt de zacht rollende percussie ‘Sálfræ©£ingur’ een voorzichtige drive, terwijl de homofoon gespeelde ritmes van de strijkers in ‘Ég sleppi ©∫ér aldrei’ even een tango effect geven. Dat dit laatste vooral een gevolg is van het contrast met andere, quasi stilstaande stukken, typeert deze cd: juist door de contrastwerking gaan nummers uit de band springen zonder dat ze daarom ergens een extreem zouden opzoeken. Bloedstollend mooi, enorm tot de verbeelding sprekend en absoluut niet catalogeerbaar. Eenvoudig en vanzelfsprekend, zonder gratuit of gemakkelijk te worden. Jammer dat de nummers niet nog verder uitgewerkt werden, want met het gebruikte materiaal zijn complexere en gelaagdere structuren mogelijk zonder dat de muziek daarom minder beluisterbaar zou moeten worden. Misschien een beperking van het theater? [Koen Van Meel]